Nightmarish Bureaucracy

Beware of Bureaucrats! (street art found in Ottawa)

Beware of Bureau­crats! (street art found in Ottawa)

I have never been lucky with bureau­cracy in France. In Fact, it’s almost a joke among my friends: my full name doesn’t fit on most appli­ca­tions, and I don’t fit in most boxes any­way. Some­how, I always ended up being the exception.

Mov­ing to Canada turned my luck around. I find the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment quite effi­cient and accom­mo­dat­ing and so far, I haven’t had any major problem.

Until I decided to take some classes at university.

Last year, I showed up at the uni­ver­sity to reg­is­ter for the sum­mer ses­sion and every­thing went fine… until the woman real­ized I was French. “You need to take an Eng­lish pro­fi­ciency test”, she said. “Sure, where can I do that?”. She looked up at me, prob­a­bly sur­prised by my eager­ness: “the TOEFL will do”.

I came back home and reg­is­tered to take the TOEFL test. It was early June and the clos­est test date was late August. I had real­ized, by then, that I wouldn’t be able to attend sum­mer classes, but I didn’t mind too much. I spent the sum­mer prac­tic­ing for the TOEFL instead.

But two days before the test date, I received an email from TOEFL say­ing my test had been resched­uled… to Octo­ber. Bye bye Fall ses­sion. I went back to the uni­ver­sity and begged: “please, let me attend classes, and if I don’t pass the test in Octo­ber, just kick me out!”. But the uni­ver­sity was inflex­i­ble. I missed the Fall session.

I stud­ied for the TOEFL again. It was resched­uled. Again. I was finally able to take the exam in Decem­ber 2008, a few days before our Latina Amer­ica trip. I passed quite eas­ily: 115/ 120. Gee, thanks, I can speak English.

In April this year, upon com­ing back from the trip, I went to the uni­ver­sity again, my TOEFL scores in hand. “Can I reg­is­ter now?”. “Sure, but in which pro­gram? Do you have the pre­req­ui­sites?

I explained I had a three years degree from a French uni­ver­sity. That I had been work­ing as a teacher for the past four years. That I had taken a few addi­tional classes in lin­guis­tic and in his­tory here and there, but hadn’t been able to com­plete my French Mas­ter degree because I had moved to Canada in between.

Make a for­mal appli­ca­tion and we will see if we can give you equiv­a­lences… oth­er­wise, you will have to start from the scratch”.


Not will­ing to start in under­grad year 1 again, I gath­ered all the paper­works. It wasn’t easy: in France, uni­ver­si­ties are “free” but we have no ser­vices. My tran­scripts are just print outs with a half-erased stamps from the reg­is­trar office. I had to pro­vide all the classes’ descrip­tions — this is where I real­ized that my degree didn’t exist any­more, thanks to last year’s reform in France. I had to pre­pare a resume because I’m con­sid­ered as a “mature stu­dent” (at 26 years old!) and show my moti­va­tion to take classes.

I printed and copied until both machines died and applied.

I’m sure most North Amer­i­can are famil­iar with the process, but for a Euro­pean, it is quite daunt­ing. It is nec­es­sary to apply online, and then to bring all the doc­u­ments at the uni­ver­sity, where they are cer­ti­fied. Then, you just wait and see…because you may not be accepted.

So I sat and waited. Until the day when I logged on to the intranet to see my appli­ca­tion sta­tus and saw it was “incom­plete”. I was miss­ing… the results of my TOEFL test. See, nor­mally, TOEFL send the results to four uni­ver­sity of the applicant’s choice. I had listed the two uni­ver­si­ties in Ottawa, so the results must have been there. Quod erat demonstrandum.

I went to the uni­ver­sity with my own TOEFL report in case of. The copy of the report wasn’t accepted, but my orig­i­nal was taken.

I sat and waited some more.

A week later, my appli­ca­tion was still incom­plete. I went back to the uni­ver­sity: “we don’t accept appli­cants’ reports, score reports must be mailed by TOEFL”. “But I already requested a report for you!”, I pleaded. “We don’t accept appli­cants reports…”. Gotcha. Since the uni­ver­sity is bilin­gual, I asked if I could reg­is­ter in French instead. “You have to prove you speak French”. “But… I’m French”, I stated, unsure of whether is was a joke or not. “You have to prove you speak French any­way”. “I’m French”, I repeated, this time a bit louder. “How can I not speak French?”. “You have to prove you speak French”.

I was so frus­trated I almost bought every choco­late I could find on the way home. I asked again TOEFL to send the results to the uni­ver­sity. I paid again, of course. Appar­ently, it would take about 6–8 weeks.

I went back to the uni­ver­sity with the print­out of my test reorder. “See, I reorder the scores. Given that you already have the orig­i­nal of my test results, could you please make a deci­sion on my appli­ca­tion?”. “When we will receive the offi­cial scores”.

I argued that I was due to start the sum­mer ses­sion soon, and that I was not going to take sum­mer classes if my appli­ca­tion for Sep­tem­ber was refused, that it was a waste of time. “Your fault, you should have applied ear­lier”.

As a Cana­dian, I’m way too polite, so I kept my mouth shut. But the French in me was seething with anger. I need to have some kind of Cana­dian edu­ca­tion to improve my chances to get another job. I am will­ing to pay to go to uni­ver­sity. I made it through immi­gra­tion (and almost cit­i­zen­ship). I speak both offi­cial lan­guages. And yet, I’m fac­ing a wall of bureau­cracy.

I really, really hope I even­tu­ally get accepted and get cred­its for my degrees in French.


About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.


  1. Hey Zhu,

    Con­grats on your TOEFL grades: very good — we hadn’t noticed you knew how to speak Eng­lish LOL ;)!
    I stud­ied in an Uni­ver­sity that lec­tured classes in Eng­lish (in Lis­bon), and when I expressed the wish to take a sum­mer course at a uni­ver­sity in Lon­don, I also had to take an Eng­lish pro­fi­ciency test…oh well…

    Girl, Europe has reformed its entire edu­ca­tional sys­tem in 2006…now we are all under the Bologna Treaty (3 years under­grad­u­ate, 2 years Masters)…most peo­ple had to start from scratch, go figure.

    Yeah, on this side of the world, all we need to do is to reg­is­ter, pay and that is it. In North Amer­ica they can decline your appli­ca­tion: wow.

    What? But you are French…so why do you have to proof you are French?
    Any­way, TOEFL is very incom­pe­tent in Canada, isn’t it? I am shocked!

    I was so frus­trated I almost bought every choco­late I could find on the way home.” — LOL LOL LOL oh, you are one of those.… lol ;)

    “Your fault, you should have applied ear­lier“.” — oh my God!!! You did apply earlier…but TOEFL kept re-scheduling it *nod­ding*! Incompetence!

    Girl, I wish you all the luck in the world: do not quit!!! Ok? :)
    I am root­ing for you!


  2. @Seb — No no, I still can’t take classes! But after rant­ing, I felt bet­ter already. I see stars and bears ;-)

    @Spyder –Isn’t it!

    @Linguist-in-Waiting — I’m sure you can feel my frus­tra­tion, as a stu­dent your­self! As of today, my sit­u­a­tion is still stuck… but I’m keep­ing fin­gers crossed. I’m sure the teach­ers are fine, this is just plain old stu­pid bureaucracy!

    @Max Coutinho — That is so stu­pid — I mean, you obvi­ously speak Eng­lish flu­ently, stud­ied the lan­guage offi­cially at uni­ver­sity, and still had to take the test??? Wow, TOEFL is a big business…

    Yes, the famous uni­ver­sity reform. Some loved it, some hated it… I can’t say it went smoothly at my for­mer uni­ver­sity, because it was a “grande école” (like sciences-po) and had its own weird sys­tem. Maybe on the long run…

  3. Hey Zhu,

    First, I just realised I made a mis­take in my com­ment: I asked why you need to prove you are French; when I wanted to ask why you need to prove you SPEAK French *nodding*…I am get­ting old LOL ;)…

    You are right: TOEFL is a huge busi­ness! But it is not alone, now you have also the British Council’s IELTS (how­ever it is more ben­e­fi­cial than TOEFL because with this cer­tifi­cate you can present it when apply­ing for a job [to prove your pro­fi­ciency in English]).

    Here in Por­tu­gal, many hated it too (but I per­son­ally, loved it because the old sys­tem was a com­plete waste of time…with this one you can get a part-time job while study­ing at the same time, it has less sub­jects [we used to have 16 sub­jects per year — it was crazy] and it is more specific).

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  5. I remem­ber when, eager to re-enter edu­ca­tion in France, I went to the local uni­ver­sity to see what was on offer. They turned up their nose at my U.K. degree, wanted me to start the whole mess over again start­ing from year one gen­eral stud­ies and kindly allowed me to sit in on a lec­ture which was, from a U.K. per­pec­tive, a farce! What they didn’t do was to see if I spoke, wrote and read French.

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