Q&A: How studying Portuguese helps to look at life through a different lens
Theo St. Francis is an MIT senior majoring in aeronautics and astronautics. He is graduating this month with a concentration in Portuguese, and has visited Brazil with the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives’ Global Teaching Labs.
This year, St. Francis was the recipient of the Global Languages Margarita Ribas Groeger Distinguished Scholar award. In this Q&A, he describes how studying Portuguese fit into his undergraduate experience, and how it has broadened his world view.
Q: What attracted you to aeronautics?
A: I have always been enthralled by rocketry and aeronautics. I love thinking about what humanity can do to push its limits — originally watching space shuttle launches, and now with the era of SpaceX, launching human-crewed missions from the U.S. again, and other up-and-coming launch providers and development of a space economy. A lot of the technologies that underpin our modern world were brought about through development of space technology. An incredible amount of funding, especially in the ’60s, was put toward developing technologies that we use today — everything from materials and memory foams and LEDs to telecommunications, GPS. Much of what we know about the Earth, we know through satellite imaging. It was through looking back on our Earth for the first time, photos like the famous Earthrise from Apollo 8, and what we learned from the Apollo moon landings — these really made us think about our place in the universe.
Q: The idea that you must travel beyond your own world, and view it from the outside, to gain perspective on it seems related to your interest in travel and studying Portuguese.
A: True, that’s a nice connection! Through my study of Portuguese, I’ve been able to look at my own experiences through a different lens. That is, everything from having different vocabulary with which to comprehend my experience, to thinking about my own cultural customs. There are so many different ways of interacting as a family, as a community, in the school environment — and viewing these from the perspective of another cultural is super valuable. There are a lot of things that are very similar, and a lot of things that are very different between Brazil and the U.S. Of course, Portuguese is not only spoken in Brazil, but that’s the country that I’ve had the most intimate exposure to. My experiences in Brazil have impacted how I see political challenges, like issues related to the two countries’ histories of racial oppression, and how that plays out today in society and culture. Exploring these issues has been another really rich way to understand my place in the world.
Q: How did you first decide to study Portuguese?
A: I have always loved Brazilian music. I grew up with Sérgio Mendes and Stan Getz. I spent a number of years taking time away from school, recovering from a spinal cord injury, and I used to listen to the Sérgio Mendes album “Encanto” to ground me and help me cope. The music — even the album artwork — is very bright. It evokes the “País Tropical” (to quote Jorge Ben Jor). It brought a brightness and vibrancy to me at a time when I didn’t have a lot of that in my life. Even though I couldn’t understand any of the words, it was a very cheery influence. Then, in the fall of my sophomore year, I applied to Global Teaching Labs. Rosabelli [Coelho, managing director, MIT-Brazil] sent a group of six of us to São Paulo and São Carlos. That was January 2020, just before Covid. We taught engineering workshops to middle and high schoolers. It was an immersive and transformative experience. I spoke very little Portuguese at the time, though I had some rudimentary Spanish. Over the course of a month, I got to a place where I could give directions, mostly in Portuguese, so the students could understand well enough. For some of these students, it was their dream to pursue robotics at MIT. It just struck me that these kids were in some ways more deserving than me or many of my colleagues — just looking at how much they’d accomplished with much more limited resources. It was such a humbling experience. I came back thinking that I wanted to return to Brazil; and when I returned I wanted to speak Portuguese! So, I started taking classes.
Q: How did studying Portuguese fit into your undergraduate experience at MIT?
A: The process of language learning has been an incredibly refreshing time during my week. It uses a very different part of my brain and is a wonderful bit of variety when I’m taking other engineering classes. Nilma [Dominique, lecturer in Portuguese] has done a remarkable job of bringing in the historical and cultural contexts through the language study, and I think that has not only brought relevance to the language learning but has made for a very rich immersion in general. Through the classes I’ve also had exposure to Portuguese-speaking communities — both on and off campus, which I’ve really cherished. Also I’ve been exposed to music, film, and poetry — just whole new modes of expression — that have added incredible richness to my undergrad experience.
Q: How do you see this playing out in your future as you prepare to leave MIT?
A: I have no idea beyond the next year! I will be interning in Denver this summer, and I start my PhD in aerospace at Georgia Tech in January. But between those I will be returning to Brazil through MISTI. I will be working with a lab which is derivative of MIT’s D-Lab that does mechanical and development engineering for projects which relate to women’s issues and women’s rights. This particular project has to do with temperature control, heating and cooling, in the communities around São Paulo, where often the dwellings and electricity access are somewhat improvised, so the infrastructure is challenging. I recently heard an MIT professor with roots in Brazil that his belief was that Brazilians are more inventive and entrepreneurial than Americans, but they just have less infrastructure. I’m really looking forward to learning from my future colleagues and the communities we’ll be working with … as well as improving my Portuguese.
Q: If someone wanted recommendations from you, in terms of Brazilian music or film, what would you suggest?
A: I have recently gotten into an album called “AmarElo,” by Emicida. There’s a couple of films on Netflix of his live concerts in São Paulo. His music is very powerful and reflects an incredible confluence of influences from Brazilian rap culture. He speaks to many cross currents, especially on race, in Brazil today. Also, I’d recommend the Netflix series “Coisa Mais Linda” (Girls from Ipanema). It takes place in 1959 in Rio de Janeiro — the time and place where bossa nova emerged. It deals with gender roles, especially for women, in that time in Brazil. And it’s a gorgeous series.
Q: Any final thoughts?
A: My experiences in Brazil really showed me the responsibility I have to bring the things that I’ve learned at MIT, and pay those gifts forward to the world. There was something our host in South Africa told our students this January for GTL [Global Teaching Labs] that really stuck with me. He said, “This is an incredible opportunity to have MIT students here to learn from. But also remember that these kids are no different than you. They just were fortunate enough to be born in a first-world country and have resources available to them. They’ve done the same thing you’ve done with what they were given. They just started from a different place.” And I thought that was a really potent and appropriate way to start off the collaboration with these high schoolers. I think it’s our responsibility to recognize that privilege and to think about how we can make good on the gifts that we’ve been given. My studies in Portuguese, and the opportunities I’ve received to interact with people in Brazil, have really given me context for how to do that going forward. I’m incredibly grateful for the support of Nilma, Rosa, Global Languages, and MISTI in these pursuits.