PROVIDENCE — When Lenira Monteiro arrived in Central Falls from Cape Verde six years ago at the age of 16, she found that one of the biggest barriers she faced was learning an entirely new language.
“I had to push myself to learn English faster because people would tell me I couldn’t get into four-year institutions because my English was not that good,” she said. “That motivated me to prove them wrong and do what I know I could do.”
Always ready to prove doubters wrong, Monteiro’s motivation led her to Rhode Island College, where she graduated on Saturday with a double major in psychology and gender and women’s studies. But even as she arrived on the RIC campus four years ago, she still found that she had to face uphill climbs that some of her classmates didn’t have to scale.
“I had to put in extra effort as opposed to my classmates. I had roommates who were born here and whose English was their first language. I had to study more hours to get to the material and understand it really well,” Monteiro, 22, said. “I really focused in school a lot, always in the library. It was hard but not impossible. I had a great support system, it was hard work but I got through it.”
Since attending high school in Central Falls, Monteiro said she’s always known she wanted to pursue a career in psychology. But as she took an elective course in women’s studies during her sophomore year, she was able to explore a field that was entirely new to her.
“I liked the style of the course, the voice I helped develop in me,” she recalled. “I was very shy, I would not talk much, but then the women’s studies program encouraged me to develop my voice and share my opinions with other people.”
She also works as a residential treatment worker at Community Care Alliance, an agency that provides support in group home settings. Monteiro will be attending graduate school at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., this summer, where she’ll seek her master’s degree in social work and become the first of her 11 siblings to pursue a master’s.
“I really would like to open my own private practice one day. I’d really love to work with my Cape Verdean community and give back to the community where I came from,” she explained. “I really like working around issues of domestic violence and sexual assault. I’ve had an internship (at the anti-domestic violence nonprofit Sojourner House) … I know that it’s hard for immigrant communities to seek services like that because of the stigma that exists around those issues and the language barriers, but I want to encourage people to seek the services they need.”
Monteiro was among a group of 1,330 undergraduate students who graduated from RIC during Saturday morning’s commencement ceremony at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence.
Emma Gilbert, a 22-year-old from Lincoln who received her bachelor of science in finance on Saturday, is another RIC graduate ready to take her talents out into the world.
Gilbert initially attended RIC as a biology major but “quickly learned biology’s not for me.” She ultimately ended up in a finance class, which she “loved,” and began pursuing a major in the field.
But perhaps what she’ll remember the most from her four years at RIC was an internship from May to August 2016 at Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island in Providence, where she worked with refugees coming from war zones seeking asylum, helping to get them legalized.
“It taught me a lot. It’s not really finance-related but it’s people-related. It helped me refine my people skills,” she recalled.
Describing her summer at Dorcas International as “the most humbling experience of my entire life,” Gilbert said it showed a girl from a small town in Rhode Island how to get out of her comfort zone.
“It was so rewarding and I am so thankful I did it. It was unpaid, four months, a long time to put into something, but probably the best decision I made in college,” she said. “It taught me about the world, how the laws work, it changed my perspective of things and made me more grateful for all that I have. It was a summer of humbling and it was so amazing.”
The following summer, she interned at Fidelity Investments, where she’ll be working this June as a service program trainee.
“I’ve always liked math, I was always very good at it, but I never wanted to teach,” she said. “I started finance, it’s very math- and logic-based. I enjoy the critical thinking aspect and I quickly learned management all about critical thinking, which is such a good skill to have.”
“What I like about finance is you need analytical skills, critical thinking skills, it piques my interest. In the long run, I can work with people and help them,” Gilbert said. “Finance is scary for a lot of people, that’s their money, that’s a big deal. To help them understand different aspects is very rewarding.”
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