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Ben Dobbs, a junior at the University of Delaware, will participate in a 10-month immersive Portuguese language program in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, before returning to UD to complete his studies.
Ben Dobbs, a junior at the University of Delaware, will participate in a 10-month immersive Portuguese language program in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, before returning to UD to complete his studies.

An immersive language experience

Photo by Kathy F. Atkinson

UD undergraduate student receives Boren Award to study Portuguese in Brazil

Ben Dobbs faced an important decision this spring, one no other University of Delaware student has had to make. The economics, Spanish studies, and Latin American and Iberian studies triple major from Pennsylvania was offered a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship from the nation’s premiere international scholarship program, but Dobbs declined the Fulbright to accept a Boren Award, a rare opportunity. He is one of only 215 undergraduate students from across the country selected for 2024.

Boren Scholarships and Fellowships focus on helping American students build expertise in geographic areas, languages and fields of study that are critical to U.S. national security interests and are underrepresented in traditional study abroad programs.

Dobbs, who is scheduled to graduate in 2025, will travel to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in July to spend 10 months studying Portuguese at the Caminhos Language Centre. 

Immersing himself in language and culture is not new to Dobbs. He came to UD for the World Scholars program, spending his first semester in Madrid, Spain, in fall 2021. He participated in a second study abroad program — this time in Granada, Spain — in spring 2023 before deciding to explore third and fourth languages. 

“I want to be a polyglot,” he said, referring to someone who is multilingual. “I hit the threshold with Spanish, where I had a level of competency, and I asked myself if I would be satisfied with speaking ‘perfect’ Spanish. The answer was no, so I looked at what else I could learn.” 

Portuguese is similar to Spanish but would take Dobbs to different parts of the world. He also added an Arabic minor to challenge himself with a non-Western language.

“I have been consistently impressed by Ben’s dedication to his language studies — first with Spanish, then Portuguese and, most recently, Arabic,” said Meghan Dabkowski, associate professor of Spanish, Portuguese and linguistics, who taught Dobbs’ first Portuguese classes at UD. “His time in Brazil will greatly refine his already excellent language skills. I’m so proud of him for this achievement.”

In applying for fellowship programs, Dobbs knew he wanted an immersive language experience. The Fulbright U.S. Student Program would have sent him to Spanish-speaking Colombia. 

“Time in the country really comes at a premium when you're learning a language, so if I could do the same thing and learn Portuguese, it would make more sense for me to take the Boren,” Dobbs said of his decision to study in Brazil.

Dobbs explained he is also excited to study in Brazil because of the country’s economic growth and defense partnership with the United States. 

“They are set to pass Canada this year as the world’s ninth largest economy,” he said. “In econ there are what we call BRICS countries: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. They are countries that are coming up economically and also politically.” 

Commitment to service

For Dobbs, serving his country was another important part of the decision. The Boren Award requires at least one year of government service, and Dobbs spent time researching what positions interest him. His ultimate goal is to work in the Foreign Service Office, but he is also considering a role as a consulate fellow in the State Department. Spanish, Portuguese and Arabic are three of the most in-demand languages for these roles, which fit perfectly into Dobbs’ plans. 

He sees the opportunity as a way to build bridges between nations. 

“Ideally, you want people with good intentions and with skills in government, and if someone is going to be working in foreign policy or international relations, they should have connected with those countries and cultures by learning the language, and by extension, learning the people,” Dobbs said.

“What Ben did is remarkable,” said Kristin Bennighoff, senior associate director of the Honors College and UD advisor for many national fellowships. “He is one of the hardest working students I’ve had with his willingness to go above and beyond researching options and editing his work.” 

Learning through movement

In addition to an intensive 30 hours a week of Portuguese, Dobbs will be studying Arabic online while in Brazil, and he has an interesting method planned for studying in his free time. 

“I read recently that our ability to memorize things increases while exercising, so I thought about forms of exercise that you can do while listening to something for a long time, and I thought of biking and running,” he said.

He currently reviews Arabic vocabulary every morning while stretching, and in Brazil he plans to train for a triathlon as a study tool.

Dobbs credits the support he received from Bennighoff and his friends and family for helping him navigate the application process. 

“My mom and grandma encouraged me,” he said. “They are such balls of energy and optimism — how could I not try to do this when they believe in me.” 

About David L. Boren Scholarships and Fellowships

David L. Boren Scholarships and Fellowships are sponsored by the National Security Education Program (NSEP), a major federal initiative designed to build a broader and more qualified pool of U.S. citizens with foreign language and international skills and are an initiative of the Defense Language and National Security Education Office (DLNSEO). 

Boren Awards provide U.S. undergraduate and graduate students with resources and encouragement to acquire language skills and experience in countries critical to the future security and stability of our nation. Since 1994, over 7,800 students have received Boren Awards. 

Students interested in applying for 2025 Boren Awards should contact the Honors College.

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