Sociology major lands prestigious Boren Award for seven months of study in Senegal

by | May 28, 2019

Olivia Soule will divide her time between studying the Wolof language and researching public health issues thanks to the $20,000 scholarship.
Olivia Soule

Sociology major Olivia Soule received a Boren Scholarship in the amount of $20,000 that will allow her to spend the next seven months studying the Wolof language and researching public health issues in Dakar, Senegal. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Olivia Soule has had a few frantic moments over the past month, filling out paperwork, going to doctor’s appointments and just trying to be certain everything is in order for Wednesday, when she leaves the country bound for seven months of study abroad in Senegal.

The junior sociology major at the University of Missouri–St. Louis has had about six weeks to get ready amid the other deadlines that accompanied the end of the spring semester. She learned April 15 that she’d been selected for a competitive Boren Award, putting her in line for $20,000 in funding for overseas academic pursuits through the National Security Education Program.

Soule actually has been trying to prepare for her upcoming trip longer than that after extending a previous study abroad stay in the capital city of Dakar more than a year while a student at Lawrence University.

“I’ve been thinking about it since last June,” Soule said. “The month I got back from Senegal, I was looking at ways to get back to Senegal.”

Soule, a St. Louis native who transferred to UMSL in August, learned about the Boren Awards while serving an internship with the International Association of Fire Fighters last summer in Washington, D.C.

Boren Scholarships, named for former Oklahoma Governor and Senator David Boren, provide funding opportunities for U.S. undergraduate students to study less commonly taught languages in regions of the world deemed critical to U.S. interests but underrepresented in study abroad programs. They include Africa, Asia, Central and Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Middle East.

When accepting the awards, Boren Scholars commit to spending at least one year working in the federal government after completing their degrees.

“It is one of the only awards that funds Wolof study,” said Soule, referring to the native language prevalent in Dakar and other parts of Senegal.

Soule began picking up little bits of it when she first traveled to Dakar in 2017. At the time, she was a biology major and pre-med student with an interest in French at Lawrence, a private liberal arts school in Wisconsin.

She chose Senegal – the former French colony where French remains the official language – because she wanted to improve her French skills and immerse herself in and learn about a non-western culture.

Soule didn’t know much about Senegal beyond the little she picked up in a required one-hour course on Dakar geared toward getting her and her classmates ready for what was to be a 10-week program at the Baobab Center.

She had no expectations but never imagined being taken with the country as much as she was.

Soule loved the energy of Dakar, a bustling city of more than one million people with restaurants, nightclubs and beaches along the Atlantic Ocean. She delighted in the food, including Thiéboudienne, a national dish comprised of rice, fish, vegetables and a green sauce made with leaves of the hibiscus plant, among other ingredients. She enjoyed mbalax, the popular national dance music.

Mostly, she was drawn to the people, the way they seemed to get along despite different religious backgrounds and were so connected with their neighbors and in touch with their communities.

“By the fourth week of the program, I was just really enjoying myself,” Soule said. “I was connecting with my host family and my host sister. I was making friends in the neighborhood, but really, I just felt that 10 weeks wasn’t enough because I just really felt comfortable in Dakar and wanted to learn more.”

Soule convinced her mother to support her decision to take a year off from school. She found an internship with Global Research and Advocacy Group – a Senegalese nonprofit organization founded in 2011 and based in Dakar that conducts research on marginalized communities and provides analysis it hopes can be used to inform policy decisions in sub-Saharan Africa – and got a job waitressing to pay her expenses.

She later landed a position teaching English to doctors and nurses at a nearby hospital and gave up waitressing.

The internship at GRAG exposed Soule to public health, and she began to re-evaluate whether she wanted to go to medical school. She liked the idea of working in a field where she could make a difference on a macro level rather than focusing on individual patients.

She thought a degree in sociology would position her well to pursue a master’s degree in public health and ultimately launch her career.

The only problem was Lawrence didn’t offer sociology as a major. So Soule, who grew up near Tower Grove Park in south St. Louis and attended Metro Academic and Classical High School, began exploring other options.

Economic reasons contributed to her first considering UMSL and ultimately helped her make up her mind. She figured she could live at home and save some money while finishing her degree.

It wasn’t necessarily an easy decision.

“Honestly, I kind of had my doubts about UMSL,” she said. “I said this is a huge state school. I’m not going to get attention from my professors. I’m going to be in giant classes. I’m going to struggle finding things. The administration is going to be malfunctioning. But it hasn’t been the case.

“I’m close with the entire sociology department. All of my French professors I’m close with. I’ve gotten so much help here. I wouldn’t have been able to get the Boren Award without the team of faculty at UMSL.”

Beyond her regular studies, and with the help of Associate Teaching Professor Larry Irons, Soule began examining access to sexual and reproductive health-care services for Senegalese women with physical disabilities in Dakar.

She was one of three UMSL students to present at the annual meeting of the American Ethnological Society in March at Washington University in St. Louis.

Soule hopes to build on her work in the second half of her stay in Senegal. Her first four months will be focused on intensive Wolof study, though she does have an internship lined up with another Senegalese public health organization.

She’s still awaiting ethics approval for her research but would like to work with a disability rights advocacy organization called Association Handicap.sn and interview 40 women with physical motor disabilities. She hopes to gain an understanding of their access to sexual and reproductive health-care services with qualitative research gathered through open-ended questions.

“There’s not been a lot of research done on it in Senegal, but people with disabilities are stigmatized in Senegal as well as everywhere else in the world,” Soule said. “So I really want to give a platform for these women to talk about needs, shortfalls in the services, what can be improved, what should stay the same.”

Soule plans to return to UMSL in December with an expected graduation date next May. Next spring, she’ll be looking to line up opportunities to meet her work requirement – maybe something with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the U.S. Department of State working in biosafety and biosecurity – with plans for graduate school after that.

Ultimately, Soule is aiming for a more permanent return to Senegal, to live and work in public health, making her study of the local language and the country’s sociocultural dynamics all the more significant for her future.

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