BY FALGUNI BASNET ’21
At the age of 13, Nancy Holden-Avard, current Senior Lecturer in French at Mount Holyoke, took her very first French class.
“Thankfully, the teacher was dynamic — I found out years later that she was a Mount Holyoke graduate! I was instantly smitten by the beauty of the French language,” said Holden-Avard. “I found it amazing that my brain could actually function in a foreign language. Every word I learned was a new flower in this splendid secret garden that was opening up to me.”
Even after 34 years of teaching at Mount Holyoke, the beauty of the French language continues to excite her the same way it did in her very first class.
As a French major at Smith College, she spent her junior year studying abroad in France. “Being able to speak in French with French people every day, discovering their way of thinking and of taking the time to savor life, noticing and admiring their ‘savoir-faire,’ seeing in person the artistic marvels I had studied in art classes — all of this truly transformed me.”
In 1983, Holden-Avard began her teaching career at Mount Holyoke. During her interview, she was reminded how many traditions Smith and Mount Holyoke share. “When I was still just a candidate for the job, I had lunch with students in Pearsons [Hall] and then proceeded to teach them a ‘mock class.’ After lunch, one of the students stood up and asked, ‘Who wants coffee or tea?’ and the entire ‘gracious living’ aspect that I had lived at Smith came rushing back to me. I realized how much I could identify with students at Mount Holyoke because I had lived through a similar college experience myself.”
“The students in my ‘mock class’ were bright, receptive, perceptive and enthusiastic — qualities which I cherished and have been enjoying in my students ever since.”
Her students, in turn, have admired and respected her. “She’s the best French teacher I’ve had and one of the loveliest people I’ve met,” said Yeseung Kwak ’21. “She is extremely helpful and makes us feel comfortable in class, and is very quick to respond to my queries via email.”
“I am not a morning person at all, and the only morning class I will ever take is Professor Holden-Avard’s,” said Supriya Lama ’21.
During her time at the College, Holden-Avard has noticed a lot of changes in the community. “I am happy to say that French is still popular at Mount Holyoke, but I think that there has been a general cultural shift,” she said. Although interest in French remains, she worries that the traditions she cherished as a student and a professor will disappear.
“Students tend to feel so comfortable looking at screens that the lure of starched linen napkins in students’ personal cubby boxes, and sit-down dinners followed by soul-searching conversations over post-dinner coffee or tea is a distant memory of ‘gracious living.’”
Holden-Avard expressed disappointment about the upcoming community center, saying, “I am very sad to see that students dining in or near their dorms will soon become another distant memory. Perhaps the new, anticipated schedule at least will encourage students to gather together during the extended lunch hours.”
Through her years at Mount Holyoke, Holden-Avard has fulfilled several roles on campus — teaching assistant, faculty liaison to the French floor and more. “Any opportunity I can think of to stretch students into exploring the French language and francophone culture is, to me, a worthwhile endeavor,” said Holden-Avard. “But beyond obvious things like attending French Table and being the faculty advisor to the French club, I have been a part of other initiatives as well.” Holden-Avard was instrumental in convincing the Dean of Faculty to fund the installation of a mini computer lab on the top floor of Skinner — a precursor to the Language Resource Center — to help students access language from new and different perspectives.
Holden-Avard is inspired by the legacy of her late father. “Despite his exceptional intelligence, he received poor grades in French but never held back from trying to use the French that he loved so much,” she said. “While in France serving in the military during the war, he did not hesitate for a second when the conductor of a train he was on was looking for someone who could speak French. He understood two things essential in life: the courage to dare to forge ahead and the wonder of human contact between different cultures. [This is] a precious legacy that he was able to pass on to me and that I, in turn, do my best to transmit to others.”