A bright, curious young woman sits on a toilet in Tunisia, nervously tossing popcorn in the corner of the hay-covered bathroom in hopes of keeping the ram occupied while it awaits its Ramadan sacrifice.
Through the power of French, Dr. Debbie Barnard was the fortunate soul to experience the true Ramadan tradition of keeping the sacrificial goat safe in the bathroom from possible thievery.
Barnard is the associate professor of French at Tech and is celebrating her 16th year with the campus community in the fall. Although she stays busy teaching all levels of French literature and language, she still finds time to tell a good story.
Barnard saw her future involving foreign languages from a young age. At 10, she began learning Spanish from her parent’s missionary friend. Originally hating French, she focused on Spanish in high school until her “amazing” teacher took a group of students on a school trip to France.
The students did a homestay with a French family in Tours, France and attended classes there for three weeks.
“It was fantastic, and that experience flipped my whole perception of French,” she said.
Upon graduating from high school, she left her hometown of Concord, North Carolina, and headed to an in-state college called Western Carolina University. Western allowed Barnard to combine economics, foreign language and political science into one degree in pursuit of a foreign embassy career.
Toward the end of her undergraduate degree, she realized working for the government meant portraying their values over her own.
“I did not think that the ideas I would be portraying overseas would not be my values but the government’s. It was inevitable. I was going to have to represent things I didn’t believe in,” she said.
She found the same strife doing an internship with a non-profit organization.
“Not everyone had the same goal in mind, which was helping as many people as possible,” she said.
Close to completing her degree, she realized she had to change her path and pursue education.
“I wanted to make a difference, and I thought well who made a difference in my life. And it was my professors.”
Entering her senior year of college, she took as many French classes as possible without majoring in French because she also had German and Spanish courses. It was not long after she began applying for French graduate programs.
Upon her acceptance into Vanderbilt University, she deferred her enrollment for a year to teach junior high English in Paris through the Fulbright program, an international educational exchange program.
Barnard said, “It was also kind of scary because as soon as I got to France, I had to go through immigration and get a visa to go. But my visa said you have to apply for a temporary residency card within two weeks of arrival and have to have an address. So, I ended up taking a job with a family as an au pair.”
Within months, she was able to find a top-floor apartment with another woman. The charming French apartment had sloped ceilings, making it impossible to stand upright in certain places, and the tiny kitchen was complete with a dorm-size refrigerator, a toaster oven, two hot plates, and a slender sink. Not to mention the lack of an elevator.
Upon returning to the states, she attended Vanderbilt for four years and obtained her doctorate. Barnard was considered ABD, or all but dissertation. To gather more research on her dissertation, she applied for a Fulbright program in Tunisia.
“I had been to Tunisia before, and I met my ex-husband on my first trip there. And I went back to study Arabic, and we got together and got married while I was on my Fulbright. I couldn’t even talk to my mother-in-law,” she said.
However, in time she learned a little. She knew enough Arabic to ask her sister-in-law why there was a giant sheep in the bathroom, only for her sister-in-law to reply with a tiny bag of popcorn.
Upon completing her dissertation, Dr. Barnard received a position teaching French, specifically francophone literature and language outside of France, at the University of Tennessee Knoxville.
Although Barnard completed her doctorate. at a large, prestigious school, her strong values did not align with the values upheld by the campus community.
“But here [at Tech] it really fit my career goals because I wanted to make a difference, and I wanted to help students understand that the world doesn’t belong to people that go to Vanderbilt or that type of people,” she said.
“Tech reminds me so much of Western Carolina because it is a rural school. It is an anchor of the town, like Tech is a cultural anchor in Cookeville. Many of the students were first-generation they wanted to learn, and both of their colors are purple and gold.”