Student Experiences

Kelsey Sizer, '12

Hometown: Kingwood, Texas

Major: Environmental Studies, Economics

Minor: Poverty and Human Capability Studies

My original plan was to study whatever subject would allow me to live in Venice, Italy. However, after hearing Dr. Kahn's description of the Brazilian exchange program, that plan changed quickly. The mysteries of Brazil and the adventures it could potentially offer were immediately appealing to me. Now, in all honesty, the immense rainforest and Amazonian aborigines were all I could picture when I imagined Manaus, a city dropped right in the middle of the Amazon. Arriving there, though, my ignorance showed as I surprisingly found a more modern city.

As one of the largest cities in Brazil, Manaus is a peculiar place of urban life surrounded by miles and miles of Amazonian rainforest. I spent my first few weeks getting to know the city and attempting to improve my Portuguese as fast as I possibly could in order to blend in and better comprehend my new world. It really is amazing how much faster you learn a language when you land in the middle of a foreign country where the vast majority of the population does not speak fluent English. Classes were, of course, another challenge, but the professors were understanding and the other students friendly and helpful.

In general, I really could not have asked for more hospitable people. There is a joke that after just meeting and having a short conversation with a Manauaran (a person from Manaus), they will almost instantly invite you to dinner with the family. And that is exactly what I encountered. The very generous and welcoming people I met enabled me to establish many lasting relationships which, of course, made my departure that much more difficult.

The Brazilian experience did not come without its many cultural challenges, but they were all well worth the opportunity. After living in Brazil for six months, I have no doubt that I will be returning to visit friends, eat macaxeira (a delicious vegetable), and soak up the unique culture. At the very least, I hope to be somewhere in the stands during the World Cup 2014 in Brazil, cheering, in Portuguese, for both the American and Brazilian soccer teams.



Danielle Breidung, '13

Hometown: Waunakee, WI

Majors: Sociology/Anthropology & Psychology

The Amazon, sustainable development, traditional populations, and deforestation: before traveling to and studying in Manaus, Amazonas, Brazil for six months, all of these terms were simply that, terms that caused little emotional reaction and instigated minimal motivation to research and work toward a better, more environmentally-friendly future for the largest rainforest in the world. After one of the most rewarding and unique experiences of my life, I will certainly be returning to the Amazon and not just to visit but to attempt to better understand what makes the traditional populations, "traditional", and what types of public and non-governmental assistance are needed in order to maintain this culture while preserving and/or increasing quality of life.

To many, the idea of traveling to the heart of the Amazon to study and live for six months may have seemed like uma idéia louca [a crazy idea], and I must admit that multiple times during the exchange I asked myself, "How in the world did you end up here?" On these occasions I often journeyed back to Argentina where I studied abroad as a high school junior. While there I was always intrigued by the thought of visiting Brazil and yet was never able to make the trip. Then, two years later as a freshman at Washington and Lee, I was determined to learn Portuguese and enrolled in Professor Pinto-Bailey's intensive introductory Portuguese class. Although I imagined that the transition from Spanish to Portuguese would be smooth and relatively painless, the Portuguese I speak today would have been nothing more than a lovely version of ‘Portunhol' [Portuguese-Spanish] had it not been for such a diligent professor. Furthermore, and to my great delight, Professors Kahn and Pinto-Bailey encouraged the members of our Portuguese class to consider applying for a six-month exchange in Manaus, Brazil during which we could put our solid grammatical and vocabulary foundation to work on a daily, sink-or-swim basis. Without hesitation I applied, was accepted, and started making preparations for the adventure of a lifetime.

Upon my arrival in Brazil on July 1, 2010, I had very little idea of what to expect of Manaus (the capital city of the state of Amazonas); the federal university (Ufam) I attended there; the Amazonian culture and individual Brazilians I met during my experience; or the manner in which my point of view, aspirations for the future, and appreciation for all of the privileges and comforts associated with life in the United States would transform and strengthen. Even though I felt uncertain of many things, I was confident that I would fully immersed myself in the experience, particularly the Portuguese language aspect, and would not give up no matter what.

While becoming acquainted with the city, culture, and irresistible Brazilian Portuguese accent, I discovered that Brazil's national slogan is: "Brasil: o país de todos [Brazil: the country of everyone]." No matter where one finds him/herself in the largest country in South America, this statement and sentiment can be found in even the most remote places. Throughout the six months I spent in the Brazilian Amazon, I was fortunate to spend time in many small towns and cities scattered throughout the state of Amazonas. Despite my accent and abundance of questions, I was always treated with respect, kindness, and many opportunities to exchange cultural peculiarities. Although Brazil is home to almost 200 million citizens, their all-inclusive national slogan that the country belongs to each and every Brazilian makes even the American girl with bright blue eyes feel peaceful, safe, and at home among them.

Traveling, even before visiting Brazil, has always been one of my passions; however, being welcomed into the stilt houses of traditional populations scattered throughout the Amazon; conversing with families about the challenges and joys associated with ornamental fishing; and feeling a strong desire to continue doing research in this area were unexpected results of my experience there. One particularly poignant moment occurred on a lovely November day in the community of Daracuá, outside of Barcelos. I had just finished taking a tour of the one-room stilted schoolhouse and proceeded to walk down to the river to see what the little local girls were so excited about. Despite their lack of Barbies, Instant Messaging, and Hannah Montana on television, they were perfectly content feeding the remains of our lunch, fish as usual, to delightful pink river dolphins. At this moment I realized how important it is to not only equip these bright, creative, and playful children with a quality environmentally oriented education, but also, to enhance the infrastructure that could and should protect their rural way of life.

Now that I have returned to the United States and have had time to gradually reflect on the six months I spent in the Brazilian Amazon, many thoughts, cherished memories, and plans for the future have come to occupy my mind. Most notably, I feel reinvigorated and inspired to continue serving others, confident in my passion for studying diverse walks of life by personally interacting with individuals, and empowered to openly accept new opportunities while embracing setbacks as stops along the path to my destiny. Living in Brazil engendered me with the strength to identify eye-opening experiences, enjoy the authenticity of individuals and natural environments, and most importantly, reflect honestly about my interests, passions, desires, and aspirations. As you may have already guessed, these six months will not be the last that I spend in "Brasil: o país de todos," and someday I hope to be able to give back to the population that helped me learn how to live, adapt, communicate, and most importantly, to dream.