2022/2023 Fulbright English Teaching Assistant Hannah Bernier just finished her 9-month grant at Instituto Politécnico de Leiria and shares with us her reflection on her most-valued experience before she embarks in a new adventure back home.

Just nine months ago I was writing my biography for the Fulbright Portugal website.
Expressing my experience and expectations was slightly daunting. How could I set goals for my
time in Leiria, when I hadn’t the slightest idea of what lay ahead? My fingers paused on the
keyboard, then continued typing: “[I’m] looking forward to connecting with the people and
landscapes of Leiria.” Through my work at IPL and my personal explorations of community and
environmental wellbeing in Leiria, I believe that I’ve accomplished my modest goal, and more.

For the past nine months I worked as an English Teaching Assistant (ETA) at the Instituto
Politécnico de Leiria, School of Education and Social Sciences. I spent the first semester
shadowing English classes in the various disciplines offered at the school, from communication
and media to Chinese-Portuguese translation studies. After gaining experience in other
professors’ classes, in the spring I co-taught an advanced English course with my mentor, Mark
Daubney. In this course I had the opportunity to design lessons and assessments for the students,
and chose to focus on environmental communication as much of my previous work experience
had been in environmental education and outdoor guiding.

I created a project for the students–18 in total–in which they would produce and present a
digital environmental narrative that told a story of environmental change in their own lives. We
first reviewed podcasts, videos, articles, and poems about environmental themes and climate
change. By understanding the ways in which these artists created environmental hope from
environmental despair, we were then ready to embark on creating our own environmental
narratives. What the students produced was awe-inspiring: from stories of the 2017 wildfires in
Leiria that burned down 24,000 hectares of pine forest, to the importance of clean beaches as a
space for tranquility and mental health, the students produced touching, tragic, and ultimately
life-affirming narratives.

As my students were rediscovering or reanimating their relationships with the
environment, I was discovering Leiria for the first time. Leiria is a city of around 125,000
people, and is capital of the eponymous district that includes Nazaré and Fátima. In the morning
the fog from the ocean sits over the city, which often clears up by the time I’m on my way to
class. I would walk down to the Rio Lis almost daily, to read or run along the multi-use paths.
Though I mostly ran alone, save for the weekly running group I joined called Brisas do Lis, I
enjoyed sharing the riverside with fellow runners, walkers, and cyclists.

It became clear to me that Leirians care deeply for their community; people of all ages
and backgrounds find great joy in sharing spaces and stories. On any given night, young children
play in the parks along the river while their parents sit by watching and chatting at the nearby
café; older men smoke cigarettes and watch the waterfowl pick their way along the stones and
reeds; teenagers traverse the river path in search of food, friends, or excitement. We were all
connected by the river.

Through the stories of my students and my experiences living in Leiria, I understood how
vital a sense of place and a feeling of belonging are to continued wellbeing in a globalized space.
Though the benefits of internationalization reach far and wide, we must also remember that our
lives are finite, and that we must celebrate and support local communities–the traditions, the
environment, and the people. Though I return to my sprawling desert metropolis which has few
similarities to the compact, cobblestoned streets of Leiria, it is these memories–and the values
attached to them–that I bring back with me.