J.C. Robitaille Had a Lot to Overcome, But He Did So With Aplomb
by Mike McMahon/Staff Writer
NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. College life is difficult enough for any freshman, but try balancing the schedule of a Division I hockey player and a pre-med student.
Still not impressed? Take both of those schedules and put them into a foreign language, and then you would have the life that Merrimack freshman J.C. Robitaille has been living since September.
Robitaille hails from Des Ruisseaux, Quebec — approximately an eight-hour drive from the North Andover, Mass., campus of Merrimack. When he signed with the Warriors over the summer, he did not speak a word of English.
"There is no English spoken at all in my hometown, only French," said Robitaille, who despite all the obstacles earned a 3.94 GPA on a 4.0 scale first semester. "Last year my coaches came to me one day and said, 'Merrimack is going to be at the game tomorrow'. I talked to them after the game and after that I knew that they wanted me. Then when I signed I knew that English was something I would need to learn."
He bought a grammar book and immersed himself in it. A quick study, his diligence studying that book coupled with frequent conversations with his teammates enabled him to get a grasp of the language soon after arriving on campus.
His teammates describe him as a quiet kid, but say that since he has picked up more of the language, he has become much more conversational.
"I couldn't speak English at all before I got to Merrimack in September," Robitaille said in his heavy French accent. "When I came here is when I learned the language. It was very hard and I was very nervous in the beginning because I was afraid of not understanding people. But when you don't have a choice other than to learn, you learn faster."
Struggling with his English was frustrating.
"It has really gotten better," he said. "I could understand people better than I could speak to people when I first got here. Knowing what I was trying to say, but not knowing it, that's what I actually was saying was tough."
The language was a barrier anywhere he went. Whether it be in the classroom, on the ice, or in everyday life — Robitaille's first semester on campus was a learning experience.
"In September, I wouldn't be able to do an interview for this article," he said. "I might be able to order food — maybe with the pictures — but it would be really hard. There were things in class, like presentations, that I couldn't do at the start of the year.
"With hockey, a lot of it was going by what the coaches were drawing on the board. As I heard the language and saw the drawings on the board, I could understand more English. I bought a grammar book but it was nothing special. I picked up most of the language just through conversation."
Not only was he taking classes in English for the first time in his life, but these weren't your ordinary classes. As a pre-med major, his course load is as demanding as it gets at Merrimack.
First semester he aced biology, biology lab, chemistry, organic chemistry and first-year seminar.
"It's very tough," he admitted. "There isn't any free time in my schedule really. I get up, go to class, eat lunch, study, go to practice, study, eat dinner, then do more studies until I go to bed."
A testament to his intellect is how he has progressed in classes; even just months into his college career.
"He was in a very large class of mine," said Robitaille's chemistry professor, Dr. Kathleen Swallow. "I didn't have a lot of one-on-one interaction with him until midway through the semester, but in his writings, I didn't even know that a language barrier existed."
Robitaille ended up skipping a year of chemistry after it was found out halfway through the semester that he was too advanced for his original class.
"He had already taken an equivalent course at home," Dr. Swallow said. "He isn't a real chatty guy to begin with, so I didn't even know there was a language barrier until the registrar called me.
"He was an excellent student, so halfway through the semester, I gave him an 'A' in my class, and then he sat in on organic chemistry for the rest of the semester and he is taking the second half of organic chemistry this semester."
The 6-foot-1, 195-pound forward said, "There is no history of it in my family. Both of my parents are in business. I just really liked biology all throughout school and I had good grades so I knew it was something I could do. It is really tough to balance the schedules, but it's something I wanted to do."
Warrior coach Mark Dennehy was confident that Robitaille, who had won a slew of scholar-athlete awards in junior hockey, was intelligent enough to handle the workload.
"I was more concerned with him acclimating himself to taking classes in English than I was with him declaring pre-med," Dennehy said. "I think he always understood what we were saying, but his verbal skills were nowhere near where they are now. He taught himself English, and that is a testament to the kind of person he is. He is very smart."
No special treatment
The schedule is grueling, but Robitaille never asked this season to miss an occasional practice when the academic workload is especially intense.
"No, I wouldn't do that," he said. "I can't do that to my team. I can take care of homework after."
Robitaille's successes don't end there. Despite a tough season for the Warriors, which ended last weekend, he was second on the team in scoring and a difference-maker on the power play.
"He excels on the power play," Dennehy said. "He is the type of player that plays very well when he has open space."
While his success on the ice will measure him as a hockey player, his accomplishments in life and in the classroom will measure him as a person. Needless to say, Robitaille is off to a pretty good start.
"I knew he was a smart kid before he got here. We'll see how smart he is because his job over the next three years is to teach me French," Dennehy joked.
This story originally ran in the Eagle-Tribune on Feb. 25, 2007.