KINGSTON, R.I., May 17, 2016—When Arielle De Souza was a little girl she loved all things French: the Chanel suits; the creamy Brie cheese; the famous impressionists, including the great Monet.
Curiously, her language in high school was Spanish. She could’ve continued down that path at the University of Rhode Island, but decided to take a risk and start learning French at the age of 18.
Her hard work—and dedication to the French language and culture—has paid off.
In a ceremony on the Kingston campus May 19, the 23-year-old Brooklyn resident will receive the prestigious French Consulate in Boston Excellence Award, which is given every year to a New England college student who has promoted French language and culture. De Souza was chosen from seven nominees, and she is the only woman selected in the award’s three-year history.
“I’m still processing it,” says a gleeful De Souza. “It’s exciting to be recognized on such a large scale. The sky’s the limit.”
On May 22, she’ll graduate with a degree in French and ocean engineering from URI’s acclaimed five-year International Engineering Program. Next fall, she plans to return to France to get a master’s degree in engineering.
French officials say De Souza’s award is well-deserved: “Arielle has been amazing motivating her fellow students to study in France,” says Emmanuelle Marchand, culture attaché of the French Consulate. “She also has a great appreciation for the French language and culture.”
Growing up in the Canarsie neighborhood of Brooklyn, De Souza cultivated an interest in the sciences and ocean at a young age. One of her first childhood memories is calculating currency exchanges with her grandfather in his homeland of Trinidad and Tobago, twin islands in the Caribbean off the coast of Venezuela. “To get our favorite treats we’d have to figure out how many ‘TT’ dollars were in a U.S. dollar,” she says. “It was a great way to learn math.”
Gazing at the vast sea during those childhood trips to also led to an interest in marine life. Back in Brooklyn, her mother fueled that desire with weekly visits to the seals and dolphins at the New York Aquarium.
“Marine life captures science in such a beautiful way,” she says. “It’s breathtaking. We also don’t know all of marine life. In fact, we only know less than five percent of what’s in the ocean. So there’s so much left to explore. It’s a wonderful mystery.”
URI was her first choice. She knew she wanted to study ocean engineering, but wasn’t quite sure about her language. German was a possibility, though she settled on French because “there’s more water in France.”
At first, she felt intimidated learning a new language as a college freshman. The professors embraced her, providing tutoring and frequent chats in French, which, she says, were “amusant.” Fun.
“I just love the way French sounds,” she says. “The fluidity of it is beautiful.”
Her engineering classes were also inspiring—fluid mechanics, offshore structure design, fundamentals of ocean mechanics, engineering wave mechanics, coastal measurement and applications. In her senior capstone project she developed a tsunami detection algorithm.
She also excelled outside the classroom. The short list: peer ambassador at the International Center, where she helped international students transition to the University; tour guide in the Office of Admission; member of the National Society of Black Engineers; member of the Society for Women Engineers; orientation leader at University College.
But it was her 2014 year abroad that changed her life. She spent six months at the Université de Technologie de Compiègne in France and then interned for six months at a French engineering company analyzing storm surge on the French Atlantic coast. Weekends were spent hanging out with friends in Paris or traveling to Brittany and the South of France. She even learned how to make macarons and “drink real coffee, not the American watery version.”
“Living in France was the best year of my life,” she says. “It’s so important as a millennial to become a global citizen. You can’t fully understand yourself as a person until you’ve experienced another culture. We live in a global world.”
When she returned to URI, it was quickly apparent that she had a story to tell—and a good one. She was selected as student ambassador for the French International Engineering Program to promote France to her classmates.
“Arielle is a bubbly, energetic, outgoing student who is a great ambassador, always reaching out to others to break down cultural barriers,” says JoAnn Hammadou Sullivan, a URI French professor. “She recognizes the vital role of speaking the others’ language to be a true team player. She has a bright future as someone who will work across national boundaries—the citizen of the world that can make us all proud.”
France has a hold on De Souza—“a strong one,” she says. In August, she’ll return to her adopted country to get a master’s degree in offshore energy at a university in Nantes or Paris.
“My year abroad at URI took all the goals and dreams I had and made them 20 times bigger,” she says. “I can’t wait to go back.”
De Souza also captured another honor this month. She was one of 25 young “futurists” recognized by The Root, an online magazine of African-American culture.
She’s in good company. Other recipients include Marques Brownlee, the tech-reviewing sensation behind the booming YouTube channel MKBHD, Yara Shahidi, who plays Zoey on ABC’s Black-ish, and Jewell Jones, the youngest City Council member ever in Inkster, Mich., a suburb of Detroit.
“This is also an incredible honor,” says De Souza. “They recognized that I’m an African American woman in engineering and that’s huge. Women in the sciences are rare enough, but being a minority within a minority is a great accomplishment. 2016 is definitely starting off for me with a bang.”