“It’s been my life,” said Jeannette Rigsby, who soon after her arrival at the San Diego College for Women in 1959, taught the first upper-division course in French, founded the French department, French Club and taught at USD until her retirement in 1994, at which time she was named a professor emerita.
On Thursday, the woman known fondly on campus as “Madame” was present, smiling glowingly for the opening of the Rigsby Language and Culture Commons in Founders Hall, which honors both Jeannette and her husband of 44 years, George, a former geology professor, who passed away in 2009. Rigsby was joined at the ceremony by a bevy of former students, past and present faculty, and administrators including College of Arts and Sciences Dean Noelle Norton, inaugural USD President Author “Art” and Marge Hughes, Sister Sally Furay, Sister Virginia Rodee and Monsignor Daniel Dillabough. The latter blessed the Commons space.
“It’s been a very emotional day for me, but I’m very grateful,” said Rigsby, who was accompanied to the event by her niece, Simone Scotti. “This pleases me so much. Thank you, everyone.”
Rigsby, the daughter of a Dutch diplomat and Parisian homemaker, grew up in France. She was a linguistics professor at the University of Montreal, Canada, in 1958 when she met a reverend mother at The Sacred Heart School of Montreal who convinced her that the Society of the Sacred Heart needed her to teach at San Diego’s College for Women. It was the start of a beautiful relationship.
“In my classes I spoke only French. I started a French Club and a French table where students in the French program ate together. For three years in a row I took students to Europe to visit Germany, Italy, Spain and, of course, France,” said Rigsby in a recent issue of USD’s Bridges newsletter. “I felt so at home. I loved my students. This was my life.”
The French government has honored twice Rigsby. She was named a chevalier, or knight, to the Ordre des Palmes Academiques, an Order of Chivalry of France for academics and cultural and educational figures. She was also named an officier in the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, another Order of France that recognizes significant contributions to the arts and literature.
Kevin Guerreri, department chair and professor in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Languages and Literatures, thanked Rigsby for her dedication to her passion for the French language and teaching, and for what the Commons means to the preservation and importance of USD students studying a foreign language, a must-have tool in the skill set for globally minded individuals.
“There are nine different languages spoken in our department, but the common language we all share is a deep understanding and strong conviction that human interaction is at the heart of language learning,” Guerrieri said. “The Commons gives us the space to continue this; we’re very excited and grateful.”
The department offers courses in Ancient Greek, Arabic Chinese (Mandarin), French, German, Italian, Japanese, Latin and Spanish. Combine that with USD being the top institution for undergraduate study abroad participation percentage and a healthy international student presence and it’s easy to see the importance of the Commons’ presence.
Students, faculty and staff now have a place to interact, speak, learn and study in many different languages. It’s a dynamic and evolving space where people enjoy programs, lectures, films and intercultural encounters and study the world’s many languages, cultures, customs and artistic genres.
“We plan to offer open hours for the community and alumni, we have devices with software for checkout, a tutoring program, club meetings and more,” Guerrieri said. “This will be a language commons. It will be a very active space.”
That’s just how Rigsby would want it. She stated her belief that students should be required to have two majors — one being what the student wants to do and the other a language or art discipline to support it.
“What can you do with a degree in French?” Rigsby said, rhetorically. “What is it that you cannot do with it? You can do what you do better!”
Her passionate message sought to remind others of the deep impact when pursuing knowledge of a foreign language.
Current USD junior Vianey Coronado, a double major in French and accountancy, was one of two students demonstrating how that lesson is essential in 2013. Coronado recently did a study abroad trip to Paris through the support of a French Endowed Scholarship Fund established by the Rigsbys. Coronado (pictured left, far left) expressed her gratitude to Rigsby by speaking to her only in French at Thursday’s ceremony.
“Language is vital in all parts of life,” she said, afterward. “It’s the key to opportunities, to open doors. Before, there was really no place where our students could come together to share our learning, but thanks to her, this new space provides the perfect place to further students’ language studies.”
Merci beaucoup, Madame.
— Ryan T. Blystone
Krystn Shrieve contributed to this story