Home » FeatureSpring 2008

Full Immersion

by Whitney Weeks, BA'94 No Comment

With Fräncille Bergquist, the journey is the destination.

Fräncille Bergquist has a secret that many deans would not admit: As a college-age student, she had to repeat a year of classes. 

The future academic dean was living in Barcelona, away from family, friends and American culture. Usually an excellent scholar, she struggled with the college-level literature, language, geography and other classes in which she was enrolled.

“Because I only had one semester of Spanish—not a good idea!—and all the courses were in Spanish, I couldn’t do the work,” she says.

At Christmas break, she explained to her family that, while the academics weren’t going well, she was learning an incredible amount living in the colegio mayor, the dormitory, where all of the residents spoke Spanish. With the support and encouragement of her parents, she returned to Barcelona. She spent the remainder of that first year improving her Spanish, and then repeated the courses for academic credit the next year. 


“It took me two years [to complete a one-year program], but it was full immersion, and it was the best thing I ever did,” she says. 

That personal experience may contribute to the great rapport she has with the students she sees as associate dean of academic affairs for the College of Arts and Science. 

Officially, Bergquist’s charge is helping students resolve issues related to academics, including pre-major advising, transfer of credits from other institutions, and the creation and approval of courses for independently designed interdisciplinary majors. Unofficially, she is the Arts and Science guru, always ensuring that students get the most from their Vanderbilt experience.

“I’ve stayed in this job so long because it allows me to help students realize their dreams, their potential. I help them learn how to approach their studies and their unique situations,” says Bergquist, who is also an associate professor of Spanish. 

La aficionada de la palabra

She came to Vanderbilt by way of the Department of Spanish as a freshly minted Ph.D. Six years later, she was denied tenure by that department, during a time she describes as “different from today” for female faculty. (In 1983, Vanderbilt had only a handful of tenured female faculty across all of its colleges and schools.) 

“I remember talking to Mother when I found out,” Bergquist says. “She said, ‘Honey, it’s not you, it’s them. You know what you’ve done, you know what you’re worthy of.’ And it’s true. I knew what I was capable of, and here I am, more than 30 years later.”

What she was capable of was obvious to others at the College of Arts and Science. The summer after being denied tenure, she was asked to interview for, and was ultimately offered, the position of associate dean. She accepted because of her deep affinity for Vanderbilt and the opportunity to work closely with students. 

“What I do now in the dean’s office is teach,” she says. “When I’m in a classroom, I have 20 or 30 students, and when I’m in the dean’s office, I teach one-on-one.”

In addition to her responsibilities as dean, she has taught an upper-level Spanish language or linguistics course throughout her three decades at Vanderbilt. Bergquist says she loves watching students take on different personas as they learn to speak a new language. With the turns of phrases and various hand and facial gestures required by each language, she explains, a person can truly become and behave like someone else by speaking another language. 

She says her fascination with Spanish comes from being a self-described “word nerd,” someone who is intrigued by form and function within a language. “Se me perdieron las llaves. The keys lost themselves to me,” she says with delight. “This is so unlike that sentence in English, when we’d say, ‘I lost my keys.’ In Spanish, it’s not my fault the keys are lost—the keys did it!” 

Whether teaching rules of possession in Spanish or advising someone on academic requirements, Bergquist is recognized and renowned for her dedication. She has won both the Madison Sarratt Prize for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching and the Chancellor’s Cup, given in recognition of student-faculty relationships outside the classroom. Rare is the Arts and Science graduate without a personal experience with Bergquist.

“I’ve stayed in this job so long because it allows me to help students realize their dreams, their potential.”

“Dean Bergquist was my introduction to Vanderbilt, and she made me want to go there,” remembers Anastasia Higginbotham, BA’93, who met with Bergquist her first day on campus after transferring to Vanderbilt as a junior. “I walked out of her office and thought that if even one other member of the faculty took as much time with me and cared as much about my situation as she just had, then Vanderbilt was where I wanted to be.”

International Ties

One of two children born 13 months apart into a close-knit family, Bergquist completed her freshman year of college at Louisiana State University. Initially, she was going to take premed in order to be a pediatrician, but as she readily admits, she did not do particularly well in the sciences.  However, she thoroughly enjoyed her one semester of Spanish. So when her father, who was employed by an international oil company, and her mother, a classically trained pianist, were transferred to Italy, she was given an option.  

“When my parents went to Europe, I had the choice to stay in the States or to go with them. ‘Oh! I think I’ll go to Europe,’” she says with a laugh.

In the late 1960s, study abroad programs like those today didn’t exist, hence Bergquist’s enrollment in the Courses for Foreign Students program in Barcelona. When her parents returned to the U.S., she enrolled at Texas Tech and ultimately earned both her undergraduate and Ph.D. degrees in Spanish and linguistics. 

Later at Vanderbilt, Bergquist would help create McTyeire International House, a living/learning center that promotes the use of foreign languages and awareness of different cultures. Students live immersed in a foreign language, becoming more fluent and natural speakers. As a result, McTyeire residents who later study abroad do not have the struggles with language that Bergquist had as a student. 

Not surprisingly, Bergquist relishes traveling internationally and Spain is her favorite destination. Having mastered French, Portuguese and Catalan—though she flatly denies fluency in any of the three—as well as Spanish, she also denies having a favorite part of the country.

 “I like the north as well as the south as well as the middle because there is always something new and interesting to see,” she says. “And while I love the cities—Barcelona and Madrid are fabulous—the smaller cities like Salamanca and Santiago de Compostela are jewels. Just walking the streets and meeting new people is wonderful.” 

Closer to home, Bergquist can be found patronizing Nashville’s Sunset Grill restaurant (despite the conspicuous absence of Spanish food), cheering on Vanderbilt’s athletics teams, and attending as many student concerts and performances as possible. Her affection for students and the institution are evident even when the associate dean has to tell students what they do not want to hear. 

“She has a real gift with students,” says Vickie Latham, Bergquist’s assistant for the past 13 years. “They come in fussing or crying, and they walk out laughing because she has such a wonderful way with people.”


Photo by Steve Green.

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