Autumn Ayer ’23 has been without her father for more than five years, but she can still sense his impact on her life – perhaps more than ever.
Her parents met at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University. Jeffrey Ayer ’97 was an English major who went on to become a teacher, writer and poet. He met Arlene Ford ’97, who came to Saint Ben’s from The Bahamas to study communication. They married and Autumn was their only child.
She quickly assumed gifts from both. Her father read books to her every night before bed and was instrumental in her early and accelerated reading and writing ability. And, with inspiration from her mother, she developed into a smooth and confident speaker – easily and quickly conveying her thoughts and asking questions to satisfy her curiosity.
It wasn’t until she was a junior in high school that she chose to follow in her father’s footsteps. After a long battle with Crohn’s disease, including a series of surgeries that increasingly took their toll on his digestive tract and immune system, Jeffrey Ayer died in 2018 of complications from ulcerative colitis.
“That was the beginning for me,” said Autumn, who recently graduated from CSB with a double major in English and French. “When he passed away, that was when I picked up a pen and began writing.”
It was poetry at first but has since branched into non-fiction and fiction with fluency in two languages. And Jeffrey Ayer would be very proud of her today. Not only did she graduate and participate in commencement on May 13, she has joined a lengthy list of students from CSB and SJU who have been given the opportunity to serve as an English Teaching Assistant through the Fulbright U.S. Student Program, the flagship international educational exchange sponsored by the State Department to foster relations with other countries.
“My parents both loved it here,” said Autumn, who will spend the next academic year in Belgium. “They would bring me along when they came back to campus for a football game or just to visit, and my dad would point out different buildings and say, ‘You’re going to go here one day.’ When he died, I felt lost because I was right at that age where I was thinking about college, and he would’ve been the one to help me through the application process. I remember looking at his Facebook page one day and I found a passage where he’d written about Saint John’s and how much he enjoyed his time here. And he wrote ‘I wish my daughter will feel the same one day.’ There were quite a few tears when I read that.”
Dad was a Johnnie and mom a Bennie
If there was any question where she would go to school, it was answered in that moment. And her four years as a Bennie have continued to be a time of discovery as she has learned more about her father, how he served as a campus radio DJ and was involved with more than a dozen different clubs and social justice organizations on campus.
“I have a photo of him with the radio broadcast console he used to work at back in the 90s, and in Alcuin Library they now have that same console in a display case,” Autumn said. “Sometimes when I’m over there, I see it and go ‘Hey, Dad.’ His memory lingers for me throughout the Saint John’s campus.”
Autumn’s own communication reached a crescendo in her final months at CSB and SJU. Her capstone project was a creative non-fiction essay that explored her cultural identity. She wrote about how she defines herself as the daughter of a Bahamian immigrant woman and a white man from Wisconsin.
“There are many layers to my experience, and the mixed-race experience isn’t universal,” Autumn said. “Being biracial for me means experiencing the racial discrimination that Black people face because of my outward appearance, and yet, lacking a sense of belonging and acceptance within either racial group that makes me whole, because I am neither fully Black nor fully white. I hope through my writing I can identify the way I want to be, which is what I would hope for most people.”
Autumn Ayer takes in a view of Paris from the Eiffel Tower during her semester of study abroad in France. She will be returning to a largely French-speaking country when she serves as an English Teaching Assistant during the 2023-24 academic year as a U.S. Fulbright Student.
Seeking immersion at the intersection of cultures
Autumn has studied French since the eighth grade and spent a week with a host family in Lyon and another week traveling the country when she was a senior at Forest Lake (Minnesota) High School. During the fall semester in 2021, she also studied abroad in France. Those experiences helped pave the way for her to work for three years in the languages and cultures department at CSB and SJU as a French teaching assistant and French cultural events assistant. If the prestige of being a Fulbright hadn’t come through, she already was accepted to be part of the Teaching Assistant Program in France for next year.
“If I was going to be a Fulbright, I didn’t want to just race back to France,” she said. “I considered various French-speaking countries where I could have a new cultural experience. Belgium is perfect. The people speak French, Dutch and German and there’s a real sense of multiculturalism, which is really important to me as someone with a biracial and multicultural background. Brussels is the capital of the European Union and there are a lot of migrants there – hundreds of nationalities and languages.”
Someday, Autumn is interested in a career as a literary translator – possibly in tandem with her own writing projects. Through her own experience with English and French, she knows how important it is to capture the right nuance with words – spoken or written.
“I think what I’m most excited about is that I know there’s not just one way to be an American and there’s not just one way to be a Belgian,” Autumn said. “There’s such value in connecting with people all over the globe because those connections are important to be a good citizen of the world. Hopefully, as a Fulbright, I can be a connector and show that we’re not all as different as we seem. Storytelling is an important part of that, and all I’ve ever wanted is to bring my voice to others and carry those of others with me wherever I go.”
CSB and SJU students interested in applying for a Fulbright Award for the 2024-25 academic year should contact Phil Kronebusch, professor of political science and coordinator of competitive fellowships at CSB and SJU, or Lindsey Gunnerson Gutsch, director of the Office of Undergraduate Research & Scholars at CSB and SJU.
Autumn Ayer lived it up in Lyon during her semester studying abroad in France.