David Washington ’09 graduated summa cum laude from the University of Florida in 2009. He then served as a Youth Development Volunteer in the Peace Corps in Honduras, where he lived in a small town called San Juancito, situated high up in the mountains outside of Tegucigalpa. “Honduras is a place of great beauty, but also great suffering,” he observes of his time there.

In 2011, he moved to Santa Rosa, California, where he worked for an organization called the Seneca Center. Not only was it a meaningful experience for David, but it was also one where he says his fluency in Spanish continued to play a role. He worked with young men who had run-ins with law enforcement, and who were working on taking their lives in new directions. Many of them spoke Spanish and English, and many had parents who only spoke Spanish. David is well aware of the importance of his ability to communicate in Spanish: “It’s impossible to tell how much less help I would’ve been able to provide had I been unable to communicate with them.”

David Washington standing in courtroom
David Washington

“My exposure to the Spanish language has shaped my life immensely.”

In 2012, David began law school at the University of Pennsylvania. Philadelphia has a large Puerto Rican community, and he says he found himself taking the train northeast to eat mofongo so that he could connect with those cultural roots. For the first time, he says, he also looked inward in an effort to understand why he felt the need to seek out those cultural connections. “I came to realize that a language isn’t just sounds and structures; it’s a complex web of feelings, musical notes, flavors, hugs, kisses, smells, fears, hopes, and heartbeats. The sounds that compose the language are the apogee of all these human things. And once you feel these new hues, they become indispensable to your wellbeing.”

David graduated from law school in 2015. When SPS caught up with him for this update, he was in San Juan, Puerto Rico, working as a term law clerk to the Honorable Carmen Consuelo Cerezo—the first Latina chief district judge in the history of the American federal court system. In the seven years since his graduation from UF, David says he has found immense comfort in his ability to connect with 560,000,000 new human beings, the majority of whom live in the Americas. He recognizes that learning Spanish, or any language, takes much more than classroom instruction, but notes that the classroom provides an indispensable foundation. And for that, he says, “I cannot overstate my gratitude to the department.”

Andréa Ferreira is SPS’s newest faculty hire. She joins our department as a lecturer in Portuguese, in charge of teaching language and culture classes and developing courses for our soon-to-be-created Certificate in Portuguese for the Professions.

Andréa was born to a close-knit family in Petrópolis, a historic mountain city close to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Andréa recalls Petrópolis as “a small town, where you could walk anywhere, where it was safe, and where everybody knew your name.” In 1996, her family moved to Coral Springs, Florida, where Andréa attended high school. After considering several US Ivy League institutions for college, she chose to continue her education at the University of Florida. “I was really happy in Gainesville, and felt at home for the first time since leaving Brazil,” she reminisces.

“My plan is to continue to care for and learn from students.”

By the end of her third semester at UF, the US government had discarded many applications for permanent residency as result of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Although allowed to remain in the US, applicants had to restart the process from zero, so Andréa’s mother decided to move back to Brazil in 2002. Andréa followed, after graduating magna cum laude from UF in 2004.
Shortly afterward, Andréa moved back to Florida to pursue a Master’s degree in nineteenth-century Brazilian literature under the guidance of Dr. Elizabeth Ginway.

As a graduate assistant teaching Portuguese, Andréa’s enthusiasm and dedication won her, among other honors, the prestigious Calvin A. VanderWerf Award in 2009 for outstanding teaching. After finishing her MA thesis on Brazilian Literature, she was accepted as a PhD candidate in UF’s Department of History. Andréa says: “After five years in the History Department, I knew my mission was to teach about Brazil, its language, history, peoples, and cultures.”

Her doctoral dissertation, under the direction of Dr. Jeffrey Needell, is entitled “Discovering Gilberto Freyre: Race, Identity and (Trans) National Narratives in Twentieth-Century Brazil.” Andréa’s interest in Gilberto Freyre, who played a key national role in changing the image of Brazil abroad, inventing and propagating the notion of a racially harmonious nation, stems from her own experience as an international student. “My own MA thesis and PhD research have given me the tools to teach both literature and history courses, in either Portuguese or English. I hope to teach more interdisciplinary Portuguese classes in the context of Brazilian regional cultures and social dynamics, literature and history, and race and national identity.”

Last summer the Departments of Spanish and Portuguese Studies and Biology co-sponsored a six-week study abroad program in Cuzco, Peru. The 16 students who participated in the inaugural offering of the program took two courses taught by UF faculty:  “Spanish Service Learning” (SPN 3948 – Dr. Greg Moreland, of SPS) and “Emerging Disease in the Americas” (ZOO 4956 – Dr. Tom Hladish, of Biology). A key element of the student experience was their weekly volunteer work performed in service placements located throughout the medical community in Cuzco. These experiential learning opportunities allowed students to increase their Spanish proficiency, explore Peruvian culture, better understand health-related systems, and make meaningful connections within the community. Homestays with welcoming Peruvian families provided further exposure to local customs.

Student Reflection: Brittany Fischer

Student Reflection: Brittany Fischer
Brittany Fischer

“I know myself better and view others with an open, optimistic mind.”

Studying abroad with UF-in-Cuzco was a life-changing experience [… ] When I recall the splendor of the Andes at Machu Picchu and the floating islands on Lake Titicaca, where the s unique agrarian lifestyles are still preserved, I am reminded that there is so much beauty in the world, both in nature and people. As a result of my experiences abroad, I am more culturally aware, curious, flexible, and eager to travel the world. I have made Peruvian and American friends, fallen in love with fluffy alpacas and improved my Spanish-speaking abilities. By putting myself in challenging situations and embracing my role as a service learner, I know myself better and view other cultures with an open, optimistic mind. Through my volunteering at the dental clinic Centro de Calidad Grupo Yamez, I learned first-hand how health care and culture interact and was able to develop my interpersonal skills by working directly with patients. This will help me when communicating with Spanish-speaking patients in my future as a dentist as I strive to reduce barriers to care. I have learned that although we might differ in terms of appearance or culture, we can embrace and respect our differences.

UF in Cuzco also featured a wide array of activities and excursions. The faculty directors and the 16 students enjoyed welcome and farewell dinner parties, visits to local cultural sites, classes dedicated to Peruvian cuisine and the Quechua language, and phenomenal weekend trips to Puno and Lake Titicaca, the Sacred Valley, and Machu Picchu.  Student evaluations of the program were overwhelmingly positive, and the catch phrase “blown away” became somewhat of a mantra during their six weeks there. Students and faculty alike were fascinated by all that they experienced during their time in Peru.  The program achieved the desired balance of academic rigor, cultural appreciation and good plain fun.

Both departments are already looking forward to UF in Cuzco 2017!
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Although Valerie Jepson had known from an early age that she desired to travel and to “explore the wonders of the world,” it was not until she was halfway through her Bachelor’s degree in Math that she was introduced to the Spanish-speaking world. Valerie had decided to serve a mission for her church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She was assigned to the Spain Las Palmas Mission in the Canary Islands, with the expectation that she would learn Spanish. As her proficiency in Spanish began to emerge, her interest in the people and the culture also began to expand to include more than just tourist attractions. After completing her mission and returning to school, she immediately registered for four Spanish courses. The first Linguistics class that Valerie took was Spanish Phonology and Phonetics, in which the scientific explanation and formulaic descriptions of sound formation captured her interest, and neatly tied her math background to her newly formed language interests—and of course markedly improved her pronunciation!

“I want … my students to… leave the class with positive memories that will hopefully make them better global citizens.”

Valerie’s dissertation investigates the language acquisition process of people who are learning Spanish, as she did, on a mission. Research suggests that most late second-language learners never acquire native-like pronunciation, even if they are able to mostly master the other aspects of language. But Valerie proposes that mission work affords participants opportunities to use a second language to accomplish their duties in an intensive immersion environment, coupled with high motivation, despite a relative lack of formal language training. As such, this setting offers a unique glimpse into how effective pronunciation acquisition might happen. While Valerie’s main focus is pronunciation, she also looks at other factors, such as attitudes and motivation, in an attempt to correlate several variables with successful language acquisition. Valerie successfully defended her dissertation on December 2, and is currently applying for academic jobs for the coming year.

Given her personal and professional experiences with missions, with UF’s Dominican Republic Service Learning program and with the Cuernavaca Mexico Accelerated Spanish program, Valerie is an ardent advocate of study abroad and accelerated learning. The growth that students can experience in a short amount of time when they are focused exclusively on a language never ceases to amaze her.

Whitney Koonce, who completed her MA in Hispanic Linguistics with us in 2015, was killed in a car accident in June of 2016. We were all saddened to learn of her tragic passing. Everyone who worked with her, students and faculty alike, remembers her infectious laughter, her seemingly permanent smile, and an enduring goodwill, regardless of the time of the semester or how difficult coursework got. We have chosen to honor the memory of her good nature by establishing a yearly award in Whitney’s name, in recognition of a graduate student in the department of Spanish and Portuguese studies who has demonstrated tenacity and kindness during their time here.

Whitney Koonce
Whitney Koonce

Everyone who worked with her remembers her infectious laughter, her seemingly permanent smile, and an enduring goodwill.

Donations in memory of Whitney can be made by check or online. Checks should be made payable to UF Foundation with SPS Fund 16099 – Whitney Koonce memorial gift referenced in the memo and mailed to UF CLAS Development PO Box 117300, Gainesville, FL 32611. Online donations can be made at www.uff.ufl.edu/appeals/SPS, with “Whitney Koonce memorial gift” in the comments section. The UF Foundation is a 501(c)3 organization; therefore, your gift may be eligible for a charitable contribution income tax deduction.
For questions about making a donation, contact Christy Popwell.