Barbara T. Cooper
Excellence in International Engagement
Languages, Literatures, and Cultures, Professor of French
College of Liberal Arts
A Knight in New Hampshire
"I suppose technically that is the title," says Barbara Cooper with a laugh, decorated in 1994 by the French Prime Minister and the Ministry of Culture as a Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Palmes Academiques (Knight in the Order of Academic Palms) for outstanding contributions to the spread of French language and culture in the world. "But definitely don't call me Sir Barbara," she adds.
The long road from her childhood in the suburbs of Chicago to knighthood and an award for international engagement began when she was a freshman in high school. "I had a French teacher that first year who had just graduated from college and had spent her junior year in France," Cooper recalls. "She was very enthusiastic, energetic, and dynamic. She just flipped a switch somewhere that really got me excited."
As an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, Cooper took a definitive turn in her professional journey when she spent her junior year in France and decided to major in French. As a master's degree student, she returned to France to teach English in French schools for a year as part of a university exchange program. And then, she got married in the country she had grown to love.
"My own international experience was a crystallizing event, something that transformed my life totally," says Cooper. "As a result I couldn't imagine not having both the opportunity and the will to encourage other people to have that experience as well."
Since joining UNH in 1979, Cooper has worked tirelessly to create opportunities for students to study abroad. A major force in the creation of the Center for International Education, Cooper has served on the UNH selection committee for student Fulbright awards, on the International Research Opportunities Program, and as director of the Dijon program at the University of Burgundy for 10 years. She also founded the summer program at Brest and the Pitvay Scholarship for Study in France.
Her work underscores her vision of international education. "You can only learn so much in a classroom no matter how good your instructors are," Cooper adds. "If it's not real, if it's not personal, if it's abstract, if it's two-dimensional, you are never going to understand things."
Cooper has sought to engage her students internationally not just in the classroom or in study abroad programs but also at home. As founder of the local chapter of Pi Delta Phi, the national French honor society, she organized a fund-raising drive to replace thousands of trees uprooted by a tornado in Versailles. Responding to anti-French sentiment in the wake of the war in Iraq, Cooper and her students researched early American history. They discovered that some of Lafayette's soldiers had stayed at a house in Portsmouth after the Revolutionary War. In the course of that research, they rediscovered an obscure "friendship flag" that featured a French fleur de lis over the 13 stars and stripes. To commemorate that historic trans-Atlantic alliance, they dedicated a plaque at the house.
"Her 26-year career at UNH has been characterized by a continuous and outstanding record of scholarship published in a wide range of journals and books here and abroad, and marked by collaboration in many efforts to advance scholars' understanding of 19th century French literature, drama, and culture," says Professor Edward T. Larkin, chair of the Department of Literatures, Languages, and Cultures. "Her work is in every sense, internationally oriented."