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Milestone moments for CSB grad Solano and the French Studies program

Academics Alum Features Student Features

June 27, 2022

By Kevin Allenspach

Olivia Solano ’22 didn’t even have French Studies on her radar in the fall of 2018 when she came to the College of Saint Benedict.

Four years later, she’s left it with impact considérable. That’s “great impact” in French.

Solano recently was named an Outstanding Senior by a national association of French teachers, was among the first eight inductees into a new chapter of a French national honor society, and is one of five graduates from Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s University who will bridge their college education with a 2022-23 assignment through the Teaching Assistant Program in France (TAPIF).

That is surprenant (surprising) for someone who originally planned to go into nursing.

“The number of times we did a four-year plan was insane,” said Solano, who routinely worked with and took counseling from her adviser, Associate Professor Ana Conboy, who happened to be teaching one of Solano’s courses in the first semester of her sophomore year.

“I’d taken French in high school and didn’t like it,” added Solano, who is from Grayslake, Illinois, and whose father, Adam, is a 1992 Saint John’s University graduate. “But I absolutely loved it with (Conboy) because she’s an incredible professor. She made the learning environment so much fun. I realized having the language in my schedule allowed me a little space to be creative.”

Theater is among Solano’s passions and her nursing curriculum didn’t allow time to pursue it. She decided nursing wasn’t for her and crafted a double-major with French and nutrition – knowledge she combined in a unique capstone project that could represent her future career. While studying abroad, she researched wellness programs and created a model that a French business could put in place to help its employees be healthy through nutrition and physical activity.

“Olivia excelled at everything she did,” said Conboy, who has taught at CSB and SJU since 2015. ““It was clear she had a thirst for knowledge and learning and she truly embodied the liberal arts. She brings her all into everything and seizes the moment. And she’s gifted with great self-awareness and a capacity to adapt in difficult circumstances. She’s an inspiration to all of us.”

Read on to learn how Solano, and the French Studies program, blossomed together in the past year.

Outstanding Senior

Solano is believed to be the first student in CSB and SJU history to be named an Outstanding Senior by the American Association of Teachers of French. It hasn’t happened during the careers of Conboy or Prof. Karen Erickson, whose tenure precedes Conboy’s arrival.

To be honored, Outstanding Seniors must demonstrate excellence in the study of French, an overall high scholastic record, and exceptional commitment to the language through participation in extracurricular activities. Solano served as a French teaching assistant, a French cultural events assistant and an active French Club member who later became co-president.

She said others were deserving and that perhaps one reason she was selected was because of the pivots she had to make along the way to graduation. Solano finished her introductory French class (French 211) and was due to take French 212 during the spring semester in 2020. Unfortunately, the class wasn’t available that semester.

Conboy suggested Solano enroll in French 312, and she warily accepted. Then COVID-19 struck, forcing everyone into remote learning.

Solano not only succeeded she excelled, completing French 312 and French 355 (Four French Plays) online from home in suburban Chicago.

“I ended up learning so much French that by the end of the semester I was writing essays in French, and we wrote a play and acted it on Zoom in French,” she said. “I also had a chemistry class for my nutrition major that was really tough at the same time. That was my most challenging course load, ever, and it was hard to fit both of those majors in, but I did it.”

Pi Delta Phi comes to CSB and SJU

In summer 2021, Conboy communicated with the national president of Pi Delta Phi about setting up a chapter at Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s. A subsequent application included a letter of interest addressing how the chapter would enhance the French program and foster the mission and values of the department and institutions. Conboy agreed to be the chapter moderator, and Academic Dean Barb May provided a letter approving the installation of a new chapter. The first eight members were inducted on April 21, which coincided with Celebrating Scholarship and Creativity Day and the annual “Festival Lyrique” that celebrates the talents of French students.

In addition to Solano, the inductees included: Alexandria Armbrister ’22, Autumn Ayer ’23, Stevie Dickison ’23, Celeste Dickson ’23, Abigail Goff ’22, Cate Luna ’23 and Sara Mayeux ’24.

“I think this is really big because the pandemic made it hard to keep our program alive,” Solano said. “I think having an honor society on campus shows our department has value and there are students in it who really love the language.”

Ayer served as co-president of the French Club and was a French teaching assistant along with Mayeux.

Solano was supposed to study in France during fall 2020, but COVID forced her to redo her four-year plan again. Fortunately, she was able to go to Cannes in fall 2021, joined by Ayer, Dickison and Dickson. Mayeux will be going to Montpellier, a new study abroad location, this fall.

The eight initial inductees of the Pi Delta Phi, Rho Alpha Chapter at Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s includes (left to right): Stevie Dickison ’23, Olivia Solano ’22, Sara Mayeux ’24, Abigail Goff  ’22, Autumn Ayer ’23, Alexandria Armbrister ’22, Celeste Dickson ’23 and Cate Luna ’23.

Back to France

Conboy describes TAPIF as similar in function to a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant. She should know. She participated in TAPIF in 2005-06 as a graduate of Bowdoin College, where she earned a degree in biochemistry. The experience was so transformative she stayed in Paris to get a master’s degree in French and follow that with a doctorate at Boston College.

That sounds a little like Solano, who after another year in France looks to further her education – possibly in Europe – and perhaps become a dietitian. She’s one of five recent graduates who have been awarded TAPIF awards for the year ahead. In addition to Solano, Goff and three 2021 grads – CSB’s Ashley Dalbec, and SJU’s Robert Karlson and Jack Scheck – will work in France for seven months teaching English to French students. 

Alum
Major
City in France

Ashley Dalbec ’21

French, secondary education

Montpellier

Abigail Goff ’22

psychology

Amiens

Robert Karlson ’21

French, political science

Orléans-Tours

Jack Scheck ’21

biochemistry

Bordeaux

Olivia Solano ’22

French, nutrition

Grenoble

“We are so proud of our students’ achievements and honored to receive the national and international recognition of the excellence of the French Studies program,” Conboy said. “It is important to celebrate success and reinforce encouragement. These students have their own personal gifts and journeys, but their common denominator is they all share a love for the French language and Francophone culture.

“Our students are thriving,” Conboy added. “They are intelligent, versatile and adaptable, considerate and compassionate, culturally competent and humble. They’re true global citizens … they will make a difference, and in the French section we have a saying, that we’re few but mighty.”

Which is to say: “On est peu nombreux, mais on est très forts!”

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Olivia Solano

Olivia Solano displays a certificate recognizing her as an Outstanding Senior by the American Association of Teachers of French.

Ashley Dalbec

Ashley Dalbec ’21

Abigail Goff

Abigail Goff ’22

Robert Karlson

Robert Karlson ’21

Jack Scheck

Jack Scheck ’21

Olivia Solano

Olivia Solano ’22