In the summer of 2015, three students of Portuguese traveled to Brazil and put their language skills to the test. Ashley Cervantes ’16, Analis Ibarra ’16 and David Avalos ’17 worked with Project Favela, a nonprofit organization where volunteers from across the globe offer free classes in Brazil, where there is no organized system of education.
“Basically, only the rich get good education in Brazil, because they can afford it,” explains Avalos, a native of Los Angeles who majors in economics. “The government hides that from the public, especially with the World Cup and Olympics coming up, but poverty is a huge problem in Brazil.”
With support from the Horizon Fund, the group jumped on a plane to join teaching volunteers from other countries, including France and the U.K. Project Favela supported classes for people from 4-to 83-years-old across topics from geography to English.
“The days were really packed,” says Cervantes, “I would go from teaching to lesson planning, teaching to lesson planning. But Denison prepared us so well for the experience.” She added, “We were able to communicate with all sorts of different people — we were in an environment surrounded by people from all walks of life.”
“Living there really taught you to appreciate the people around you,” said Avalos. “The people in the favelas have very little but they live really happy lives. Any time they would see a volunteer they would give us a warm hug and stop to talk. It wasn’t just a ‘hi’ and ‘bye.’”
There were other lessons, too — like coming to terms the reaction from a woman in the airport when she learned that Cervantes had been in Rocinha, the area of Rio de Janeiro where the group lived and worked.
“She acted disgusted, like ‘Oh my gosh. You’re so brave for going there.’ And I was a bit offended — we had been so welcomed,” says Cervantes, an educational studies major and Portuguese student.
Avalos encountered similar preconceptions: “I was told that people in Rocinha are poor and corrupt, that they would be mean and unapproachable. But I felt at home from my first moment there, whether a little kid grabbed my hand or students from my adult English class invited me to their homes for a movie night.”
In the end, the trio agrees, this trip gave them an appreciation for hard work and global community, which they hope to incorporate more deeply on campus, through their jobs, friendships and classes.
“This is my last year at Denison, so I really want to build stronger connections with my friends and get to know new people and the first-year class. We do a lot at Denison academically, but we also learn a lot from each other. So I want to appreciate those experiences that we have with our peers.”