Hannah Solima, a Spring 2021 Middle Tennessee State University graduate, will be adding another stamp to her passport next month as she plans to settle abroad long-term to begin a master’s degree program in Eastern Europe.
“All of the little pieces here and there just kind of fell into place when I got accepted, and it was incredible,” she said of her plans to head to Estonia, approximately 4,872 miles away from the Smyrna native’s hometown. “I’m so excited.”
Solima, 23, is no stranger to visiting foreign lands. She traveled to seven countries throughout her undergraduate years as a triple major studying French, international relations and criminal justice with a concentration in homeland security. She also committed to completing a minor in German.
She was selected as the 2021 College of Liberal Arts Outstanding Undergraduate Student.
The world became her classroom during the summer of 2017 when she decided to participate in her now-alma mater’s French Immersion Program. She signed up to go in the fall of 2016 as a dual-enrollment high school student, but had to forgo those plans and wait until she became a Blue Raider a few months later.
“That was my first class ever as an official student at MTSU, and I loved it so much,” said Solima. “I literally got the abroad travel bug, and I just went crazy from there and just planned and saved, and it really helped living at home, so the money that I would’ve spent in a dorm, I spent on studying abroad.”
She said she’s grateful for the number of travel opportunities her course of study and university provided her throughout her collegiate experience. In the last few years, she’s made it back overseas to Thailand, Senegal, Israel, Russia, Germany and Jordan.
MTSU Undergraduate Director Aliou Ly, a history professor, taught Solima for two of his courses, including the Study Abroad to Senegal in 2018, and served as her academic advisor.
“The first thing that I can say about her is that she knows what she’s doing and what she wants to do,” said Ly, who said he appreciates her willingness to respect the local customs and cultures that are different from her own. “She’s really a citizen of the world.”
He said he admires her confidence and recalls her flying solo to Belgium and meeting up with the group, consisting of 11 other students and two faculty members, at an airport in Senegal.
He met Solima in one of her French courses, where he had stepped in to be a conversation partner for the students. He also recalls Solima taking part in the committee hiring process for a new Vice Provost for International Affairs.
“I’m sure she will do great things. She has good manners, she knows how to behave, she knows how to talk to people and she’s a very hard worker,” said Ly. “I’m sure she will get her studies done in a very timely manner.”
While studying the language of love in France may have earned her a few credit hours to start, Solima said it wasn’t her first time doing as the Europeans do. The previous year, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity came about as a result of her father’s job as Vice President of IT for the Southwestern Family of Companies.
The company’s founder, Spencer Hayes, now deceased, had amassed a collection of 106 art pieces, which he decided to donate to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, a feat that captured the attention of former French President François Hollande.
Solima’s father, Ed, was invited to participate in Hollande’s celebrations and was quick to share the news with his daughter, a self-described Francophile, who had kept the France travel dream alive since age 12.
“I had saved enough money for he and I to both go, and that was really incredible,” said Solima. “We actually got to take a hold of that opportunity just from planning and saving for a day in France, and one day in the future, it actually showed up.”
Now, her interests have shifted over to Eastern Europe, where she plans to continue her education at the University of Tartu in Estonia, a small country wedged between Latvia and Russia, for the next two years.
Ideally, she’d like to squeeze in other study abroad trips to neighboring countries, like Georgia, on her summer breaks.
While Solima said she’s been prepping her family for her long-term absence for years, her mom, Colene, and sister, Jolene, are already drafting sentimental social media posts to cope with her being away. However, she said there’s definitely more excitement than sadness for her next big adventure.
“Over the years of doing study abroads you get so adaptable, and you get used to the challenges of travel,” said Solima, who’s counting down the days to her Aug. 28 departure. “Something goes wrong each time. You just have to be ready to handle it when it comes.”
Solima said during her time in Russia she learned the effects of the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and that inspired her to go to Estonia to study international relations and regional studies.
“I made the most long-lasting friendships in Russia. That’s just very incredible to say that you have friends over there and know that you’re being a part of a soft-power cultural exchange with people,” said Solima.
She hopes to hone in on her language skills and learn more about the Caucasus at one of the country’s older universities. Her self-made itinerary includes diving into the local scene, visiting museums, hearing the symphony and cheering on the national sports teams.
She’ll be taking a brief trip back to Israel at the end of this month and returning home for a couple of weeks as a “nice, little buffer” before her graduate program starts.
She said ultimate goal is to join the U.S. Foreign Service as a diplomat and security agent with hopes of one day becoming a part of the Joint Terrorism Task Force.