In late 2017, Gabrielle Solair was a musician and songwriter in Nashville when she became seriously ill with a sickness that injured her lungs. The experience, which included staying away from people for three months (“I had my own quarantine” before the COVID-19 pandemic, she says), made her reevaluate what she wanted to do in her life.
Solair had found music amazing, but she realized what she really loved was the volunteering she’d been doing with the Nashville rescue mission. “I was working with homeless women and learning about their experiences, and I thought, ‘Why can’t we fix this?’” Solair was also deeply concerned about the poverty issues she had seen in her father’s home country of Colombia. She decided to go to college “to learn how to work to help people and make a social impact,” she says. “That’s when my whole life changed.”
By the time Solair graduated this past May with a Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences (B.A.A.S.) degree from Penn, she had been awarded a Bread Upon the Waters scholarship and named a Dean’s Scholar for her accomplishments. She’s already making an impact in her new career, developing and implementing culturally relevant communications and outreach strategies to provide important information and opportunities to historically underserved communities, particularly for health research and farming and agricultural practices.
Finding Her Path
A first-generation student, Solair says she didn’t know much about U.S. higher education. Neither of her parents had degrees. And though Solair had graduated high school at 16, she didn’t decide to go to college until she was 23. “Coming into education was super scary,” she says. “I had a huge gap of time where I solely focused on my music. I thought that was all I could do.”
She went to a community college and enjoyed it, exceeding her own expectations by earning a 4.0 average. When she started being recruited by universities like Penn and Columbia, not only had she not realized that they had programs for nontraditional students, but “I didn’t fully understand what Ivy League schools were or what made them special, that’s how off the radar I was.”
Solair attended virtual information sessions with multiple schools. “Once I talked with Penn, I just knew in my heart and soul,” she says. “Everybody is so intelligent and they have such big hearts and they want to do a lot of good for the community and they’re so humble about how smart and dedicated they are. It felt like a community even though I’d never been to Philadelphia.”
When I came to Penn I thought I knew exactly what was going to happen next. And then the courses inspired me in so many different ways.
Solair enrolled in the College of Liberal & Professional Studies (LPS) Online Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences program, an accredited degree designed for working adults and other nontraditional students who want to pursue an online Ivy League education in the liberal arts. B.A.A.S. students can shape their educational experience to fits their goals.
The first class Solair took was on digital literacy and cultural change. “It was all about social impact. I thought, ‘This is exactly where I need to be.’ And right after that I got the Bread scholarship, and thought, ‘Whoa, this was so meant to be.’”
Casting Bread Upon the Waters
Bread Upon the Waters is a Penn Arts & Sciences program that provides scholarships to women who are at least 25 years old and want to pursue an undergraduate degree through LPS on a part-time basis. The fund was created in 1986 by Elin Danien who, after a wide-ranging career, went back to school at age 46. Upon her graduation seven years later, Danien gave the first $1,000 to establish the Bread Upon the Waters Scholarship Fund. Bread Scholars are selected based on academic excellence and financial need. The program is supported by donors, including former Bread Scholars and other LPS students.
The digital cultures class and the scholarship, along with the relationships Solair formed with the other Bread Scholars, gave such a boost to her confidence that she went to a Nashville-based consulting agency and asked for an internship. Culture Shift Team, Inc. is an award-winning agency focused on two main practice areas: multicultural marketing and diversity, equity, and inclusion education and strategy.
“They weren’t looking for an intern, but I was like ‘Hey, this is what I’m doing and learning with Penn, I’m a Bread Scholar, and I have a strong desire to make a social impact, and I’d love an internship,’” says Solair. “Penn’s just so amazing at giving you the tools and resources you need.”
She got the internship, which quickly turned into a coordinator position. Then she was promoted again to multicultural markets associate. By the time she graduated from Penn, she was doing client executive work. “I am just continuing to learn and grow and help underserved communities,” says Solair. “I have all different types of clients, from serving farmers to promoting clinical studies to spreading awareness of authors and speakers who empower underserved communities.”
Solair says every class provided her valuable tools she could then use in her work. “They were married—my work and my schoolwork. That was probably the coolest part about my educational journey, that I could take exactly what I learned and immediately apply it.”
Her classes kept opening new doors, as well. “When I came to Penn I thought I knew exactly what was going to happen next. And then the courses inspired me in so many different ways to explore other realms to achieve helping people.” She’s still thinking about nonprofit leadership, but also social entrepreneurship, working on a business plan focused on community building. She’s writing a children’s book that she started in a creative writing course. “I came to Penn as a creative, and I’ve learned now that there are so many avenues that I can take that and make a social impact.”
Solair is also writing songs and performing again, finding new ways to connect with communities through music. “I’ve learned that we are multifaceted individuals,” she says. “I can take on any venture through making strong and meaningful connections and approaching my goals and resources as a life-long learner. I’ve come full circle and can pursue music again with a new lens and deeper understanding of connecting meaningfully with audiences.”
The Nashville-Philly Connection
Living in Nashville, the online program made it all possible. Solair found the faculty and students collaborative and helpful. Through Zoom, texting, and phone calls she connected with as many other students as she could. Her fellow Bread Scholars were an inspiration.
“Bread is so unique in that the women who are part of it are a different kind of people because they have so many outside responsibilities,” says Solair. “But they’re doing it because they’re giving themselves a chance to live their dreams and their passions. Their determination is unmatched because they’re older, they may have kids, they have so many things going on, and they’re super-dedicated to meeting their goals. They lift each other up. It’s a group of women who will not give up or stop for anything.”
Solair is the first B.A.A.S. student to be named a Dean’s Scholar. The citation praised her commitment “to community-building and making information accessible to diverse audiences” and her initiative in cold-calling to propose an internship that turned into her first job in her new life. She was thrilled to finally make it to campus to be recognized at the Dean’s Forum in April, and then again for graduation in May, where she received her degree in an individualized studies concentration and certificates in creative writing, leadership and communication, and advanced professional writing.
“I’ve learned how to identify my strengths, skills, talents, my specific perspective, just by being in those peer classroom communities. And then I’ve been able to take that and say, ‘Okay, how do I apply that in this situation and how does it grow from there?’ The Dean’s Scholar award was a confirmation for me but also inspiring. It says, everybody can do this. You can grow. You can transform your life.”
To support students like Gabrielle, please consider making a gift to the Bread Upon the Water Scholarship here. To learn more about the Bread Scholarship, please contact Janhavi Chandra at firstname.lastname@example.org.