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Gaining a New Perspective

June 15, 2017

Rebecca at a botanical garden in Inhotim, Minas Gerais

Rebecca at a botanical garden in Inhotim, Minas Gerais
Rebecca Rethwisch at a botanical garden in Inhotim, Minas Gerais

Recent graduate Rebecca Rethwisch’s college experience was characterized by dual passions for running and for learning about languages and cultures. An avid runner since the age of 12, she ran on the University of Minnesota’s track and cross country teams. She pursued her passion for languages, cultures, and communication with a double major in Spanish and Portuguese studies and global studies, with an additional emphasis in strategic communication.

Rethwisch began learning Spanish in high school and knew that she wanted to continue studying it in college. Her previous knowledge allowed her to test into an advanced-level course, freeing up some credits, which allowed her to explore other classes and focus on her obligations as a two-sport athlete.

On a whim, she signed up for Portuguese for Spanish Speakers—a pivotal moment in her college career. Through that class, she discovered a love for the Portuguese language and the cultures of Portuguese-speaking regions that she has since pursued across four continents.

From studying to teaching abroad

Rethwisch spent the summer of 2014 in Lisbon, Portugal, supported by a FLAS fellowship, which provides government funding for students studying critical foreign languages. Her first immersive experience with Portuguese allowed her to deepen her understanding of the language, and also to develop lasting friendships with her Portuguese classmates.

Upon returning to the U for her senior year, Rethwisch sought out opportunities to use and bolster her language skills, continuing her studies and remaining an active participant in both the on-campus Spanish and Portuguese conversation hours. She had previously volunteered with Spanish-speaking youth in a local after-school program, and served as a group interpreter for an international conference of Catholic youth in Rio de Janeiro. Now, she was also able to utilize her Portuguese language skills, while finding many other short-term ways to practice both languages. Looking to bring her engagement to a new level after college, Rethwisch applied for a Fulbright grant to work as an English teaching assistant at a Brazilian university.

Rethwisch was awarded the scholarship, and left for Brazil in February of 2016, at the beginning of the Brazilian academic year. While there, she taught English in the Departamento de Letras at the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Rethwisch helped many of her students with their application essays for master’s programs in the US, and also taught them about American culture, politics, cultural cues, and about the system of higher education in the US.

She may have been an ambassador for American culture and language, but she was soaking up the culture and language of her host country. “It was wonderful to spend nine months immersed, speaking Portuguese, making friends, and learning about their culture,” she reflects.

A firm foundation

Rethwisch was well-prepared to live and work in Brazil. Her Spanish and Portuguese studies at the U gave her the practical skills she needed to navigate a new cultural context in a foreign language. She also credits the intimacy of her Portuguese classes, in particular, for helping her form strong connections to her peers and professors in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese Studies.

Departmental advisor Maryanne Williams, whom Rethwisch characterizes as “fantastic,” helped her balance a heavy course-load with a demanding athletics schedule. The coursework was engaging and rich in meaningful experiences, from reading poetry and performing Brazilian skits and plays in class with Professor Sophie Beal to learning about immigration in her course with Kathleen Ganley.

This foundation not only gave her confidence to try bold things like studying abroad and pursuing a Fulbright, but it influenced the person she has become. Rethwisch reflects on her Portuguese classes: they “prepared me for different ways of thinking, taught me empathy, and helped me understand other cultures.”

An evolving perspective

After living in Brazil, Rethwisch views the United States in a different light. Her time in Brazil changed her perspective, giving her insight on different ways of life. "Living abroad allowed me to leave my comfort zone and gave me the space to see myself and my own country from a different perspective."

Rethwisch is purposeful about continuing her education in her everyday life as both a college graduate and Fulbright alumna. She hopes to take the elements of her experiences as a student and a teacher to improve life in the US and abroad.

She recently completed a fellowship using her Portuguese in Cape Verde, an island country off the coast of western Africa. While there, she met with the US Ambassador to Cape Verde, and Cape Verde’s Advisor to the Minister of Defense, broadening her political and historic understanding of the island as well as her general global awareness.

Rethwisch has accepted an internship with the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations. She will be working with them in New York City at UN headquarters, using her majors and experience with multiple languages in a professional setting.

“The Portuguese language has changed my life and given me so many opportunities,” she says.

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.