Maria Dubiel has always had a passion for French. So, when she met fiancé Jalen Brown, he knew he had to immerse himself in her love language.
The high school sweethearts came to the University of Mary Washington as teens, excited for independence and college life, Dubiel said. “We left an engaged couple with bachelor’s degrees, jobs waiting for us in France and four amazing years to hold close.”
Now, the 2019 alums are vivent le rêve – living the dream – together as one. After teaching English abroad, they’re completing graduate work at a university in Reims, a bustling city in France’s Champagne region. When they aren’t exploring the country, visiting museums or having romantic picnics in the park, the couple is sweeping tens of thousands of French-loving folks along on their journey with The Francofile, an online hub they launched after graduating from UMW.
“We were scouring the internet for information about moving to France,” Brown said. Finding none, they combined their photography and writing skills to create a blog and YouTube channel, featuring everything from travel tips to an essay on how Mary Washington prepared them for life in France. “We’ve grown a community of followers and are grateful to know the posts we share are helping others.”
In one video, they tell their love story, meeting as students at Midlothian High outside of Richmond. Head over heels, Brown said he threw himself into learning French, reading his girlfriend’s old textbooks, downloading language apps and practicing through love notes.
“I would try to write them in French as best as I could,” he says in the video. “She’d correct them at home and bring them back to me the next day.”
At Mary Washington, Brown quickly caught up to Dubiel. Together, they studied international affairs, added French as a second major and were inducted into Phi Sigma Iota, an international honor society for foreign languages.
Between classes, the couple worked in Residence Life, hung out on Ball Circle, and attended dollar movies in Monroe Hall, brunches in the University Center and the annual French Film Festival in Richmond. And they strolled across campus, planning their future together.
Then came a life-changing faculty-led trip to Québec in spring of their junior year. While UMW’s Center for International Education, which awarded Dubiel a scholarship, helped them prepare, Brown made plans of his own. On their first evening in Canada, they took a long walk in the snow to the historic Notre-Dame Basilica, where he popped the question – in French, of course. “We both felt so excited to continue our journey as a couple,” he said.
After graduation, they moved to France, for a yearlong Teaching Assistant Program. With access to a visa and a stipend, it was “a golden opportunity,” Dubiel said.
They’re now pursuing master’s degrees at the Université de Reims Champagne-Ardenne – Brown in supply chain management and sustainable logistics, Dubiel in public law – and, through their online presence, educating fellow Francophiles on all things France.
Valentine’s Day may not be as romantic this year due to their studies, Dubiel said, but they hope to enjoy a quiet dinner out and stroll around Reims, just as they did on Campus Walk. And perhaps, she said, they’ll reminisce about Mary Washington and the indescribable impact it made on their lives.
“We grew as a couple and made beautiful memories in the day to day,” she said. “We look back fondly and often on our years at UMW.”
Maria Dubiel and Jalen Brown were recipients of the Elizabeth Baylor Neatrour ’54 and Mary Ellen Stephenson Memorial Scholarship in French. Dubiel also received the Douglas D. and Kathryn Holman Wiggins ’45 Scholarship.