Quelle Surprise! The Hidden Benefits of My French Lit Major

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By Melissa Hart Moss ’93, JD ’97

“A French literature major for a pre-law student—why?!” My loving but relentlessly pragmatic dad was actually one of many to question my major back when I was a sophomore in Arts & Sciences in the early ’90s.

This choice was a balance between practicality and passion—an evaluation that resurfaces during many of life's chapters.

The pandemic, for example, has forced and inspired so many of us to change careers and reinvent our professional selves at this dynamic juncture in history.

A portrait of Melissa Moss

Many of us find ourselves entering and re-entering the workforce at various life stages. Younger people, too—including my own teens currently exploring their college options—are feeling pressure to specialize early in specific areas of study, and to back up their selections with focused experiences at greener ages and stages.

My Cornell choices and where they led my career illustrate that pragmatism and passion do not have to be like a seesaw, where increasing one diminishes the other. You can turn something you love into something to live on, instead of the other way around.

So why French lit? The language was like a complicated puzzle that I could solve. It symbolized freedom and adventure, too, as I had studied and lived with a family in the South of France the summer before 10th grade, and made forever friends as part of a year-long exchange program during my senior year of high school.

Pragmatism and passion do not have to be like a seesaw, where increasing one diminishes the other.

At Cornell, engaging professors chose texts—by Sartre, Camus, de Beauvoir, Foucault—that exposed flaws in the human condition, challenged Americans' choices and culture, and pushed me to think and analyze way outside of my comfort zone.

I appreciated that professors would pull up a chair right along with us in our literature classes, with enrollments that fit around a small table. I felt collegiality, respect, and inspiration as I developed fluency, and even played the role of Lina in the play La Colonie. (OK, not my calling!)

Filling my toolbox with analytical skills in French, I embraced Cornell’s promise of “any person, any study”—taking law-related courses in government, psychology, and economics. As I built my transcript I felt unique, and even worthy of being a Cornellian.

Spending all of junior year with the Cornell Abroad program in Geneva, Switzerland, was an ideal way to combine and develop my interests and career goals.

The dominant language there is French, so as a student at the Université de Genève I could enhance my proficiency in career-focused classes like the history of Swiss banking and the business of art and antiques. I wrote papers, gave presentations, and socialized with peers from all over the world—all in French.

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Outside of school, I gained networking skills navigating a job search at the United Nations, landing an internship with a French delegate to the International Labor Organization.

I researched child labor issues in migrant and immigrant populations in France, and wrote reports in both French and English.

My experiences in French and law led to mentors and job opportunities as a Cornell Law student. After I earned my JD, my undergrad major continued to enhance my legal career, as I was consistently plucked from lowly associate-ville to work on interesting cases involving France and French products.

Melissa Moss in Geneva as an undergrad
Moss in Geneva, Switzerland, where she spent her junior year.

I will never forget the pride I felt during one yearly review, when the partners revealed that a key French pharmaceutical client singled me out as truly understanding the reasons behind their business decisions.

I had indeed spent a significant part of my twenties conducting interviews, poring over documents, and translating their French colloquialisms into a formidable position in their high-stakes litigation.

Just as my dad questioned choosing French as a major for a pre-law student, he also frequently lamented that "lawyers are a dime a dozen."

Perhaps—but since focusing on what I loved translated to fulfilling career opportunities, I know that unconventional choices can create a valuable pathway. You can turn passion into purpose, and create a living around living your best life.

Melissa Hart Moss ’93, JD ’97—a third-generation Cornellian and a correspondent for her class—is a former law firm associate and a trained mediator in the Massachusetts district courts. The mother of two teens, she is currently in the process of evaluating a return to work. She is married to David Moss, JD ’96.

Top image: Illustration by Cornell University. All photos on this page provided.

Published August 17, 2022


  1. Amanda Cramer, Class of 1993

    Love your story, Melissa! Thank you so much for sharing it 🙂

  2. Roxanne Pedlar, Class of 1998

    Hi Melissa,
    I really like the way that you present your case of choosing a French major when doing law studies. It’s a good argument for why you have to follow your instincts when deciding on what you want to do with your life.

  3. Ariane Schreiber Horn, Class of 1991

    Hi Melissa,

    It is great to ready your story!

  4. Stephanie W Huang, Class of 1997

    Very inspiring. Thank you for sharing.

  5. Lisa Sotir Ozkan, Class of 1988


    I too was a French Lit (and Government) major, who went directly to law school. I got to work on really interesting projects with senior partners because of my French, got a job working for a Montreal based telecoms company handling their international contracts in French, and have gotten some interesting projects at my current job as a result. Bien fait!

  6. Mai Duong, Class of 2010

    Merci, Melissa,

    I too was a French lit in an Asian country a long time ago (and did not go to law but accounting in the US). I too, was plugged from Pricewaterhousecoopers ‘associate-ville’ to audit engagements in Paris and enjoyed working in Paris for years, with my French colleagues. I was there when the Franc became Euro.

    To all young Cornelians, my advice is to learn a foreign language. It does not only allow you to ‘live another life’ but also elevate you at work and in all social settings to ‘know another language’.

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