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International student earns full scholarship to Brown University
May 30, 2013
As a member of the Chilean Navy, Christopher Munoz was able to travel the world, but a chance meeting in Newport led him to live in the United States.
Munoz, 25, enrolled in the Chilean Naval Academy in 2005 after he graduated from high school. He visited many foreign ports on the Chilean navy tall ship Esmeralda and sailed to the coast of Antarctica – the southern tip of Chile is only about 600 miles away – three times as a crewman on an ice-breaking ship.
“[Antarctica] is very nice the first time and then by the second and third time, not so much,” Munoz said. “It’s a lot of work and you don’t get a lot of sleep down there. During the summer, which is when we go down, the sun never sets.”
In 2010, when the Chilean navy sent Munoz to take a course at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, he did not expect it to change his life.
“I never thought I would go to another country for a long period of time,” he said.
Just like any other visitors to Aquidneck Island, Munoz and his comrades liked to visit Newport’s harborside bars. It was there one night that he met Ashley O’Keefe, a 2008 University of Rhode Island graduate who is a nurse at Rhode Island Hospital.
“It wasn’t anything fancy,” Munoz said. “We got to talking, we went out on a date and then we went out on more dates. Now we are planning to get married.”
Munoz had to return to Chile after his course ended but he and O’Keefe kept in touch. Early in 2011, the couple decided they wanted to build a life together in the United States and Munoz began the long process of leaving the navy and immigrating to America. He arrived in August 2011.
“Of course the first barrier is the language,” Munoz said. “Being here immersed and not being able to use my first language is complicated.”
On the other hand, Munoz said the Chilean and American cultures are not all that different – the two countries are both Western democracies, after all. He had studied English in school but his language skills steadily improved as he got more used to life in the United States.
“I learned a lot by watching football and baseball,” he said.
Munoz still needed a college degree. Classroom time at the Chilean Naval Academy is broken up by periods of active duty service, so Munoz was not able to finish his academic work before he left the navy.
He enrolled at the Community College of Rhode Island as a way to adjust to the American education system.
“I wasn’t sure what the level of education was like back home compared to here,” he said.
Munoz said he met some Rhode Islanders who told him negative things about his choice of school; that CCRI is for people who can’t get in anywhere else.
“I realized it’s not like that at all,” he said. “I got to meet very good professors and very good classmates; very smart people.”
He added, “For kids who want to earn a degree but don’t want to go into too much debt, who want to save some money, [CCRI] is a great alternative.”
Munoz, who studied engineering at CCRI, graduated with a 4.0 GPA. He will attend Brown University on a full scholarship to study electrical engineering, inspired by his exposure to electronic equipment during his naval service.
“I like that as an electrical engineer you can work with both hardware and software,” he said.
Munoz, who was co-captain of the CCRI soccer team, said that other international students should do their best to get involved with school activities.
“It’s hard sometimes when you’re an immigrant if you don’t interact with the locals,” he said. “I would say if you’re planning to stay here, become a part of what’s going on here.”
As he continues his education, Munoz plans to stay in the New England area to remain close to his fiancée’s family, with whom he lives in East Greenwich. In the future, the couple plans to split their time between the United States and Chile, but the United States is home for now.
“I just want to thank everyone for the opportunity to be here and become a part of the CCRI community,” Munoz said. “It’s an honor to be here in this position that I’m in right now.”