URI senior awarded Fulbright fellowship to teach English, U.S. culture in Brazil

KINGSTON, R.I. – May 5, 2021 – University of Rhode Island senior Wila Matos of Providence has participated in community service projects in Atlanta and Baltimore, studied Portuguese, sustainability and fisheries in Cape Verde, and mentored high school students at The Met High School. Now she is preparing to spend nine months in Brazil as the recipient of a Fulbright fellowship.

“I’m super excited and honored to be a Fulbright finalist,” said Matos, speaking from Cape Verde, where she is continuing her studies of Portuguese and Cape Verdean Creole and learning about the country’s culture. “We’re in a pandemic, so I don’t want to get my hopes up too much because we have to be considerate of people’s health, but I’m trying to be positive and optimistic that it’s still going to happen.”

Matos applied for the fellowship because she knew she wasn’t going to be ready to apply to graduate school immediately after graduation. So she sought non-traditional learning experiences that would prepare her to work in her community. She first considered the Peace Corps, but was advised that a Fulbright might be the best fit.

“The Fulbright program is all about community and learning from other people, and I realized that’s what I’ve always wanted to be a part of,” she said. “We have so much we can learn from other people, cultures and traditions, and it’s really important that we do that to make the world a better place.”

Beginning next February, Matos will teach English and U.S. culture at a university in Brazil that has yet to be determined. Her students will be those seeking to become English teachers. “When Americans go abroad, there is often a misconception about who we are and what we’re like, so my job will be to give them a different perspective,” she said.

Matos chose to go to Brazil in part because she wanted to hone her Portuguese language skills – she’s already Spanish-English bilingual –, but also because she is interested in Black history and wanted to learn about the Portuguese colonization of Brazil.

“When I return, I want to give back to my community, and because Providence has a big Portuguese and Cape Verdean community, there will be less of a language barrier for me,” she said.

Matos will graduate from URI this month with a degree in Africana studies. A first-generation college student who came to URI through the Talent Development Program, she made the most of her time in Kingston, serving as community service chair of the multicultural organization, Powerful Independent Notoriously Knowledgeable Woman (PINK), and mentoring incoming freshmen. She also led an alternative spring break trip to Baltimore to learn about poverty, homelessness and community revitalization one year after participating in a similar trip to Atlanta.

“We did this work mostly by talking to people about their issues and struggles,” Matos said. “We went to food banks and schools and different non-profits to do direct and indirect service. We wanted to talk and learn people’s stories so we could humanize their situation.”

She also spent three years working for her alma mater, The Met High School in Providence, leading orientation sessions for incoming students, helping Spanish-speaking students who needed help speaking English, and tutoring students as necessary.

All of these activities helped shape Matos’s college experience and guide her toward a career in community service.

“I don’t have my future planned yet,” she said. “But I know I want to continue to learn languages, I want to continue learning about different cultures, and I know that after the Fulbright I might be ready to get a master’s degree. After that, who knows?”

The U.S. Fulbright Student Program is designed to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries by providing high-achieving students with the opportunity to study or teach abroad.

URI students and recent graduates who are interested in applying to the Fulbright program should contact the URI Office of National Fellowships and Academic Opportunities for guidance and institutional endorsement.