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How studying world languages enabled me to follow my dreams

This blog post contains my full script for my Keynote Speech at World Languages Day at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

Hello, my name is Lacey Gibson, and I am here today to share how studying world languages at SIU opened my eyes to newfound passions and enabled me to follow my dreams.

I will first explain how I discovered my love of world languages, I will then tell you where languages have led me, and I will close by explaining the doors that world languages can open for you.

About a decade ago, I was viewing this event from your perspective. I was born and raised in Carbondale, and as a high schooler, I spectated this session several times – not because I knew that I wanted to study world languages for a career, but because it gave me an excuse to skip school.

In fact, as a high schooler, I had very little idea of what I wanted to do career-wise, what I wanted to major in, or where I wanted to attend college. I wasn’t naturally smart. Basic things like finding a bus stop and opening tight-stuck peanut butter jars used to baffle me to the point of rage – sorry mom and dad about the time I shattered a peanut butter jar on your kitchen counter. I wasn’t smart, but I was hard-working, which often caused my peers and teachers to mistake me as smart.

A decade ago, I thought “smart girls” had only 3 options for career goals: becoming a doctor, becoming a lawyer, or marrying one. I wasn’t sure which of these career paths to take, but I did have one certainty: that I wanted to travel far, far away from home for college.

Despite my crying and screaming and shattering peanut butter jars on kitchen counters, I ended up in my own backyard for college rather than following my grand dreams of striking out of my hometown. The offer that SIU provided was too good to turn down compared to my scattered dreams and unfinished plans of trying to get into college anywhere else. Although I plastered on a smile on my first day of college at SIU, I was secretly devastated by the thought that I had sentenced myself to a college life devoid of adventure that would flow succinctly into a boring adulthood as an over-stressed doctor.

As a college student, I did fine among the flocks of pre-med students, but I continued to grip onto a longing for something else. Deep down in my heart, I wanted to take a bigger risk than medical school, even if it meant sacrificing my unfitting image as a “smart girl”.

Then, one day, everything began to shift. As a freshman, I ran across a flyer that advertised a study abroad program in Kenya. The group was going to help build a medical clinic, among other activities, which I took to be tangentially related enough to my pre-med studies to take the leap. I shot a quick, courageous email to my father, saying, “Guess what. I’m going to Africa!”

I spent my savings down to my last penny to pursue my whim to travel, which, in retrospect, was a smarter decision than I thought it might be at the time because it was the first of many risks I took to pursue what I truly loved rather than what I thought was smart.

Studying abroad in Kenya was just the first baby step in this direction. Next was deciding to enroll in French courses on the side of my heavy pre-med curriculum. Then was deciding to study abroad in Nice for my thesis research, which, I decided would be about wine and French culture, not medicine. Next was declaring myself as a French Major on top of my Physiology degree. Finally – and this was the hardest step – was breaking the news to my parents and professors that I no longer intended to apply to medical school. The information came as a shattering shock, but all was forgiven a few months later, when I announced that I had been accepted to the Harvard School of Public Health Masters of Science in Global Health program, where my thesis research would be a French-language qualitative study.

Although each of these risks felt momentous at the time, they were only the very beginning of a lifetime filled with big, scary steps. Since completing my undergraduate degree, I’ve traveled to work or live in Marseille, France, Yangon, Myanmar, Vienna, Austria, and throughout India. As a freelance writer and a yoga teacher based in Boston now, I wouldn’t trade any element of what has felt like an incredibly audacious path that I’ve taken to follow my passions. Yet if I could, I would go back and reassure my high school self to be unafraid of pursuing what it was that I loved rather doing what it was I thought a “smart girl” should do – including marrying a doctor as a career path. That's never the right plan. I would have told my kicking, screaming, peanut butter jar-smashing self not to worry because the ability to see the world was at my fingertips all along simply by studying world languages at SIU.

I can’t speak to myself in the past, but today, I have the opportunity to tell all of you, whose shoes I once stood in: Don’t be afraid of what others may say when you decide to pursue your passions. As long as you’re doing what you love, you’re in the right place. And if you don’t know what it is that you love yet, why not learn more about what’s available in the world? Pursuing world languages can open your eyes to new dreams, new passions, and new possibilities that you have the right to chase.


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