For the first time in her life, Bianca Salinas found herself living alone, five thousand miles from the support of her family and friends, trying to get used to living abroad in Paris, France.
“I had to adjust to a completely foreign culture, learn how to function in an immense and intimidating city, as well as use a language I was not 100% confident in, to navigate a new university and tackle the tasks of everyday living,” she says.
As a University of Houston College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences student majoring in French, Salinas had learned the French language and culture in the classroom, but studying abroad in France last summer allowed her to become completely immersed in her chosen field of study.
While adjusting to her new surroundings, Salinas made friends with a family of Syrian refugees who were living near the dorm where she was staying. After spending a significant amount of time with them, she was able to put her homesickness into perspective.
“I realized the Syrian family I met were also experiencing the struggles of being a foreigner, but what was temporary for me, was the reality of their new lives and their fight to find work, shelter, and simply acceptance,” says Salinas. “This experience also reinforced my desires to eventually translate professionally for refugee services. I also decided that I wanted to return to France one day after my study abroad experience was completed.”
She has taken a step closer to both goals by earning a scholarship from The American Society of the French Academic Palms, which will allow her to return to France and continue her studies. The French Academic Palms consists of U.S. citizens and residents who have been decorated by the Order of the French Academic Palms. This highly esteemed order was created by Napoleon I to recognize those who have rendered eminent service to French education and culture and is given to highly distinguished academics today.
In order to provide students with the opportunity to become more proficient in the language and to appreciate cultures found in the French-speaking world, the society offers a national scholarship of $4,000 for summer study-abroad at the high school and university level. The scholarship is awarded to students who have demonstrated a strong commitment to French language studies as well as an interest in Francophone cultures.
“As a result of this scholarship I will be able to complete my studies at the Sorbonne (University of Paris) and fulfill the requirements I need in order to pursue a career in translation,” says Salinas. “Outside of course work, I also plan to volunteer with the organization, SIGNA France, which helps refugees of all backgrounds learn a new language, skills for the professional environment, as well as discover and feel welcome in a new society.”
Salinas is originally from Baytown, Texas, a small community east of Houston. She graduated from high school in 2012, and then decided to attend UH because of the diversity among its student body.
“I knew that at UH, I would not only receive specialized training in grammar, sociolinguistics, culture, and history, but would also have the opportunity to foster cross-cultural connections with students from more than 137 nations and from across the world. I have since met with and learned from students from Burundi, the Congo, Germany, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia,” she says.
Her interest in languages began in high school when a mentor from Italy – who spoke five languages – exposed her to literary works in French and German. She was both fascinated and frustrated by the language barrier as she flipped through the pages. At that point she began studying both French and German, which is her minor. She is also studying Arabic through elective courses.
“Today, I volunteer at Amaanah Refugee Services in Houston, where I serve as a mentor for children from refugee families and assist in homework designed to improve their reading, writing, and conversational skills in English. I also work part-time for the Rothko Chapel as a French/English translator,” she says.
Salinas also has several other part time positions – she is a private tutor in French and English; she works part-time as a French tutor at UH; she works part-time as an assistant to the French Program Director, Dr. Claudine Giacchetti; and lastly she’s an intern for Plant-It-Forward, a non-profit organization in Houston that teaches refugees how to utilize their skills to become successful in the agricultural market.
She does all this in addition to being a third year CLASS student completing her required coursework.
“Bianca Salinas is an incredible asset to the French program at UH,” says Dr. Julie Tolliver, assistant professor of modern and classical languages. “As a student, she is simply brilliant, but without ever resting on her laurels, she studies and writes assiduously. She is an outstanding member of our community, both on campus and more broadly in Houston—and soon, representing us in Paris. We are immensely proud of her.”
“As a descendant of Mexican immigrants, I’ve personally experienced several issues related to bridging cultural disparities and comprehend the profound importance of building a more tolerant world. My greatest motivation is a life-long dream to become an official translator for the United Nations so I can, to the best of my ability, aid refugees all over the world and promote foreign policies of peace,” says Salinas.