Filipe Fernandes is among the latest generation of young men and women who deal with diversity better than any generation before them. This RIC graduate has gone from an insular community to a global one.
After earning his bachelor’s degree in 2014, Filipe Fernandes joined AmeriCorps. Two years later he joined the Peace Corps. On Sept. 24, he will be deployed to the Kingdom of Lesotho, a country in southern Africa, where he will live and work with the local community for the next two years.
Fernandes, who majored in musical theatre and minored in Portuguese, is as surprised by the turn of events in his life as anyone. “I would have never guessed, as a RIC freshman, that service work would become my life work,” said the 25-year-old.
A first-generation Portuguese-American, Fernandes grew up in small-town Milford, Massachusetts, sheltered within a large Portuguese community. He attended Portuguese-speaking schools from K-through-second grade and again from sixth-through-eighth grade. Although he attended an English-speaking high school, most of his extracurricular time was spent with other Portuguese.
“My parents went to a Portuguese-Christian church. The congregation was entirely Portuguese, the service was spoken in Portuguese and all of my friends were members of the church,” he said.
It was the Christian call to service that resonated most with Fernandes and stirred in him strong humanist interests. In high school he became involved in service-learning projects and community service work through the local YMCA. He volunteered for Relay for Life, soup kitchens and homeless shelters.
Once he arrived at RIC, he made friends, for the first time, outside of his ethnic group. “It was exciting,” he said, when asked if it was a culture shock. “I was ready for it. And because I was ready, it was not much of a shock. I finally had friends that I made on my own.”
Deciding what he wanted to do with his life, however, was not as easy. He explained that “it’s very common in Portuguese immigrant families that sons end up in the business field, such as accounting, finance or business administration. My parents, being traditional Portuguese, wanted me to go the business route. But it just wasn’t me.”
Musical theatre was his passion, yet he questioned if it could sustain him financially. In his junior year, frightened by an uncertain future, he sought direction from a RIC counselor, who suggested he look into AmeriCorps, which offers meaningful work, a stipend to live on and time to figure out what he wanted.
Five months after graduating from RIC, AmeriCorps programs sent him on assignment across the country – to Arkansas, Arizona, Missouri and New Hampshire. At Northwest Elementary School in New Hampshire, his work involved assisting fifth-graders with their individualized lesson plans. The goal was to be a motivating force in getting the children up to grade level.
Making use of his musical theatre background, Fernandes would also assist the music teacher with her choral groups on his break time. He was known by the schoolchildren as “The Tapper,” because he would often tap dance and sing through the halls. Numerous handmade thank-you cards were sent to him by the children throughout the year in appreciation of his support in helping them to believe in themselves.
“That’s why I do this work,” he said. “To make an impact on people’s lives and to let them know that someone cares.”
“Service work also changed my perspective on people,” he added. “I’ve gone from being a sheltered young man to being my own person with an insatiable curiosity to learn more about people.”
Right now, Fernades can’t wait for his next plane to take off. He will live in a Lesotho community, where there may be no electricity or running water (communities without running water draw water from wells), and his sleeping quarters will be a circular home built of stone and mud with a thatched roof. A natural linguist, he is looking forward to learning the language and getting to know the people.
Fernandes advises RIC students to take time to find out what they really want and that it’s okay to take a nontraditional path. He was once a frightened undergraduate, too, who now feels connected to his work, to his life purpose and to the world.