This year’s Miss Evangeline may only be 17, but Zoë Bertrand has already plotted out her future after high school, beginning with a degree from LSU on her way to becoming a doctor.
A lovely, sincere and smart young woman, Bertrand made the decision after a recent mission trip to Central America, where she helped care for children.
“I went to Nicaragua about a year or so ago and we were working with children a lot,” she said. “I realized then how bad the healthcare system is there.”
“I want to go into neonatal medicine, which is just treating sick babies, or pediatrics so I can treat young children,” Bertrand said.
She’s “99.9 percent sure” she’s going to attend LSU, majoring in biology and minoring is Spanish, so she can return to places like Central America and do her part to help children there.
While Zoë has planned her future, she also possesses a respect for her heritage.
For Bertrand, becoming Miss Evangeline is a reflection of her deep love and respect for her Cajun heritage.
“My dad’s dad, my grandfather, is descended from Nova Scotia and spoke Cajun French,” she said. “My grandpa lived in the Atchafalaya Basin so it’s a big part of our heritage, that’s why it meant so much to me.”
That deep-seated love and respect for her heritage likely helped the St. John High senior earn the title Miss Evangeline.
The International Acadian Festival and the selection of Miss Evangeline are organized by the local Knights of Columbus Council No. 970, Bertrand said, and the selection process is challenging.
She said first, the hopefuls must be residents of Iberville Parish, then a list is made up of the young women and a ballot is created. The members of the council then vote on 15 – one of whom will become Evangeline, the other 14 will be her princesses.
“We had 24 candidates this year,” Bertrand said. “This year, we had a tie, so I have 15 princesses.”
After the field is narrowed to 16, then they have to make it through a tough interview, she continued.
“We all go in and do an interview with three judges, three people that none of us know and none of them know us,” Bertrand said.
The interviewers have been presented with applications and headshots of the contestants, none of which can have anything that might influence the judges or give them a hint of who the interviewee is, she said.
“You can’t put your name, your school or your church on your application,” Bertrand said.
“When they pick the original 15, each girl is assigned a number,” her mother Missy said. “Zoë was just known as No. 4.”
“I actually didn’t think I would win because I was one of the first ones interviewed and they asked me some very serious questions, like, ‘Why do you want be Evangeline,’” Zoë said.
Having studied her heritage and the Acadians exile from Nova Scotia, Bertrand said she expounded on that during her interview. Later, she feared she’d been too serious.
“The other girls said they were asked questions like where would they take Evangeline to eat if she came here,” Bertrand said. “I was too serious, so I knew they were not going to choose me.”
Apparently, “that’s what the judges were looking for,” she continued. “I think it’s more about them trying to find the right personality.”
Bertrand is familiar with the story of Evangeline, a fictional character created by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow for a well-known poem.”
As the story goes, Evangeline arrived on a bayou in Louisiana in her unsuccessful search for her lover who had also been exiled.
“There were thousands of Evangelines,” Bertrand said. “Her story happened to many, many people in different ways, different varieties.”
“So it’s a true story – it really happened,” she continued. “Longfellow just took one instance of it and wrote a book based on it.”
As a girl growing up in Plaquemine, one would think becoming Miss Evangeline would be a big deal, an indication of her popularity. It was different for Bertrand.
“It’s not so much that it means so much to me as a teenage girl,” she said. “It’s really about someone who comes from the heritage and has valued it her whole life.”
Reigning over a stormy International Acadian Festival, Bertrand missed one of the most significant of her assignments, the symbolic arrival of Evangeline on the banks of Bayou Plaquemine.
She admitted being disappointed she didn’t get to ride down the bayou in a canoe to be presented to hundreds standing on the bank, Members of the Knights have assured Bertrand she will be able to fulfill that official duty as Evangeline in the future.
“I was more disappointed for the KCs because of all the hard work they put into it and there weren’t many people who ended up being there,” she said.
“Her arrival as Evangeline was one of the things we were looking forward to,” Zoë’s mother said. “It’s one of the most symbolic parts of being Evangeline.”
“I was told this is only the third time the arrival has had to be postponed,” Missy continued. “And in its 49 years, this is the only time the parade has been canceled.”
“We were disappointed but it was definitely the right thing to do,” she said.