By Shannon Thomason
Abby Garver, who is graduating from UAB with degrees in French and Spanish, shared her struggle through mental illness and won third prize from more than 1,000 submissions in a national contest held by the American Journal of French Studies.
The journal sought essays on the question, “Why did you start learning French?”
Garver, of Hoover, placed in the top 4% among students from schools such as New York, Tulane, Brown and Duke universities. As a winner for the 2020 edition, her essay, “Mon asile de la folie (My asylum from the madness),” will be published in print.
Garver said she first thought the essay’s prompt was not inspiring, so she decided to also write what keeps her passionate about the language.
“It’s all related to the same journey and struggle,” Garver said.
Garver was at the top of her class when she began to learn French in high school. One year later, at age 16, she was diagnosed as bipolar. It shook her world, she said, especially her academics.
“I couldn’t cope with stress, and on top of that, I was searching for a ‘magic pill’ to fix me,” Garver said. “This didn’t exist. As I became sicker and more heavily medicated, I became acutely aware of the fact that I had lost my former self. It was truly devastating. After I got sick, things that were once easy were hard, if not impossible.”
One thing somehow survived the illness — her French abilities were unaffected and continued to improve. French became the one thing that made her feel exceptional and not impaired. It became a cathartic outlet; she began to read and write French poetry. In creative writing, she was less critical of herself than when she wrote in English. It calmed her racing thoughts. French was “a haven,” she said.
“In my essay, I say, ‘In English: I think; in French: I feel.’ The essay describes my journey, from the inspiration to learn, mostly due to family, to French becoming my lifeboat in dangerous waters,” Garver said.
University of Alabama at Birmingham assistant professor of French Charly Verstraet, Ph.D., said he is delighted with her success.
“Abby’s third place in such a competitive and prestigious award for French studies is a reflection of her sensibility for languages, her unique creativity and her hard work throughout the years at UAB,” Verstraet said. Garver also took the Avant Standards-based Measurement of Proficiency assessment to qualify for a Global Seal of Biliteracy. UAB is the first university in the state to award the seal.
Her degree started as just a French major. UAB’s Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures requires all foreign language majors to take one semester of another foreign language, and she chose Spanish. It came so easily after learning French, she said, that one semester turned into two, then why not a minor?
“I couldn’t stay away from that language either,” Garver said. “Before I knew it, the chair of the department encouraged me to seek the double foreign language major. In the end, I did.”
Garver finished her studies at UAB as a full-time student; but for years, it was one or two classes a semester, sometimes none. She began in 2007; by her final semester she was working part time while a full-time student taking all 400-level classes in three languages, and she made the Presidential Honor Roll. In addition to the essay contest, she won second place in a UAB French poetry contest and was named 2020 Outstanding Student in French. She was asked to introduce guest lecturer Edouard Duval-Carrié in February.
Taking Control of Her Life
Garver said her health is much better these days and credits a new psychiatrist, treatment with years of therapy and being on only one medication.
“It may sound like bragging, but I am exceptionally proud at how I changed my own narrative and ended my studies, never being so convinced that I would succeed,” Garver said. “My journey came full circle. I worked hard. I never gave up, and I endured the struggle. I was sometimes told that maybe I should just drop out and find another path. I refused. Receiving a diploma was everything to me. It took longer than I would have desired; but in the end, I’ve learned more than I ever could have imagined, and I am ready. I am ready for the next challenge and the next chapter.”
Garver thanks her professor Verstraet for his support and encouragement.
“He continued to believe in me, from naming me as one of the ambassadors, selecting me to introduce Duval-Carrié and personally telling me I needed to enter the essay contest because I was a good writer,” she said. “When your professors believe in you as a student, it really has a ripple effect.”
Garver is focusing her efforts in Washington, D.C., where she hopes to work with her French for the United States government. She is open to working abroad, in another city or in the private sector and “will know the right fit when I find it,” she said.
She insists on the importance of mental health and encourages everyone to seek help when they need it.
“Asking for help is not a weakness; it’s a strength,” she said.
Shannon Thomason is a Public Relations Specialist at UAB.