UCLA International Institute, November 7, 2013 — Michelle Sinness grew up hearing her one living grandmother speak Portuguese. At the time, however, she never foresaw that she would become the first grandchild in the family to speak the language fluently.
As a senior in high school, confesses Sinness, she wasn’t focused on college. Instead, she decided to travel. So she went to her grandmother’s homeland, Brazil, and taught advanced English classes (a job that, fortuitously, didn’t require her to speak Portuguese!). There, she had her first immersion in both the language and Brazilian culture.
When Sinness returned home, she resolved to formally study Portuguese. After two years of community college, she transferred to UCLA with a declared double major in the language and in global studies, one of the International Institute’s Interdisciplinary Programs.
Prior to her fourth year of undergraduate studies, Sinness applied for an academic year Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) Scholarship (provided through the U.S. Department of Education’s Title VI Program) adminstered by the UCLA Latin American Institute.
The scholarship, which covered most of her tuition for the year plus some living expenses, enabled Sinness to cut her work hours and focus on studying Portuguese for the entire year. “That was really beneficial,” she notes.
The scholarship also required that she take one area studies courses a semester, giving her deeper exposure to both Brazilian history and U.S. foreign policy towards the country. “I walked out of that year feeling much more like an expert in Portuguese, Brazil and the Lusophone world in general,” she shares.
The year of intermediate-advanced Portuguese was very difficult, but fruitful. At one point, the only class her schedule would permit was a master’s-level seminar in Portuguese literature. She petitioned the relevant department and was admitted, only to face the steep challenge of reading virtually a short novel and writing a paper a week in Portuguese. “That was really hard,” she says, “I don’t think I slept that entire quarter.”
From advanced to fluent, and ambitious
Despite her achievements, Sinness still felt she hadn’t quite broken the barrier to fluency. So she applied for and received another FLAS fellowship, this one to study Portuguese in Brazil for the summer. Those three months, she relates, finally got her there. “Now I feel so much more confident reading, writing and speaking Portuguese,” she says.
As luck would have it, Sinness ended up in Brazil during summer 2013, when a wide social protest movement blossomed in response to government investment priorities.
“I was dying to go there when I started hearing about the protest movement because of my study of international relations,” she comments, “It tied in so perfectly." Sinness enrolled in UCLA's travel study program in Salvador, Bahia. The program, "Portuguese Language in the Brazilian Context," provides students with six weeks of intensive language instruction. Sinness also completed an additional research project on the social movement, "I would not have been able to study abroad without the FLAS funding,” she says.
Perhaps most surprising to Sinness, the original year-long FLAS fellowship prompted her to apply to become a Departmental Scholar for Latin American Studies, which permits students to complete a B.A. (in her case, a double B.A.) and M.A. in five year’s time.
“I would have never applied to the [combined B.A.-M.A.] program without the FLAS award,” she says, explaining that the academic rigor of the scholarship year gave her the confidence to pursue a master’s degree. “It’s been a wonderful experience,” she recounts.
Looking ahead, Sinness is excited to be completing her studies. She graduates in June 2014 with a B.A. in global studies, a B.A. in Portuguese and an M.A. in Latin American Studies — a big achievement for someone who used to consider herself a nontraditional student! Sinness hopes to find work in humanitarian aid and relief work, either in Latin America or Lusophone Africa. Given her record to date, it’s unlikely she won’t meet with success.
The purpose of the FLAS program is to promote the training of students who intend to make their careers in government service, college or university teaching, or other employment where knowledge of foreign language and cultures is essential. FLAS fellowships are available through the Latin American Institute for the study of Portuguese, Quechua and Advanced Spanish. FLAS fellowships awarded for the academic year require enrollment in one language course, and one area studies course per quarter. Summer FLAS fellowships support intensive language study in the U.S. or abroad.
For more information about FLAS requirements and the application process, come to the FLAS INFORMATION SESSION on November 14, 2013 at 12 pm in the Young Research Library Conference Room.