Bangor Mental Health Institute 
given in honor of
Rhea Côté Robbins
for being awarded
an Honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters
the University of Maine at Farmington
May, 2004

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MAY 15, 2004

Rhea Côté Robbins, we are privileged to honor you today as a recipient of the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters.

Madame Côté Robbins, c'est notre privilège de vous honorer avec le degré honoraire de Docteur en Lettres d'Humanité que vous recevez aujourd'hui.

Rhea Côté Robbins is a founder and director of the Franco-American Women's Institute, which encourages Franco-American women to tell their stories and those of their mothers and grandmothers.  Franco-Americans have brought cultural vitality and hard work to many Maine communities for the past 150 years, but their history has often been suppressed.   Excluded and discriminated against because of their religious, linguistic, and cultural differences from the majority, Franco-Americans have at times been reluctant to tell their stories.  Rhea Côté Robbins has been a leader in overcoming this reluctance, dedicating herself  to making the rich culture of her people apparent by writing about her experiences and encouraging others to express both the joys and the pain of  being Franco-American.  The archives of the Franco-American Women's Institute indicate the broad kinds of contributions to history that tell the story:  Research papers, stories, poems, recipes, knitting patterns, and pictures of prized family quilts are all valued cultural documents.

Rhea Côté Robbins was brought up bilingually in a Franco-American neighborhood in Waterville known as down the Plains.'  She received her Associate of Arts degree in Liberal Studies with a concentration in Art at the University of Maine at Presque Isle and earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Secondary English at the University of Maine, attending on a bilingual education scholarship.  She received her Master of Arts degree at the University Maine in Liberal Studies with an emphasis in Creative Writing.

Rhea Côté Robbins served as editor of an international, bilingual socio-cultural journal entitled Le FORUM  for ten years.  She co-edited and designed a book called  I am Franco-American and Proud of It:  Franco-American Women's Anthology, a 1995 volume which was the first published collection of Franco-American women's writings. Her essays, poems, book reviews, translations, and recipes have appeared in many publications, and she was awarded the first prize for poetry by the Steve Grady Endowment Fund for Creative Writing.  She teaches courses at the University of Maine in creative nonfiction, literature, and Franco-American women's experiences.

She has written a memoir of  her life growing up in Waterville entitled Wednesday's Child, which won the Maine Chapbook Award in 1997.  Depicting the hardscrabble life of Franco-Americans in Maine, the book expresses the struggles and the strong family connections of a population that has often been silenced.  The book garnered this praise from novelist E. Annie Proulx:  "[It] is beautiful stuff, a defiant poignant memoir that transcends the personal.  It is an important book not only for the experience of life within its covers, but because it gives us a glimpse of the almost unmined...literary source material in Franco-American lives."  Rhea Côté Robbins has traveled to Quebec and  France to connect her personal history to the larger currents of her ancestors and relatives.

Having successfully written about her family history, Rhea Côté Robbins has led scores of workshops to empower others to tell their stories.  She says, "Untold stories and unrecognized resources lie in the attics and basements of almost every family.  In diaries, letters, journals, recipe books, baby books, Bibles, photo albums, oral histories, and much more are the makings of a great book."  She has led writing groups at the Bangor Mental Health Institute and at the University of Maine at Fort Kent, and she worked with women prisoners, teaching a course called Helping Women Recover:  A Woman's Journal. 

She has served on numerous boards and committees focusing on promoting Franco-American and Maine culture, social justice and diversity, women's health, women's studies, and French language and literature.  She has given dozens of readings,  presentations and workshops around the state on these same topics. 

UMF is pleased to recognize Rhea Côté Robbins for her commitment to making apparent the many contributions of Franco-Americans in Maine, for her courage in telling her own story and for her encouragement of others to tell theirs.   She has listened respectfully to the diverse voices of many who have been silenced and has enabled them to add their voices to the rich cultural mix that exists in Maine.

 Rhea Côté Robbins, would you please come forward?

By virtue of the authority vested in me by the Board of Trustees of the University of Maine System, I have the honor to bestow upon you, Rhea Côté Robbins, this honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, with all the rights, privileges and honors pertaining thereto.  Congratulations!

--President Theo Kalikow

Commencement Speech given by Rhea Côté Robbins:

Thank you President Kalikow, members of faculty, distinguished guests and members of the class of 2004.

I would like to say how pleased I am to be receiving this Honorary Doctorate here today.  This is something which I never dreamed would ever happen.  If my parents were alive today they would be incredibly proud and happy as well.  Bear with me, all of you, while I express my gratitude and recognize people whom I believe have blessed and graced my life.  First, I would like to express my deepest gratitude to this institution, the University of Maine at Farmington for bestowing this honor on me here today.  I see this as a major milestone both in my life, and that of the Franco-American women in this state.  This means so much to me in my work to be recognized in this manner.
I would like to thank my husband, Dave, who has been one of my biggest supporters in my pursuits and he is always given me the space I've needed in order to become the person I am.  I understand that to be a rich gift.  I would like to also thank my children, their spouses, and my grandson because without them--my life would have been very boring and not much fun.  I have three wonderful children, Bridget and her husband, Jason and their son, Xerxes; Benjamin and his wife Jana, who came here today from Seattle to join in this wonderful event, and Jesse, who keeps me on my toes everyday with his humor.  I want to thank you all for coming into my life and making it a joy for me as you do.

 I would like to recognize my brothers, Ray and Charlie and their wives, Rachael and Donna as well as my brother, Bob, who passed away at a young age as well as my dear parents, Rita and Ray Cote.  I would like to also recognize my mother-in-law, Laurie and her companion, Glendon.  I would like to recognize my husband's family, brothers, sister, and their special someones.  I wish to thank them all as well for their support, encouragement and good humor.  Without these reminders of what we are all about, I might not be as strong in my work as I am without them.

 I would like to recognize and thank here today my friends, colleagues and co-workers who have offered their support and enthusiasm for my work and for today's honor. 

 While I'm being recognized for my writing as well as my work to raise awareness of the Franco-American women, I would also like to mention my teaching which I do at Bangor Mental Health Institute.  I will say more about that later.

 When I was thinking about this talk, I was trying to decide if I was going to talk about me and what an honor it is to be here, or would I talk about all of you as you graduate here today--going into the rest of your lives--and I decided I would talk about both, because we are all about the same thing here today:  Opportunity, Life-long learning, Quality of life and Making those things a permanent part of our lives.

 Opportunity.  What do I mean by opportunity?  I come from a working class background.  My, and I'm sure yours also, parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents were hard workers, and as they say in the Franco-American culture, "Ça travailler fort, cette mondes."  They were farmers and millworkers who wanted for themselves and their children a better life--one where family and connection matter.  We are them, you and I, we are here today because of their efforts--and also, so you could work hard and earn your degree. 

 If you think about it, what did you go through in order to get this degree?  Because certainly no one handed it to you.  Think of all your hard work to get to where you are today--graduating--So, give yourself a pat on the back, a big hand of applause, a toast of something tasty to drink or however you recognize your accomplishments, because, given where we come from--to where we are today--me standing here, and you sitting there, it has been well worth the effort.

 Life-long learning.  What about life-long learning?  Are we through learning simply because this is G-day, Graduation Day?  I doubt that very much.  The very desire and curiosity to learn which drove you to attend college--will be the same curiosity you will live by for the rest of your life.  Learning happens everywhere and all the time.  Each day, each situation makes us want to know and learn--some of you will go onto more formal learning environments, and all will go onto your everyday lives--but whatever seeks you out--one thing is certain--learning will be your friend, and aid to decipher the next step or course of action each and every day.

 My next point has to do with Quality of Life.  Who needs it?  I know I need it--and I'm sure you believe you need it--but what is Quality of Life and for whom does it happen and how?  I invite you to contemplate what makes up quality of life for you.  Quality of life, for me, means being accepted as a human being for who you are and not being rejected for whatever differentness you might be so fortunate to possess.  For me, the recognition that I am receiving here today because of my writing and my work on behalf of the Franco-American culture, and women in particular, represents a luxury, a quality of life event. 

Thinking of my ancestors, my great, grand, and parents, my family here with me today, combining all of their participation in each other's lives, I get to stand here and collect the recognition for the group, and understand at some level, the quality of life which such an honor represents.  Historically, the Franco-Americans in the state of Maine have been an unrecognized, unappreciated group.  Two examples I can give you has to do with how the Franco-Americans have been treated in the past which has ripple effects to this day for many Franco-Americans and how they perceive who they are in their communities. 

 In the 1920s, there was much action on building the forces of the KKK nationwide in the U.S., but Maine was one of the leaders in this activity. With 150,000 members in 1920, Maine possessed the largest, most active Ku Klux Klan outside of the south. This group targeted the Franco-Americans rather than the African Americans, because they were Catholic, and supposedly different than the people that were already in Maine.

Also: In the 1920s, an anti-language bill found fertile ground in the Legislature and with a governor who was a KKK sympathizer. The law was on the books until 1976 when Franco-American legislators, led by Elmer Violette and Émilien Lévesque, were able to persuade their colleagues to recognize the injustice and strike the offensive law.
 The law prohibited the teaching of subject matter in any other language than English in our public schools. Public school authorities then invented ways and means to discourage French from being spoken on school grounds or in school corridors. 
 The anti-language law, given the size of the Franco-American population in Maine, was essentially an anti-French law. These factors, among many, provided ways to control the Franco-American identity in this state.
 On a positive note, in the case of Franco-American women and their contributions, the quality of life recognition for them has to do with valuing those contributions and being inclusive when focusing on doing cultural work. That has been my primary focus and work for the past twenty-two years and more.  To have the Franco-American women recognized for their efforts at community, state and nation building.
Today is one way in which the prejudice is being undone; today, here in Farmington, Maine, the Franco-Americans are present and accounted for--Bravo, UMF!

 But what of others who are not recognized for who they are--not seen as an asset to the community?  Do you know anyone like that?  Because, I do, especially through my teaching at Bangor Mental Health Institute.  One particular such group of people who often go unrecognized are people with mental illness.  One of the most misunderstood groups of people throughout time.  I would like to recognize them here today, and to honor them by our combined efforts to understand the disease they must contend with on a daily basis.  Because, by recognition, we can improve the quality of life for them and for all of us.

 And what of my final point?  Making the opportunities, life-long learning and quality of life a part of our every day lives.  I think we do that by choice.  Choosing how we live and then to carry out a plan of creating the environment in which we are surrounded by opportunity, learning and quality. 

 I have to admit to all of you today that when I told others that I was to give this talk, several offered up their ideas as to what they thought I should say.  Coming from the Franco-American culture, the community and family, I, we, operate on the principle of the collectivity--group think.  I have tried to incorporate their ideas into my talk as recognition of that value system--the collectivity. 

 I want to close with a short passage from my book, Wednesday's Child.  The passage, which is taken from the final chapter of the book, summarizes what I believe to be important and inherent to our lives.  And for me, it also meant writing my way to Freedom--towards self-recognition--Attending college, you learn about life, you train your sensibilities and ultimately, you must be true to yourself.  For me, the following is the writing of my truth--being true to my self.  Here is the passage from my book:

 Perfect, present, future tense.  In French.  Everything in French.  Even if it is in English, it is still in French.  A layer of French living laid over by layers of popular culture or popular culture covered by living done in French.  Intertwined.  I wish I had a happier story to tell, but I've made my peace with its ugliness.  It is a truthful, unpretty face.  I have learned to love the story I hated.  One of the deep reverberations that I must reacquaint myself with.  Legends.  Customs.  Recipes.  Folktales.  Stories.  Songs.  Futuristic visions.  I have visions of perfect, present, future tense.  What am I in the future of my Franco-American womaning?  Do I learn the language?  Do I write my way to freedom?  Will I be understood by even myself, I wonder, let alone someone without a cultural blueprint.  I am scared.  Afraid of the outcome.  The judgments.  The pronouncements.  Some have more of the inner sanctum secret passwords than others.  Some have the original recipes.  Some can sing.  Some know the essence of the moment told in French words.  I can hear the heart beat of Québec.  I can hear the St. Lawrence River, le fleuve St. Laurent running in my blood stream.  I am giant and I have out of the body experiences picking up tankers on the St. Lawrence looking down from the 13th floor of Le Concorde.  I eat the soup, bread, plat principal, and desert without a bit of explanation necessary.  I climb on my knees the prayer stairs at Ste. Anne de Beaupré.  I am close to Jean Côté's grave on l'Île d'Orléans.  He arrived just yesterday--1600 something.  I married the very distant cousin.  I eat the soup.  I bake the bread.  I am a couseuse.  I make bold the colors in my house.  I get dizzy admiring the roofs in Québec.  The colors on the houses leave me breathless.  I have been shamed to white, but I vow to return to the palette of true colors.  I dream the visions of young women in French.  Equanimity in the cultural unearthing of their legacy of the near millennium.  Do-it-to-yourself archeology.  The cookbook of life rendered for what it is.  That which sustains the generations to come.  Pride, not shame in the female cook pot.  Modern day tapestry of living unparalleled in its boasts.  On parle français, ici the commercial advertisements read.  Understood, at last.

I wish to say thank you once again to this institution and the people here who have supported me by bestowing this honor, and to all of you who are here to celebrate with me today and to say congratulations to all of you who are graduating--and Good Luck, bon chance! for your lives!  Merci! 

Go to Wednesday's Child book site

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