21 URI community members named Demers Fellows to study foreign languages overseas

KINGSTON, R.I. – May 10, 2023 – Twenty-one members of the University of Rhode Island community – 19 students, a faculty member and a staff member – have been named 2023 Beatrice S. Demers Foreign Language Fellows by the Rhode Island Foundation. 

The scholarships – collectively over $280,600 in grants – will allow the recipients to pursue foreign language immersion – many for a full academic year – in such countries as Chile, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Spain, Taiwan and South Korea.

First-year students Olivia and Sophia Zeyl of South Kingstown will be heading to the Korean Language Institute at Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea, from February to August 2024. Both were awarded full $20,000 grants, reducing their personal financial burden as they further their knowledge of a language they have largely learned on their own.

“This means a lot to us mainly because the Demers program decides the amount of the grant based on how much passion for language learning they see in the applicant,” said Liv. “That they saw enough passion and love for the Korean language in us to award us the full amount is a huge honor.” 

Liv and Sophie, identical twins in a family that includes three older sisters, started studying Korean during the pandemic after seeing a trailer for a Korean drama on Netflix and deciding to watch it. “Everything about it was so different and awesome compared to American media,” said Sophie. “By the end of the first episode, I had already fallen in love with Korean.”

Sophie says the sisters took a “systematic” approach to learning the language. They used YouTube and the Duolingo learning app to teach themselves Hangul, the Korean alphabet, and watched Korean dramas to improve their vocabulary, vernacular speech and listening skills. They also listened to Korean songs while practicing reading the lyrics. Last July, they added a tutor to improve their speaking and writing skills.

“I saw a challenge in learning this beautiful language and I fully enjoy the riddles that come with learning it,” Liv said. “I love how it sounds, how it has completely different grammar patterns than English, and that there are different hierarchical speech patterns you must use depending on who you’re talking to. I saw respect through speech in Korean culture that is missing in the U.S. nowadays, and it inspired me.”

This summer, Liv and Sophie, undecided students in the College of Arts and Sciences and part of the Honors Program, will take part in an eight-week immersion program in Korean at the Middlebury Language Institute. While URI doesn’t include Korean in its language program, the sisters hope to use outside language credits to apply for a bachelor’s degree from URI’s Global Language and Area Studies program. 

In South Korea, the twins are excited to see everything, from the tourist sites to the historical palaces, and learn more about the language and culture. “Being a twin means that there is always someone who will enjoy doing things with me and match my weirdness level with her own +1,” said Sophie. “We enjoy the same things and so when we’re together we always have a lot of fun watching K-dramas and listening to K-pop. Since we started this journey together I think it is really cool how we will be able to continue learning Korean side by side.”

Sara Hamada Mohamed of Swampscott, Massachusetts, will head in the fall to Santander, Spain, for the academic year, looking to achieve fluency in Spanish and fully immerse herself in the culture.

Sara Hamada Mohamed

“The Demers Fellowship means so much to me,” said Hamada Mohamed, a senior majoring in biomedical engineering and Spanish. “The ability to fully focus on my studies abroad without financial worries is something I am extremely grateful for and I cannot thank the Rhode Island Foundation enough. This opportunity to study at the Universidad de Cantabria for a semester and complete a six-month internship at a biotechnology company is truly an experience I will never forget and will learn so much from.”

Hamada Mohamed, a first-generation college student and first-generation American whose parents emigrated from Northern Africa in the 1990s, was attracted to URI by its International Engineering Program (IEP) and the opportunity to study abroad. Her choice of biomedical engineering was because of her father.

“A year after I was born, he was in an accident that left him wheelchair bound for life,” she said. “As a child, I was always hopeful that there could be something to help him stand up again, or that I could create a solution to improve his situation.”

Leslie Ortiz, of Newport, a junior in computer science, art and Japanese, will make her first trip to Japan in the fall, thanks to the Demers grant. She, too, was attracted to URI and the idea of learning a language and pursuing a STEM degree. 

Leslie Ortiz

A first-generation Guatemalan-American college student, Ortiz became hooked on web development in high school. At URI, Ortiz, a student in the International Computer Science Program, has combined her interests in STEM and art through visual design and programming. But she’s also been amazed by the work being done by fellow students and professors. She is assisting a computer science professor with research to better understand and address the challenges faced by marginalized individuals when using technology.

“Truly, getting this fellowship means ensuring that I will be able to learn and work abroad without any fear of financial burden, something I initially believed to be nearly impossible given my experience growing up in a low-income family,” Ortiz said. “Earning this fellowship has shown me it is possible to study abroad and there are resources available to make that dream come true.”

The fund is named for longtime URI language faculty member Beatrice Demers, who left $4 million to the Rhode Island Foundation upon her death in 2007 to endow the fund, ensuring that others could carry on her passion for foreign languages. Since the program’s inception, about 234 URI community members have been named fellows–receiving more than $2.7 million in combined grants.

The program is open to all Rhode Island residents and non-resident students who attend a Rhode Island college or university. Preference is given to URI applicants, including alumni, faculty and staff. URI students interested in applying should contact the Office of National Fellowship & Academic Opportunities.

URI’s other 2023 Demers recipients are:

Lucchina Breneville of East Bridgewater, Massachusetts, a major in Textiles, Fashion Merchandising and Design and member of the Chinese Language Flagship Program, will spend the academic year in Taiwan.

Lily Dissette of Newburyport, Massachusetts, a member of the International Studies and Diplomacy (ISD) and Chinese Language Flagship programs, will also spend the year in Taiwan.

Laine Fischer of Montgomery, New Jersey, a major in anthropology and history, will study Spanish in Chile.

Zachary Harden of Newport, a double major in Chinese and Japanese, will spend the summer in Taipei, Taiwan.

Owen Hefferman of Lexington, Massachusetts, a major in mechanical engineering and member of International Engineering Program, will study for the academic year in Germany.

Ethan Jedson of West Greenwich, Rhode Island, a major in finance and Spanish and member of the International Business Program, will spend the academic year in Spain.

Aidan Kindopp of West Chesterfield, New Hampshire, a major in chemical engineering and French and member of the IEP, will study in France.

Barbara Lunz of Massapequa Park, New York, a major in geological oceanography and member of the Chinese Language Flagship Program, will study for two semesters in Taiwan.

Patrick May of Newport, a student in the International Studies and Diplomacy program and major in Spanish, will study at the University of Granada in Granada, Spain, for the academic year.

Kathleen McIntyre of Warwick, associate director of the URI Honors Program and associate professor in Gender and Women’s Studies, will spend the summer in Mexico to perfect her professional and academic language skills in preparation for talks on her book, “Protestantism and State Formation in Post Revolutionary Oaxaca,” which has been translated into Spanish.

Jorge Menachio Aliaga of North Providence, a major in civil engineering and German and student in IEP, will study for the year in Germany.

Isabella Pizzo of Coventry, a major in political science, international studies, Italian and student in the ISD program, will study in Italy.

Patrick Raczkowski of Attleboro, Massachusetts, a major in mechanical engineering and German, will study for a year in Germany. He is a student in the IEP.

Colleen Rossignol of Providence, a part-time master’s student in international relations and full-time coordinator for global education and partnerships in the URI College of Education and Professional Studies, will spend the summer studying in France. 

Oskar Schnippering of Barrington, a major in electrical engineering and German, will study for the academic year in Germany. He is a student in the IEP.

Gianni Smith of Pawtucket, a major in electrical engineering and German and student in the IEP, will be headed to Germany.

Andreana Venezia of Port Jefferson, New York, a major in international studies and diplomacy at Italian, will spend a year in Perugia, Italy. She is a student in the ISD program.