For French Professor Milena Santoro, an Award-Winning Stretch
March 12, 2019 — Professor Miléna Santoro of the Department of French and Francophone Studies has spent more than two decades as a champion for Quebec literature and culture. The last two years have proven that her colleagues have noticed.
Over a stretch of just over 18 months in 2017 and 2018, Santoro received five major honors: The 2018 American Council on Quebec Studies’ Prix du Québec, the 2018 International Council of Canadian Studies Certificate of Merit, the 2017 Grand Prix de la Francophonie, the Georgetown University Vicennial Medal, and the Quebec government’s “Médaille hommage 50e.”
“It’s a humbling experience to be given an award for doing what you love,” she said. “It’s immensely gratifying when you get recognition for that, but ultimately you know that you’re only as good as you are because you’re part of a community.”
A FIGHT FOR FUNDING
Santoro is a leading voice in the Quebec and Canadian studies academic community, having served two terms as co-editor for the International Journal of Canadian Studies. But she began another notable chapter in an already distinguished career over the last several years, assuming major leadership roles when funding for regional studies was under threat.
As president of the International Association of Quebec Studies (AIEQ) from 2015-2018, she fought back against attempted funding cuts from the Quebec government.
“I’ve been part of teams that worked hard to justify our discipline,” Santoro said. “We used social media, wrote several letters to Montreal newspapers protesting the budget cuts … It’s not a huge budget, but it’s seed money that helps create programming worldwide that can teach people about Quebec.”
Santoro’s advocacy in preventing cuts to the arts funding budget earned her the attention and gratitude of colleagues in the Quebec studies field.
“It’s an environment that has been sometimes downright depressing, but coming out the other side with my professional associations having survived is something I’m really proud of,” she said. “It means younger scholars than me are going to get the benefits that I had. You pay it forward.”
Santoro is only the 13th ever scholar to win the Prix du Québec, awarded every two years by the American Council for Quebec Studies. She was one of three annual recipients of the 2018 ICCS Certificate of Merit and one of 50 to win the one-time “Médaille hommage 50e.”
SHOWCASING QUEBEC’S TALENT
Santoro’s interest in preserving these programs stems in part from her original draw to Quebec studies.
It took until midway through college for Santoro to realize she preferred languages to sciences. She changed her major to French, and a transfer year at Montreal’s McGill University exposed her to Quebec’s arts and literature. The experience would stick with her.
“When I got back from Montreal, I just wanted to take classes that allowed me to read Quebec literature,” Santoro said. “Then in graduate school, I got to know a professor who had done work on Quebec women writers, and we designed a reading course around Quebec women novelists. It changed my life — I felt like I was reading books that spoke directly to me.”
This academic path has colored Santoro’s priorities as a scholar and teacher. Throughout her career, she has sought to bring Quebecois writers, performers, and artists to Georgetown’s campus to inspire students.
“Novelists, poets, artists can tour the world on funding from the Quebec government, through the International Association for Quebec Studies,” Santoro said. “I’ve brought 22 visitors to Georgetown, in part due to that kind of funding. It’s an immeasurable enrichment, and it helps show Quebec’s talent to the world.”
Santoro also organized graduate student conferences in conjunction with the Quebec government and other partners in both 2016 and 2018. The conferences were designed to help young academics get valuable feedback and mentorship on their research.
“All of this is about keeping the energy going — helping the younger generation get the experience, credentials, and mentorship they need to become future scholars in the field,” Santoro said.
A GEORGETOWN MILESTONE
Santoro’s many professional honors came at an unrelated milestone in her career: In 2017, she celebrated 20 years at Georgetown University.
She arrived at Georgetown’s Department of French and Francophone Studies in 1996 after completing her Ph.D. at Princeton University. She has served in a number of important positions beyond her role as an associate professor, including as a thesis advisor, a core faculty member in the Film and Media Studies Program, and an active participant in the Americas Initiative.
“I’m blessed to work at an institution where I can pursue my passions and be supported in my efforts to share what I do with others,” Santoro said. “I wouldn’t be anything without Georgetown, and I wouldn’t be recognized without the colleagues who were with me along the way.”
Santoro is proud of her recent honors, but remains certain that they don’t represent a career plateau. She’s writing on Quebec filmmakers, many of whom have been extremely successful in Hollywood in recent years. She’s running the aforementioned graduate conferences to foster the next generation of Quebec studies scholarship. And, of course, she’s teaching classes on Quebec literature and cinema — the same kinds of classes that changed her life when she was a student.
“Once you’ve got that fire, you never want to let it go. You just want to share it, to show everyone how exciting it is,” Santoro said.
— Patrick Curran