Lumen Scholar helps close 'gap' in scholarship on WWII leader

Claire Mayo's freshman survey course three years ago sparked an undergraduate research project that may one day lead her to become a top expert on former French leader Charles de Gaulle.

It all started with a question Claire Mayo heard during her early days at Elon University in a survey course on European history: “Why did France have a slice of Berlin after World War II?” 

To her, that didn’t make sense. 

“I said, ‘Why France? They’re just like Poland [and] they’re just like Belgium,'” Mayo reasoned. “They were overrun, they were occupied for the majority of the war, they didn’t do anything for the war effort.”

So, why then? 

Professor David Crowe offered Mayo a life-changing answer when he replied, “Charles de Gaulle.” 

“And I said, ‘Who is he?’ So I began to just read up on this man and realize what a significant figure he is in modern European history,” Mayo said. “Historians call him the Father of Modern-Day France, but I knew nothing of him.” 

Fully understanding de Gaulle’s impact on France has led Mayo to study abroad in the French city of Montpellier, pore through historical documents in Paris and visit sites in London that were key to another significant world leader, de Gaulle’s rival Winston Churchill. 

Crowe, who has mentored Mayo throughout her research, believes she is destined to become “the resident American expert on de Gaulle.” For now, the Knoxville, Tenn., native’s impressive scholarship makes her the latest student to be featured this academic year in a series of profiles on Lumen Scholars in the Class of 2014. 

The Lumen Prize, awarded for the first time in 2008, provides selected students with a $15,000 scholarship to support and celebrate their academic and creative achievements. Lumen scholars work closely with faculty mentors to pursue and complete their projects. 

Efforts include course work, study abroad, research both on campus and abroad as well as during the regular academic year and summer, internships locally and abroad, program development and creative productions and performances. 

“Studying abroad in France was huge,” Mayo said. “I couldn’t have done that without the Lumen.” 

The opportunity to study in France offered the Honors Fellow access to the foundation for her research – a cache of hundreds of letters de Gaulle handwrote between 1940 and 1942 as his political influence and his Free French movement grew. The letters, which Mayo translated from French to English during her Summer Undergraduate Research Experience, are the cornerstones of her examination of de Gaulle’s political evolution. 

“He was a huge figure for France and was kind of a savior of France twice, not just during World War II but also during the Algerian Crisis,” she said. “But he wouldn’t have been any of this if not for the years 1940 to 1942. He’d be nothing.” 

While Mayo has worked to cultivate a deep understanding of de Gaulle and his legacy, she worries about a “gap in American scholarship” that might keep some people from understanding why France functions as it does today. 

“You can’t understand modern-day France without understanding Charles de Gaulle,” she said. “We cannot understand the French reaction to our policies if we don’t understand the ideology from which they come.”

The goal she has for her research and the career it could inspire is lofty – to “someday affect American and French foreign policy and strengthen that relationship to have a better appreciation of the cultural heritage so that we can better understand how to work together in a beneficial manner.” 

If anyone can do that, Crowe says it’s her. “I think she could, long-range, become the resident American expert on de Gaulle,” he said. “She’s got the tools [to make that happen]. 

“It’s really refreshing to find somebody so bright and so talented and so good at what she does, and yet she’s so humble.” 

Mayo is already set to present her research at as many as three scholarly conferences in the spring. Between that and preparing what will effectively be the equivalent of a master’s thesis, she regularly finds time to volunteer at Peacehaven Community Farm and is involved with the Grace Reformed Baptist Church in Mebane, the Christian organization Campus Outreach and the Epsilon Sigma Alpha service sorority. 

Despite that full plate, the history and French double-major is also sorting out her future beyond Elon. Graduate school is a certainty, perhaps even back in Europe, where she can work closely with scholars dedicated to French history. She likes the idea of one day becoming a professor and posing the sorts of questions that led her to discover her passion. 

“I love researching. But it’s not meant to be kept to yourself,” Mayo said. “It’s meant to be shared again. So I’m excited to see what the future holds.”