Alumni, Campus wide, English

Words and meanings inspire alum to establish Dictionary Project

By Jan Joslin | June 12, 2020

Mary French ’95 never dreamed that responding to a letter in the newspaper requesting help distributing dictionaries to school children would lead to establishing a nonprofit and traveling the globe.

Initially, she was just looking for a way to use her English degree, but The Dictionary Project has grown into a major enterprise with dictionaries delivered to almost 33 million children in 50 states and 15 other countries. More than 1.2 million dictionaries have been distributed this school year alone.

Mary French is an alumna of CSU
Mary French. Photo provided

French and her late husband, Arno, formed the nonprofit to give dictionaries to all third graders in South Carolina. After a story ran in the Wall Street Journal in 2002, the project exploded to include all 50 states. The project relies on community supporters for help with funding and distribution. Relying on the experience of educators, the project targets third graders because third grade is typically the time when children learn dictionary skills and also move from learning to read to reading to learn.

The excitement of the children keeps French motivated. In a tech-heavy world, children appreciate having a printed dictionary of their own. Typical thank-you letters from children say, “I’m really glad you gave me this dictionary because I don’t have to use my mother’s phone to find a word.” French is an ambassador for print and the written word. “How many meanings to words there are and the depth they have always surprises me,” said French. “Words have an impact on the way people perceive things because of the meaning they have been given.”

French is now writing her own dictionaries including a word, its meaning and a sample sentence of truth to show how the word is used. An advocate of finding teachable moments, French believes that anyone who uses a dictionary is going to be smarter than one who doesn’t.

The last 10 years have been rough for French with the death of her husband and her brother, both big influences in her life, and the departure of her children to college. French has also battled cancer and said she is in a period of reinventing herself. In her travels, she has learned to slow down and leave room for serendipity. “Curiosity is one of the strongest teachers,” said French. She now plans half of her day and leaves the other half to see what happens such as meeting people who weren’t in the original schedule. She said, “It’s about leaving enough room for God to walk through the room.”

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