The tale of a “Foreign Student”: Phillipe Labro reflects on W&L

Georgia Bernbaum, Opinions Editor

Our most avid readers may remember that I wrote an article about former Washington and Lee University student Tom Robbins last year. Well, Robbins is not the only celebrity who wandered the halls of Newcomb and Tucker. 

This summer, I spoke with Phillipe Labro, a French bestselling author, journalist, and film director. Among these numerous titles and accolades is his distinction as a Washington and Lee alumnus.  

As a young boy, Labro dreamt of America. He had great ambition to know the country, so much so that he moved 4,023 miles away from the only home he had ever known to Washington and Lee’s campus. 

At first, Labro says, “for a young Frenchman who didn’t know anything about the campus, moreover the South, everything was a shock.” Labro was forced to discover a new world and a new language, but he struggled most of all with understanding the speaking tradition. He would say hello to his peers, but he was constantly corrected for not smiling while he did it. 

Labro joined the Ring-tum Phi as a movie critic and rushed the Delta Upsilon fraternity, taking full advantage of the experiences the university had to offer.

Well, at least as much advantage as he was allowed to take. At the time, foreign students could not officially be members of any formal organization on campus. But while the school’s policy didn’t offer exchange students the same opportunities as American citizens, the student body did. 

Labro remembers being initially struck by the hospitality and kindness his fellow students showed him. When asked what he enjoyed most about Washington and Lee, Labro said the camaraderie between his peers and professors alike, commenting, “there was a certain openness about this universe.” 

Oscar Riegel, the head of the journalism department, left a particularly lasting impression. Labro describes him “as a kind of living legend” and credits Riegel with teaching him “all the lessons of journalism.” 

The Riegels became more of a second family to Labro. They offered him a place to stay during the holidays and home-cooked meals throughout the year, a great comfort since he was mainly unable to communicate with his family back in France. 

While he enjoyed the camaraderie of the campus, Labro acknowledges that it did not apply to everyone, especially those who were not in fraternities. 

“If you did not belong to a fraternity, you were an outcast,” Labro said. “In some ways, I think the fraternity system was a way to split people into many different sections.” 

Labro said every fraternity welcomed him, but his acceptance was the exception, not the rule, especially for international students.

I couldn’t help but laugh as I realized that many aspects of Labro’s praise for and criticisms of Washington and Lee still ring true for students today. 

Faults and all, Labro adored the university and couldn’t imagine leaving. However, his scholarship was due to end after one year; then, he would be back in France. 

As his freshman year was quickly closing, Labro was hanging out in one of the local bars, drunkenly lamenting about having to leave a place he had come to love. 

The next morning Labro was called to the dean’s office. One of the richest alumni, Glenn Terrie, had overheard him in the bar the night before and wanted to fund the rest of his studies at Washington and Lee. So, he happily stayed. 

 Forty years after leaving Lexington, Labro published a novel, “The Foreign Student,” about his time at this treasured liberal arts university. The Foreign Student is a forbidden love story between a French exchange student at an elite college, Phillipe, and a Black maid, April, in the year 1956. Labro attempts to adjust to America while challenging its long-held segregationism.  

 When I asked how autobiographical the story of April is, Labro explained that:

“April is completely beautified and magnified. The true fact is it was only a one-night stand. Out of that, I made a love story, transforming something rather common into an extraordinary event.” 

This statement perfectly encapsulates his writing: a mixture of imagination and the occasional true fact. 

“I pride myself on the fact that, in my novel, you can not distinguish what is true and what is not,” Labro said. 

Stories are “the things you have lived, the things you observed, and the things you invented,” Labro said, which is why he instructs aspiring writers to “never stop noting thoughts, quotes, and impressions of whatever and whomever. Open your eyes and your ears.” 

Labro returned to France having fulfilled his dream of knowing America. Since graduating, he has published four books and directed eight movies, wearing his Washington and Lee class ring through it all.

 Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Oscar Riegel’s last name.