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​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​RIC junio​r J​oshua Abreu at Cab​o da Roca in Lisbon, Portugal

Joshua Abreu was suddenly overcome with fear. The immediate source was a female voice, flat and affectless, announcing that flight 747 was now boarding. “What did I just sign myself up for?” he thought, standing in the terminal of Logan​ International ​Airport. “I think I’ve made a huge mistake.” 

The 20-year-old Rhode Island College student was headed to Portugal, where he would live and study at the Nova University of Lisbon for four months. Homeschooled from eighth to 12th grade, Abreu had never been apart from his family. As a college student, he had continued to live at home.

Now he filed into line, stepped through the door of the aircraft and smiled weakly as he was greeted by a flight attendant. He could have been entering a time machine on that day in early February. He didn’t know that by the end of May he would reappear from the bowels of a similar aircraft a different person.

“I changed more in four months than I had in my entire life,” the junior said, reflecting on his experience. “I’m no longer that homeschooled, introverted kid. I’m more confident and independent. My world view has also grown to encompass other views that sometimes contradict what my family believes. Rather than continue to repeat beliefs that were passed down, I’ve found out what I really believe in.”

​Joshua (left) paraglides in Interlaken, Switzerland

Abreu is first-generation American. His mom and dad were both born in Portugal. Though Portuguese was his first language, that changed when his younger brother was born. English became the dominant language spoken at home while his Portuguese, he said, “got rusty. It got to a point where I would have to pause to think about how to formulate a sentence in Portuguese.”

Today Abreu is once again fluent, thanks to an education major with a concentration in Portuguese and frequent visits to the home of his Portuguese-speaking grandmother. To continue to sharpen his language skills, Abreu was urged by his professors to study abroad. At the New University of Lisbon, he enrolled in four language courses while taking part in an internship at the Fulbright Commission in Lisbon, where he taught Portuguese high-schoolers how to apply to colleges in the United States.

With financial aid and four scholarships totaling $18,000, Abreu paid nothing out of pocket during his​ four months abroad and even had funds left over to travel to Spain, Greece, Switzerland and the Azores.

Joshua visits​ Park Güell in Barcelona, Spain

“I think a lot of students don’t consider studying abroad because they think they can’t afford it,” Abreu said, “but there are so many options for scholarships. They’re also afraid of being alone, as I was, but you make friends so quickly you’re never really alone.”

The skills Abreu developed from being on his own could never have been acquired at home, he said. “I spent three days in Spain, where there was no cell phone service, where I lived in a hostel and where I had to use a paper map to figure out how to get around the city. There I was, this homeschooled kid who never went anywhere by himself, alone in Barcelona. I had to figure things out for myself. I think every student needs that kind of experience.”

“Many RIC students are first-generation, commuter students like Abreu, who have very limited experience abroad or who have never gone abroad,” said RIC Director of Study Abroad Gersende Chanfrau. “When I suggest to students that they consider study abroad, they back up right away. They think it’s only for rich kids, so they exclude themselves. I want to let them know that study abroad is for them, too, and that I will be there from the beginning to the end of their journey. I like to say I’m the Study Abroad Mom.”

When a student comes in to talk to Chanfrau about planning a trip to another country, she focuses first on finding out who they are and what they’d like to do abroad. Then she gives them a handout of the steps involved in planning a trip. “I let them know that I’m going to be beside them every step of the way,” she said.

Gersende Chanfrau,​ faculty adjunct and director of the Office of Study Abroad​

At Rhode Island College, there are currently two ways to study abroad. You can go through a private company that specializes in study abroad programs or you can apply directly to the university where you want to study. In both cases, students are able to use their RIC financial aid to help finance their trip as well as study abroad scholarships,​ of which there are many.

A third option that Chanfrau is working on are international student exchange programs, where students attend a university abroad while Rhode Island College reciprocates by receiving students from that university. Unlike the first two options, exchange students pay RIC tuition using RIC financial aid.​

Chanfrau found that once students leave the United States, they tend to want to do it again. Abreu is now making plans to study abroad in Spain next year, to support his minor in Spanish. 

“I want to remind students that you don’t have to speak or even learn a foreign language to be able to study abroad,” Chanfrau added. “Abreu happens to be a language major. For a language major, there’s no better experience than living in another country and being completely i​mmersed in the language. Fluency increases exponentially.”

Abreu’s long-term plan is to continue traveling and to carve out a career in foreign language, such as translating Portuguese or Spanish, teaching English as a second language, or linguistics. When asked if he plans to live abroad, he answered, “Home is here. I’m very family oriented, like most Portuguese. I can’t see myself living too far away from home.” Rather, Abreu intends to launch from there, and these days he no longer has any qualms about takeoff.

To learn more about study abroad, the annual Study Abroad Fair will be held on Wednesday, Sept. 25, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.