FORT KENT – French and Acadian music rippled off the strings of Lionel Doucette’s fiddle and Rita Baron’s keyboard, and simple foods of French and Acadian fare were served Tuesday night at a reception for officials from four French universities at the University of Maine at Fort Kent.
It was an evening to speak French with residents of the St. John Valley, university faculty and staff and to relax, eat local foods and enjoy local music, UMFK President Richard Cost said.
The representatives of French academia, three university presidents, a vice president and two directors of international relations were participating in a seven-day visit to University of Maine System campuses. From Wednesday through Friday they were scheduled to visit UMO, USM and UMF before returning to France on Saturday.
The visit is part of University of Maine System officials’ hopes to open programs and research opportunities with higher education in France. UMS officials traveled to the universities of the French representatives last year.
Cost was on the 2005 visit. He hopes to open avenues of exchange with French universities in New Brunswick and Quebec as well. Two vice regents from those Canadian provinces were also at the reception Tuesday.
Co-hosting with Cost were University of Maine at Presque Isle President Donald Zillman and University of Maine at Machias President Cynthia E. Huggins.
The French group of seven was only in the St. John Valley for a number of hours. They arrived in late afternoon and left before 9 p.m. While in the St. John Valley they took the time to cross the international border to Canada.
While several had traveled to North America in the past, it was their first visit to Maine for most of them, Georges Tymen of the Universite de la Bretagne Occidentale said. He has a son studying in Montreal and spent some time there this past summer.
“Bon soir et bienvenue [good evening and welcome],” Cost said in French to the dignitaries visiting northern Maine. “Our region is a large area of bilingual people … our campus is a celebration of French heritage.”
Cost gave the dignitaries and 45 other invitees a short history of UMFK. A short video outlined the campus and the area in Maine’s northernmost reaches. During dinner and the talks, which included Zillman and Huggins, slides of the campus and the St. John Valley during all of its four seasons played on huge screens on two walls.
“We hope to come up with agreements on student exchanges and research,” Francois Resche, professor and president of L’Universite de Nantes, said. “We want to encourage students, especially graduate students, to work on partnerships, thesis partnerships.
“Partnerships is what we want to develop,” he said in an interview conducted in French during a reception before dinner. “This has been done extensively in Europe for a long time, and we would like to do it with campuses here in Maine.”
The campuses represented by the French officials are all on the west coast of France, the area of the country closest to the United States. Resche said they want to promote a three-year graduate thesis program because it is the best way to create laboratories.
“Collaboration is best for students, and it is best for education,” he said. “We hope to develop alliances with francophones to have research in foreign languages.”
“We could also do formative programs in history, economics and research,” Resche said. “More of these exchanges, like last year and this one, are being planned for the future.”
Lisa Ornstein, director of the Acadian Archives, where the pre-dinner reception was held for the French educators, gave her guests a short history of northern Maine and its French heritage.
“Our corner of the St. John Valley represents a francophonie that is different than anywhere else in the United States,” she said.
Cost said the entire visit of the French educators to northern Maine was informal. He said it was planned that way, because the group would be working on formal agreements during the remainder of their visit to Maine.
“Here, it was planned as a evening to relax among people they could speak with in their native tongue,” Cost said.
Both Cost and Zillman spoke to their French, Quebec and New Brunswick guests in French at the dinner.
“This is not an easy job for an anglophone,” Cost said during his talk.