Evan Harris

French Studies: Lillian Giles

Before she was majoring in French studies and minoring in Arabic at Wake Forest, Lillian Giles was already a student of language — something she first discovered while studying Spanish at an immersion camp and later abroad, from summers in Nicaragua to almost half a year in Chile.

Giles first studied Arabic in her senior year of high school when she traveled to Rabat, Morocco, as part of the National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y) academic-year program. Funded by the U.S. Department of State, the program encourages high school students to learn “critical languages,” such as Arabic. 

“I thought I wanted to work for the State Department and be a diplomat,” Giles said. “And then I went to Morocco, and it made me realize that there are a lot of people that don’t have legal representation, and that being able to talk to people in their language is really important. I realized that the beauty of language is how we can use it to connect with people.”

She continued: “I also learned that language learning is really hard. People always ask me if I am fluent in different languages and the answer is always no. I can communicate with different degrees of fluency in different situations, but I don’t think the goal should be ‘fluency’ because that is really hard to attain. The goal, at least for me, should always be communication.”

That goal didn’t change much when Giles came to Wake Forest — if anything, it continued to grow and find new purpose.

In her freshman year, Giles joined the Global AWAKEnings Program, a year-long abroad experience in Copenhagen, Denmark, where she came across the refugee justice community center Weekend Trampoline House. There, she served as a volunteer to help asylum seekers — many of whom spoke French, Arabic or both.

And so, just as she was discovering new ways in which she could use her language skills, Giles decided to pursue a third. Soon after she returned to campus her sophomore year, she had already declared a double major in French studies and politics & international affairs — despite taking her first French course that semester.

“I realized that pairing French with Arabic — more than just majoring in French, but learning the language — was really important to me,” Giles said. “It just opens up the range of people that you can speak to, and I knew that I wanted to do public interest work, and that in order to do that I needed to keep going abroad.”

After spending the spring semester of her junior year at Wake Washington — where she worked as a legislative intern for the U.S. House of Representatives — Giles packed her bags for a semester in Dijon, France.

“I knew from the get-go that [Giles] was a terrific language student, and that she appreciated learning through immersion in the culture as well as in the classroom,” French professor Dr. Kendall Tarte said. “I love that she made a commitment to fit in a semester in Dijon during her senior year. Lillian is someone who’s independent but who also made time to get to know people — to go to a basketball game with her host mom, for example.”

Upon her return to campus, Giles was nominated as a senior orator, and her oration titled “Unsettled” was named a finalist at the 2023 Senior Colloquium. In it, she described how “…being unsettled is good. When we are made uncomfortable by the awareness of injustice, we are then able to enact positive change.” 

She closed by quoting American author and journalist, Ta-Nehisi Coates: “My hope for all of us is that our Wake Forest experience is helping us ‘grow into consciousness,’ so that we might leave this place a great deal more unsettled and inspired than when we arrived.”

The day after graduation, Giles will head to Harlem to rejoin the African Services Committee — the human rights agency where she interned last summer. She plans to apply for law school in the fall.

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