“Leiria, Portugal is a town full of coffee shops, with a center that always has some event: folk dances and parades on Christmas, flea markets and 5k’s on Saturdays. The town is watched over by an enormous, 1000-year-old castle on a hill that I probably visited 20 times over the course of my Fulbright grant.

Towards the end of my grant in Leiria, I found myself at an end-of-year party on campus. The party was a sardinhada (sardine barbecue) for the senior citizen program at Instituto Politecnico de Leiria, in which I had taught an English class, together with three undergraduate students who served as my co-teachers. The students in the program, in their 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, had brought all sorts of traditional Portuguese food and music. A few minutes in I got pulled into a folkdance circle that went on for the entire event. I tried grilled sardines for the first time. I got to say goodbye to all my senior students after having worked with them for a year.
I remember feeling so lucky that I had been invited and chosen to come. Nowhere else would I have gotten to have that experience. Reflecting on it now, it feels like that event was a microcosm for my whole Portuguese Fulbright experience.

I did a lot of different things during my time in Leiria. I taught Portuguese and international students, in addition to my senior citizen students. I lead presentations and discussions on American and Portuguese culture and cultural competency for faculty and students, and I worked with Fulbright to help Portuguese students apply to study in the US. I improved my Portuguese through classes and my conversation partner. I had the first-time experience of acting as a mentor to the co-teachers who volunteered their time to teach with me. I was chosen to represent Fulbright Portugal at the EU-NATO Seminar in Luxembourg and Belgium. In addition to my grant duties, I took weekend trips to everywhere I could get to: Porto, Evora, Coimbra, Nazare, the Algarve, Lisbon…I even made it as far as Morocco. I got to hear about the Revolution from someone who had fought for it. I rode Lusitanos, horses native to Portugal. I got to watch the US play Portugal in the Leiria soccer stadium.

Before coming to Portugal, I had ideas about how I would contribute to the context that I was placed in, and for the most part I feel that I was successful. I think I represented the US well, and helped facilitate dialogue. I think I helped my students with their English, and I think I provided good resources for students who wanted to apply to school in the US or who needed help learning. What I didn’t have any idea of was the effect that Portugal would have on me, and the inimitable experiences that it would provide me with. These experiences are what have stuck with me and are what I will remember about my time in Portugal. ”

Kathryn Carpenter was a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant at Instituto Politécnico de Leiria, 2017/2018.