KINGSTON, R.I., June 7, 2017—Laura Parra knows how to carry on a conversation in Spanish about, say, the weather, but ask her to gab about a more technical topic like the sciences and she’s at a loss.
That will change, thanks, in part, to a fellowship started by Beatrice S. Demers, a former University of Rhode Island professor who had a love for languages and the world.
Parra is one of 17 students at the University of Rhode Island who won grants from the Beatrice S. Demers Foreign Language Fellows fund to study and travel overseas. One recent URI graduate also received an award.
A Pawtucket resident, Parra will soon travel to San Sebastian, Spain to spend her fall semester at the University of Navarra, where she’ll take courses in biomedical engineering, her field of study at URI. The second semester she’ll participate in a full-time engineering internship, possibly at a biomedical company in Costa Rica.
For Parra and the other recipients, the Demers award means the difference between studying abroad and staying home. Parra said her award will cover rent, food, living expenses and travel costs.
“I’m so excited and appreciative,” she says. “I don’t have to take out loans for my year abroad. It’s a big weight off my shoulders.”
Demers spent her life teaching foreign languages, first to students in the Pawtucket schools and then to students at URI, where she taught for more than 30 years.
After her death, she left $4 million to the Rhode Island Foundation to establish and administer the fund. This year, the URI students are sharing about $210,000 to study in Germany, France, Italy, Taiwan and Jordan—in addition to Spain. The fellowships cover the costs of tuition, housing and travel.
Born in Manizales, Colombia, Parra moved to Rhode Island with her parents and brother when she was 5 years old. She’s been back to Colombia several times, but has never been to Spain, or Europe for that matter.
“I’m sure this is going to be a great learning experience for me academically and personally,” she says. “I can’t wait.”
In her fourth year of the five-year Spanish International Engineering Program, Parra has signed up for classes overseas, all taught in Spanish, that will help her become fluent in the lexicon of biomedical engineering.
“It’s going to be a challenge, but I’m looking forward to it,” she says. “This will definitely sharpen my language skills—and help me in my career.”
And that career involves selfless work back in her home country. After graduation in 2019, Parra hopes to return to Colombia to make prosthetic limbs for amputees, including many who lost limbs stepping on land mines buried during decades of conflict between the government and rebels.
“I want to give back to my community,” she says. “I want to help people have a better future and do things they weren’t able to do before.”
Haleigh Staradumsky, a sophomore from Warwick, is also heading to Spain; she’ll study for a year and live with a family. Her destiny, she says, is to teach Spanish in a Rhode Island high school.
She’s nervous, but in a good way. “That language barrier can be tough, especially when people are speaking slang and that kind of thing,” she says. “I’m living with a family to get the total immersion experience.”
She’s grateful for the Demers award: “The Spanish language really clicks for me. Being able to speak to people in their own language is special for me. It’s hard to explain. I love it.”
Evan Cummiskey, also of Warwick, is using his Demers award to help pay for his junior year abroad in Amman, Jordan. In the fall, he’ll start an intensive Arabic language program at the University of Jordan and take a full load of Arabic language courses, as well as electives in Arabic. He also has to honor a 24/7 Arabic-only pledge in conversation.
“Words cannot begin to describe how happy I am to receive the Demers grant,” Cummiskey says, in an email from Oman, where he’s spending the summer. “It will take me one step closer to mastering the Arabic language. That’s my dream.”
The Demers fund is open to all Rhode Island residents, not just students. Non-resident students who attend a Rhode Island college or university are also eligible. Preference is given to URI applicants.
The other Demers recipients are Kayla Butts of South Kingstown (French), a URI graduate teaching French at the University; Nathan Callanan of Providence (Spanish); Zachary Davies of Presto, Pa. (German); Carlos Diaz of Smithfield (French); Montara Erickson of South Kingstown (German); Chelsea Fox of Westerly (French); Mitchell Golde of Cranston (German); Alexander Jimenez of Providence (Chinese—Taiwan); Rich Lisi of Cranston (Italian); Stasha Medeiros of Cumberland (French); Cherish Prickett of Lilburn, Ga., (German); Anne Reisch of Westerly (German); Scott Selig of Groveland, Mass., (German); Zachary Smith of North Kingstown (German); and Hannah Willey of Schenectady, N.Y. (Spanish).