Summer Journeys: Julian Prentice '24, Building National Pride

Julian and his SNU company.

La Turballe is a small, picturesque coastal town just south of Brittany in the Loire-Atlantique Region of France. Known for its historic harbor and seven miles of sandy beaches, La Turballe is also an outpost for the Service National Universel (SNU)—the French civil corps. It is where Julian Prentice ’24 was assigned during his two-week volunteer corps service last summer.

In 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron introduced the idea of voluntary national service; SNU was implemented in 2021. Established as a voluntary opportunity for male and female citizens aged 16 to 25, SNU welcomes 16 and 17-year-olds for two-week service programs; older volunteers serve for one month.

“The objectives of SNU are to help promote unity and fraternity among French youth,” explains Julian, who is a citizen of both the United States and France. “It is an exciting social experiment aimed at generating pride in French history and culture, and I felt that the group of volunteers, while coming from entirely different backgrounds, succeeded in creating a good environment where we learned from each other and supported each other.”

That support was essential as Julian and the other members of his company of 30 or so young men and women worked through daily challenges.

   Practicing first aid protocols.

“Each day was different,” notes Julian. “We received our charge each morning, with a broad description of each day’s theme. These included learning how to save people who are drowning, learning how to assist emergency services in the event of a car crash and various other incidents, and general first aid training.”

And because SNU is, at its core, a progressive alternative to mandatory military service, there were daily callbacks to military protocols.

“A typical day for me would start at 6:40 am when my company chief would come bang on my door,” Julian recalls. “At 7:00 am sharp, my entire company would have to line up outside wearing our uniforms. After this we would have breakfast and then attend the flag-raising and sing the national anthem. After dinner we lowered the flag and sang the national anthem again. If we did not sing it loudly enough, this was made clear to us, and we would have to do it over.”

There were also wilderness navigation and other military-style event and exercises.

Military intervention strategy game.

“Learning to orient ourselves in the woods and running through the forest to find keys was as intense as it was fulfilling,” says Julian. “We learned how military parades worked and we played a strategy game where we worked through the French government's decision making in terms of military intervention. On July the 14th, the French Independence Day, we participated in a parade and sang the national anthem for the mayor, vice governor and military officials. We decided to learn how to sing the anthem in cannon (staggered) between boys and girls so it sounded fantastic, and we were able to make some of the colonels tear up a little.”

In signing on as an SNU volunteer, Julian hoped to connect more deeply with his heritage—with French language, history, and culture. The lessons he brought home were much more profound.

   The SNU community.

“My deepest takeaway was that the foundational elements of success in communities of any culture--be it at Taft or abroad--are kindness and respect. Our group was successful when we were being nice to each other and respecting each other; for the brief moments in which that was not the case there was discord, but our mutual respect was always sufficient to remedy any misunderstanding. I think that in my life, and particularly as a monitor at Taft, I will carry with me the lesson that cohesion and cooperation are rooted in kindness and respect. Creating these two is critical for any community.”