KINGSTON, R.I. – Dec. 4, 2023 – The U.S.-French relationship has long been positif, since Lafayette visited Rhode Island, and the French government sent a statue across the sea to recognize shared connections. That well-established connection between countries was celebrated recently at the University of Rhode Island, marking continuing collaborations across borders.
A delegation from France visited the University of Rhode Island in November to nurture connections between the countries and for Mustafa Soykurt, consul general of France in Boston, to make his first visit to the University since he assumed the role as the French government’s leading representative in New England.
Soykurt’s visit also celebrated two URI faculty members, Karen de Bruin and Lars Erickson, both named chevaliers in the Ordre des Palmes Académiques by the French government (French for “knight” in the “Order of Academic Palms”) for their work in the U.S. and abroad. They join colleagues JoAnn Hammadou-Sullivan and Joelle Rollo-Koster in receiving the honor.
The distinction is the highest honor bestowed by the French Republic to academics for valuable service to education. Established in 1808 by Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte to honor distinguished members of the University of Paris, it is one of the oldest civil honors bestowed by the Republic of France and is the highest honor granted by the Republic to outstanding academics and educators. In recent years, the number of people receiving this distinction has been halved making it even more of an impressive achievement.
URI has one of the largest French programs in the U.S. as well as several colleges at the University engaged in STEM-related work and research collaborations with French colleagues and partners. The visit was not only about French-language study but also about cooperative relationships across the University, such as Stephan Grilli, professor of ocean engineering who discussed his collaborations in France during the consular visit. Grilli has active research collaborations with the University of Toulon and the Ecole des Ponts/St. Venant Laboratory in Paris, and has collaborated in the past with the Universities of Nice, Nantes, Biarritz and Brest.
“The Boston Consulate and the U.S. Embassy see URI as a locus of excellence in French education, learning, language, culture and research,” de Bruin says, “and this visit was a recognition of that. There is formidable, active research happening across the University, connected to France and French history and culture. This visit promoted that scholarship and connections.” De Bruin is professor of French, director of the URI Honors Program, and founder and director of exchanges between URI and the Université de Rennes.
“It was wonderful to celebrate our partnerships with the Parlanges, both Francophones,” she says. “I was thrilled.”
The visit also held personal significance for URI President Marc Parlange, a first-generation French American. Parlange’s father’s family came from Bordeaux; his father came to the U.S. to get his Ph.D. in engineering at Brown University. The president also has ties to French-speaking regions as a professor and dean at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland.
The Parlanges were joined by Roger Begin P’02, longtime honorary consul of France in Rhode Island, who attended the visit with his family, including wife Diane ’74 and daughter Stephanie.
Erickson, professor of French and director of URI’s French International Engineering Program, says, “This was a great opportunity to showcase what we are doing at URI and learn what others are doing in the region.” He has served as an invited panelist for the French Embassy’s Task Force on the Future of French in the U.S.
“The visit was a testament to the vibrancy of our French program and to the huge potential for future growth and cooperation between URI and France,” Erickson says. “Many of our programs, such as the International Studies and Diplomacy Program and our International Computer Science Program, are fairly young and will grow over the next few years. It is really just a question of promoting the programs we have in French and spreading the word.”
Erickson was first designated a chevalier in 2018, though his formal recognition was delayed because of sabbaticals and the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Having this ceremony now at URI,” he says, “was both an honor and a pleasure. It is great to feel the University’s support of our programs. I hope that this ceremony will be a way for us to deepen ties and nourish further growth in our French programs.”
Erickson is celebrating his 20th anniversary as director of the French International Engineering Program at URI, which he has led since 2003. The five-year program allows students to obtain diplomas in French and engineering and spend six months to a year in France or Quebec, followed by an internship at a French-speaking company.
URI’s French IEP has 27 students, a number that is expected to increase following a post-COVID rebound of interest in international experiences at the University.
The French IEP is also closing in on 100 alumni, a number that is expected to be reached next year. Most of them studied at URI’s partner institution in France, the Université de Technologie de Compiègne (UTC), one of France’s top engineering schools. The exchange began in 2005, and is approaching the 20th anniversary of exchange students between the two institutions. URI and UTC are also developing a dual master’s degree in mechanical engineering between the two institutions.
“We hope to see this in place soon and then to see more dual master’s programs with other disciplines,” Erickson says.
Presenting the title of chevalier to professors de Bruin and Erickson, Soykurt noted how symbolic the presentation was, noting the past recognition of a fellow Rhode Islander, longtime U.S. Sen. Claiborne Pell, who was presented with the Legion of Honor by France in gratitude for services rendered during World War II and within the American diplomatic corps.