Department of Spanish and Portuguese

College of Letters & Science
HomeRebecca J.

Rebecca J.

Major(s) and Certificate(s): 

History of Culture, History, Portuguese, Latin American & Iberian Studies (now LACIS) Majors; Integrated Liberal Studies & Global Studies Certificates

Graduation Year: 
1998 (BA), 2001 (MA), 2007 (PhD)
Current city: 
Cornwall on Hudson
Current state/province/country (if outside US): 
What have you done since graduating from UW-Madison?: 

I accepted the position of Assistant Professor of Portuguese at the United States Military Academy at West Point in New York.

Language(s) : 
What motivated you to study this/these languages?: 

At first, I studied language to get my retrocredits in Spanish. At the end of my freshman year, I knew that I didn't want to continue in that language, and yet, I wanted to study abroad somewhere. I am from New Lisbon, Wisconsin, and had been writing to a Portuguese pen pal since high school. When I learned that UW-Madison had a strong Portuguese program and a study abroad program at my pen pal's college (the University of Coimbra), I started taking Portuguese classes. After one year of study, I spent my junior year abroad at the University of Coimbra and the rest is história.

How have these languages enriched your life?: 

Learning Portuguese has changed my life completely. I consider myself exceptionally lucky that I am able to use my language skills every day. My choice of language has taken me to some of the most amazing places in the world. I also think that speaking a second (non-native) language makes me a more interesting person overall, and more patient and tolerant of people in general.

What do you remember about your UW language classes? How were they different from other classes you took?: 

I remember that my initial language classes were fun, as the teachers were dynamic. My upper-level courses (taken once I returned from my study abroad experience) were challenging, but interesting. The classes were smaller, which allowed for a greater sense of community within the majors (and then MA and PhD), and the faculty was very accessible. When it came time to choose a graduate school after my BA, I honestly didn't consider too many other schools as there really wasn't any reason to leave and UW-Madison has one of the strongest MA/PhD programs in Portuguese in the country. That made it really easy to stay!

How valuable were your out-of-classroom experiences?: 

Study abroad influenced (and still influences) my life in a fairly dramatic fashion. It taught me so much more than merely learning a language. I had grown up in a fairly insular and small farming community in Wisconsin, so when I saw my first mountain, it was Portuguese. The first time I saw the ocean was as the flight circled down into Lisbon. It was so beautiful and so different. Then I found myself in a place where no one looked like me, no one talked like me and I realized that I was going to starve if I didn't start figuring out a way to adapt to my new environment. I remember being called "an American" for the first time, which I guess I had always just taken for granted. In many ways, living abroad allowed me to discover new things about myself, but it also reaffirmed much of who I was. In a funny way, it made me even more American, even more proud of where I came from and who raised me. I learned that other countries function in different ways, and that that is OK, too!

How have you maintained or improved your language(s) since graduation?: 

I use my language skills every day. I teach Portuguese language, literature, and culture to undergraduate students (cadets) every year. I travel a considerable amount to Portuguese-speaking countries and I've set up multiple semester abroad opportunities for my students (as my professors at the UW-Madison had once done for me.) I know that not everyone pursues the PhD in their language, but it always felt like the right thing for me to do and I don't regret my decision at all. I have an amazing life.

What advice do you have for current language students?: 

Don't compare yourself, or how you learn a language, to anyone else. Everyone learns a language differently. There is always going to be someone better than you, who knows more vocabulary or speaks more fluently. That should never stop you from trying to improve your own language skills. Accept that you don't know everything about the language, and can't possibly know everything, as you're not a native-speaker. You can still develop —and that learning never stops. There is always something new to learn, some new word to discover and add to your lexicon. Language learning is a continuous process of improvement, so focus on learning for "you."

What is your favorite word or phrase in a language you know?: 
Umbigo—"belly button"