Aufwiedersehen: URI students win grants to study foreign languages overseas

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Fellowships named for former URI professor Beatrice S. Demers

KINGSTON, R.I. – April 22, 2015 – Jeric Rodriguez always dreamed of studying in Europe, but money got in the way. “I saved every penny,” he says, “but still couldn’t afford it.”

In a few months, the University of Rhode Island engineering student will travel to Germany to study and work for a year, thanks to a fellowship started by a former URI professor.

Rodriguez is one of 18 URI students who won grants from the Beatrice S. Demers Foreign Language Fellows fund to travel overseas next year. The 24-year-old junior will be making his first trip to Europe.

“I’m a little nervous, but very excited,” he says. “This is a huge opportunity for me to see the world, and see what I can do in it.”

That’s exactly what Demers intended when she left $4 million to the Rhode Island Foundation after her death in 2007 to establish the fund.

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. She was fluent in French, German and Spanish and studied Chinese and Russian in her 70s.

This year, all of the 18 recipients are from URI. They shared a total of $220,000 to study and work in Germany, France, Spain, China, Brazil and Ecuador. The fellowships cover the cost of tuition, fees, travel, housing and living expenses.

Rodriguez ’17 will study mechanical engineering next fall at Technische Universität in Braunschweig, then work for a semester at a German company. He’s enrolled in the five-year International Engineering Program, or I.E.P., which offers a dual degree in an engineering field and a language.

It’s been a long journey for Rodriguez, who was born in the Philippines and moved to Rhode Island with his family when he was 2. Back then, his parents worked in a seafood packing factory in Point Judith to make ends meet.

After graduating from North Kingstown High School, he went to the Community College of Rhode Island for several years, before transferring to URI in 2013. Although his parents have new jobs – his mother is a medical assistant and his father works as a production operator at an electrical component manufacturer – Rodriguez is the first in his family to attend college in America.

“It’s a miracle I got this award,” he says. “Today we live in a world where you can’t be isolated. It’s important to experience other cultures and learn other languages. Also, I like to travel.”

Venice is on his wish-list.

Braunschweig is also the destination for Andrea Ayala ’16, another international engineering student who also has two firsts: first trip to Europe, and first in her family to graduate from college.

Born in Ecuador, the 21-year-old Central Falls resident moved to Rhode Island when she was 7 with her mother, a teacher’s aide, for more educational opportunities. “In Ecuador, your success is based more on who you know than merit,” Ayala says. “Here, it’s based on how hard you work and your ambition and drive to get ahead.”

Shane Kirkland ’17, of Coventry is heading to Spain, and Brenden Smerbeck ’17, of Narragansett, is off to France. They, too, are international engineering students. Smerbeck will study at an engineering university outside Paris, and Kirkland will take classes in mechanical engineering at a university in San Sebastián, a city in northern Spain, and work the second semester.

“The Demers is funding half my trip abroad,” says Smerbeck. “I’m humbled by the offer.”

After a semester studying in Braunschweig, Sarah Rheault ’17, of Wakefield, hopes to work at a rail transport firm, possibly in Berlin. Her field is industrial engineering, and she’s also in the international program.

“I’ve been planning on this trip for the past three years,” she says. “It’s a whole new place, and I can’t wait to check it out and use my German skills to communicate with new people and expand my engineering horizons and personal growth.”

A year is a long time away from home, so her parents plan to visit.

“I think they’re coming for Christmas,” she says. “I hope so.”

Applicants for the award were judged according to dedication to foreign language study; the likelihood that the proposed study program will promote foreign language fluency; and the diversity of languages studied and program types.

The program 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 winners include: Rachel Andronowitz of North Providence (Germany); Joseph Armendarez of South Kingstown (Ecuador); Emily Collins of Wakefield (Brazil); Caleb Gross of North Andover, Mass. (Germany); Claudia Krah of Hamden, Conn., (Germany); Kevin Murray of Jamestown (China); John Nielsen of Wakefield (Germany); John Paquet III of West Warwick (Germany); Jose Perez of Providence (Germany); Angela Reisch of North Kingstown (France); Christopher Salazar of Wakefield (Spain); and Michael White of Georgetown, Mass. (Spain).

Pictured above

Jeric Rodriguez, 24, of North Kingstown, a University of Rhode Island engineering student who won a Demers grant to study in Germany next year. Photo courtesy of Jeric Rodriguez.

Andrea Ayala, of Central Falls, a University of Rhode Island student who won a Demers grant to study in Germany. Photo courtesy of Andrea Ayala.

Sarah Rheault, 21, of Wakefield, a University of Rhode Island engineering student who won a Demers grant to study in Germany next year. Photo courtesy of Sarah Rheault.