Sara Gleason, a senior minoring in Portuguese and double-majoring in Spanish and International Studies, began studying Portuguese independently in the Winter 2021 term and found that she “really fell in love” with it.

It wasn’t long before Sara began taking Portuguese classes in RLL, starting with 280: Portuguese for Romance Languages Speakers and continuing on to 287: Advanced Portuguese Conversation and Composition.

“I met some of my best friends in the 287 course,” Sara remarked. “I got to meet so many amazing people both within the Portuguese program and outside of it.  Once you start learning a language you start seeing it everywhere.”

Her sophomore year, Sara participated in a Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP) project studying conditional cash transfer programs, led by Assistant Professor of Sociology Luciana de Souza Leão.

“This [research project] looked at welfare programs in Brazil, Mexico, and South Africa,” Sara said. “Looking at these programs comparatively, and looking at the political climate behind them. It started in the Global South, and these conditional cash transfer programs have influence in the Global North as well.”

Sara noted that within the conditional cash transfer programs she researched, “every month you receive a certain amount of money from the government, and to receive it, you have to abide by certain conditions, such as attend school, receive immunizations, visit the doctor frequently,  etc.”

“There is a lot of debate about their effectiveness,” Sara said. “I’m very passionate about these programs, and I would like to see this on a larger scale in the US.  It gives women economic freedom, and women’s empowerment comes with that. It helps people not worry about food scarcity; not worry about basic needs.”

Sara said through this UROP project, she experienced directly “how much learning different languages can influence and improve your research.”  

“My language has really helped me dive deeper into my research, Sara said. “It increases the amount of sources you’re able to read from, enriching your research overall.”

Additionally, Sara noted that Professor de Souza Leão “really took time out of her schedule to mentor me; she’s one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met.”

This past summer, Sara studied at the Caminhos Language Center in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil through the Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship program (FLAS).   She studied virtually for two weeks, then spent five weeks at the Language Center learning in-person.

“It was my favorite trip I’ve ever been on,” Sara said.  “I met people from all over the world, as Rio is a hub for international independent language schools. It is a great place to study.”

“There comes a point where learning a language stops becoming so much work, and being in Brazil helped me feel more natural speaking Portuguese,” she remarked.

Sara said she made connections with her UROP research while in Brazil.

“Seeing that these conditional cash transfer programs really make a difference, and seeing the same things my research mentor has been talking about,” stood out to Sara as she reflected on her experiences.

Sara said she found the skills she gained through her Portuguese coursework in RLL to be very helpful while furthering her Portuguese study in Brazil. 

“I really like that I didn’t have a fear of speaking Portuguese in Brazil,” she said. Sara noted that RLL Portuguese instructor Maria Teresa Segarra Costaguta Mattos ”really helped give us a lot of confidence.”

Back at U-M, Sara currently is the Vice President of the board of the Global Scholars Program (GSP), a living-learning community in North Quad. 

“It is a community of students from diverse backgrounds who come together to talk about global social justice and talk about cultural barriers and world events,” Sara noted.  “It is a space where you really learn from your peers and it is really special.”

“I love my experience here [in GSP]; I’ve become more aware of some of the difficulties and different experiences people have, and to be cognizant of those differences, and talk through our differences, and understand their reasoning,” she said.  “It really has changed the way I communicate with people.”

This upcoming summer, Sara plans to study abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  She also is currently working on a Fulbright application to teach English in Brazil, post-graduation.  In the future, she is interested in working in diplomacy in Latin America.

“I really love having my ideas challenged and learning new things,” she said. “I’m really interested in thinking about the world in different ways.”

Sara said U-M students who have questions about studying Portuguese in RLL or about the FLAS fellowship program are welcome to contact her at gleassar [at]