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St. Onge extends scholarship of immigration

Ron St. Onge steps into the role of interim director of the Reves Center for International Studies with a clearly demonstrated heart for the world. From 1970, when he taught his first French class as a newly hired William & Mary faculty member, to the publication of Heritages Francophones this year, his academic and scholarly endeavors have been enmeshed in understanding and crossing cultures.

“Whether your teaching focuses on a language or literature, it’s all related to culture. Everything we do is a manifestation of whatever culture we belong to or we know a lot about or care a lot about, so ‘culture’ is the word,” he said.

St. Onge recalled how formative discussions during the 1970s eventually led to the establishment of the Reves Center following a substantial gift from Wendy Reves in memory of her husband, Emery, in 1989.  Its subsequent evolvement into a full-dimensional international study center benefitted study-abroad and related initiatives undertaken within the College’s academic departments, including his own Department of Modern Languages and Literatures. “Right from the beginning, there was symbiosis,” he explained. “The existence of the Reves Center allowed small programs to be nurtured and to grow.”

The book, co-written with three others, including St. Onge’s wife, Susan, attempts to extend the scholarship of internationalization by examining French populations in terms of their diversities as opposed to their connections to France, itself. Although it adequately tracks arrival of early French groups to North America, including areas that would become part of the United States, its most valuable contribution may be its full-examination of recent Francophone communities.

“The focus of French scholarship has changed,” St. Onge said, “just as it has been changing regarding the study of Spanish with respect to Spain. People still consider Spain but increasingly are interested in Hispanic populations.”

The book, for instance, considers the North African populations in the United States, including the Algerians, the Moroccans and the Tunisians. It explores where they exist, how they are managing economically and culturally, the circumstances that brought them to the United States and the ongoing influences of past associations with France.

The book also explores how local populations are using French to connect with other French-speaking people throughout the world.

“In Vietnam for awhile, there was a generation of young people who were forbidden to use French or English, languages of what were deemed colonizers,” St. Onge said. “Now, as they seek contact with other Vietnamese who emigrated, they use French or English to make connections via the Internet—a global link through language. The same thing is happening with respect to Senegalese populations in Harlem. They run their spice markets, they dress in colorful clothes inspired by their traditions, but they use French when constructing their internet communities.”

The fact that the book, which is being marketed primarily in the United States, is published in French underscores the authors’ commitment to participate in helping these various communities understand their collective selves. “Certainly we could have written it in English,” St. Onge said, “but we considered who would be able to most effectively communicate change. We concluded that it would be the teachers of French who have immediate contact in their classrooms with people who are predisposed to understanding this particular type of culture based on the French language.”

If there is a broader message to be conveyed through the book, St. Onge believes it is related to the complexity of riches brought to a larger community by component communities.

“Immigration is a subject that the U.S. population very much has on its mind,” St. Onge said.  “Diversity is not always welcomed by people, but I don’t think that we’re ever handicapped by diversity. I think that diversity is something that causes us to be much more flexible in our approach to other human beings. We ought to welcome it as being yet another way of understanding this very complex fabric of which our country is made.”