Co-Founder of SJSU Portuguese Studies Program Endows Department with $500,000 Gift

by | Nov 20, 2023 | Awards and Achievements, Featured

Manuel Bettencourt, left, and Decio de Oliveria, right, are among those who established the Portuguese Studies program at SJSU 50 years ago. Photo courtesy of Manuel Bettencourt.

When asked why San José State University’s Portuguese Studies Department is important to him, retired dentist Manuel Bettencourt, ’75 Biological Sciences, recalls his formative years on Santa Cruz Graciosa, Azores, an island off the coast of Portugal. The eldest of 13 children, Bettencourt got his first job at age 12 — four years before acquiring his first pair of shoes. 

“Growing up, we had no electricity, no running water,” he remembers. “We ate mostly soup for dinner, and sometimes the leftover soup for breakfast.”

Santa Cruz Graciosa Island Azores City and Bullfight Ring Inside Volcano Crater jpg

Bettencourt grew up on Santa Cruz Graciosa island off the coast of Portugal. Photo courtesy of Manuel Bettencourt.

His life changed dramatically when, as a teenager, his entire family immigrated to San José, moving from a town of a few thousand to the Valley of Heart’s Delight, where a few years later he joined his siblings working in hotels. Motivated by the promise of a new country, Bettencourt became the first in his family to graduate from university. He also played a role in the establishment of San José State’s Portuguese Studies program in 1973, the first created in the California State University system, and the only one initially co-funded by members of the local Portuguese community.

“The Portuguese language is very important to me,” he says. “When I moved here 50 years ago, there was no Silicon Valley. But now, high-tech companies like Apple, Google and Meta often hire people who can speak multiple languages. Portuguese is the sixth most common language spoken in the world. That’s why I’ve donated half a million dollars to the Portuguese Studies program — so we can hire a full-time, tenure-track Portuguese Studies professor, which will allow the program to grow.”

Bettencourt’s $500,000 endowment is an injection of support for the program, which currently is offered as a minor through SJSU’s College of Humanities and the Arts World Languages and Literatures major. He hopes to ensure the program’s success for at least the next 50 years. 

“We are grateful for this generous gift. Although the study of languages is central to the mission of the university, not everyone sees it that way,” says Damian Bacich, chair of SJSU’s World Languages and Literatures Department. “Through their generosity, alumni like Dr. Bettencourt ensure that programs like Portuguese can survive and thrive even in difficult times.”

Though he originally planned to be a biology teacher, Bettencourt soon realized he could make a bigger community impact as a dentist. After completing dental school in Mexico and a residency at UCLA, Bettencourt established a dental practice in Santa Clara that was open for more than 35 years. His language skills came in handy as a dentist: Because he is fluent in Portuguese, Spanish and English, he attracted diverse clientele.

Manuel Bettencourt with CDA Cares

Bettencourt regularly volunteers with CDA Cares. Photo courtesy of Manuel Bettencourt.

For Bettencourt, dentistry, much like philanthropy, offered an important avenue to help others. To this day, he volunteers for more than 20 charitable organizations (including two in Portugal), routinely offering free dental services to low-income, homeless folks through programs like CDA Cares, a clinic run by the California Dental Association, and CityTeam Ministries.

“It gives me satisfaction when I see our clients smile when they look in a mirror,” he says. “Sometimes they cry, sometimes they laugh or thank us because they feel more self-esteem.”

This boost of self-confidence is especially important for those in recovery from substance abuse. 

“In the United States, I believe that about 23% of adults volunteer regularly,” he says, citing recent U.S. Census data. “That’s a lot of people who care, but I still think we can do more. If I have any message to share, it is that we are in this world to help one another.”

Learn how you can support SJSU’s Portuguese Studies Department.