Maia: How I Studied Abroad in Portugal and What I Did There

I’ve always loved being Portuguese. I was fortunate enough to visit the country of Portugal often as a young child, where I got to meet my mother’s Portuguese side of the family and become familiar with and comfortable in the culture. I grew up eating Portuguese foods and listening to my mom and grandparents speak the beautiful language. I even picked up some small bits eventually, but every time we left to return to the US I knew it wasn’t enough.


I’d always dreamed of returning to Portugal not as a young tourist but as a more mature student, as someone who could learn the language and explore the culture with a more determined and detailed perspective. And the summer after my freshman year of college at USC, I was able to turn this dream into a reality.


At first, I struggled. Even though USC offered Portuguese language courses, they didn’t seem to have any abroad programs in Portugal. Most programs, including the one through USC Annenberg, went to Brazil instead—and at that time, my parents didn’t feel comfortable sending me there in the midst of the presidential election troubles and Olympic game unrest. Thankfully, my Portuguese language professor at the time helped me find exactly what I needed—a reasonably priced, six-week-long language-intensive course in Portugal that offered everything a young student might need. And to this day it’s one of the best trips I’ve ever been on.


While abroad, the best word to describe me would definitely be busy. Whenever I wasn’t studying or in class at the prestigious Universidade Católica Portuguesa, you could find me on the streets: speaking, eating, listening, walking, observing, sitting, smiling. I took every possible moment to drink in the culture and lose myself in it, and Lisbon (or Lisboa, as I say it) still to this day feels more like home than any other place.


But even then it wasn’t enough, and I reached out to the program director to tell him that I wanted to feel even more connected and immersed. Sure enough, he introduced me to a Portuguese host family that felt more like an extended part of my own—people who took me on beach days, out for ice cream, and invited me into their own home for dinner every weekend until I left. I still talk to this incredible family, and they even met my own parents this past Christmas. They didn’t speak a word of English, yet they accepted me like their own daughter.  


It is thanks to this program and the incredible people in it that I am as close to fluency as I am today. Even though the program didn’t go through USC or Annenberg, my Portuguese professor here made it all happen, and also helped me find the right people to go to in order to be credited for the classwork I completed. On the streets of Lisbon, and the coasts of Cascais, and in the castles of Sintra, I found a beautiful new piece of myself that I’d only ever caught glimpses of before that moment. It’s a piece that is forever tied to the beautiful home country of my ancestors. And one day, I hope to take my USC Annenberg degree and return there.

Maia Lopes-Gilbert