2011 Boren Scholarships
University of Pittsburgh
As an environmental studies major, I have always dreamt of going to the Amazon. I was studying Latin when I began college, but I started taking Portuguese my sophomore year with the intention of studying abroad in the Brazilian Amazon. My hard work paid off, and I am currently studying in Brazil as a Boren Scholar.
This semester, my study abroad program is based out of Belem, the biggest city in the Amazon. Along with taking Portuguese language classes, I am taking a crash course on the environmental issues and stakeholders in the Brazilian Amazon. After only a month-and-a-half, we have already talked to an amazing variety of people, all with complex and often conflicting perspectives, from representatives of international mining corporations to isolated traditional communities. I actually had the opportunity to stay with a traditional riberinho family that is part of a community whose land is being mined for aluminum. The communities in their region have negotiated to receive a percentage of the mine’s revenues as compensation for damages to their environment. I was expecting to hear about how much they hated the mine for threatening their traditional way of life, but instead they told me how they appreciated the projects and how much better their lives are because of it. It hit me how presumptuous it was for me to assume people should want to preserve their traditional way of life. While not every traditional community wants to modernize their lifestyles, it’s unfair to assume none of them do. This experience, and others like it, have made me realize that I must constantly assess and critique my own assumptions before I will be able to understand the complexity of the issues here.
Being here has not only forced me to examine my assumptions, it has given me a greater appreciation of Brazilian culture and my own. There are certain things I love about being in Brazil. But, I also miss things about the U.S. that I never even noticed before, like bus schedules and sidewalks that are easy to walk on. Living in a country where you don’t know the language is also an extremely humbling experience. You must adjust to being misunderstood and sounding stupid. Still, my language skills have improved immensely. I have been surprised at how much it depends on my mind-frame and energy level. It takes a lot of energy to converse in another language, but, so far it has definitely been worth it.
During my spring program, I will be enrolled in a university in Salvador, Brazil taking coursework in Portuguese with Brazilian students. I hope to take classes that will fill in the gaps in my knowledge of Brazilian history and culture. I will also continuing to explore the topics of my research project on the conflict between international environmental interests and those of local communities in the Amazon. I plan to graduate in 2013 and, eventually, I would like to work on international initiatives with the Environmental Protection Agency.
If I could give advice to Boren applicants, I would say to apply to go for a whole year even though the thought might be scary. I almost didn’t apply because I only wanted to study abroad for a semester. However, now that I’m here, I feel like one semester would have been way too short. Plus, applying for a year improves your chances of being selected. Also, don’t think that your area of study isn’t eligible just because this is an award for national security. Environmental studies isn’t always the first thing that comes to mind when you think of U.S. national security, but I was able to make the connection, and I’m proud to be a Boren Scholar.
Written: October 2011