A student odyssey into a world of immigrants

It's two minutes before airtime at WCCS, Wheaton College's radio station, and student Matt Nelson is going over his playlist with professor John Bezis-Selfa, host of his own weekly Brazilian music show. Since all of the titles are in Portuguese, Matt simply describes one song as "the one that starts with Q."

As cohost, Matt is fulfilling part of his community-involvement requirement for Mr. Bezis-Selfa's Brazilian history class, "Mundo Brasileiro: From Cabral to Cape Cod." Students must program a block of songs of the same genre or composer and talk briefly on the air about its cultural significance.

Although Wheaton's leafy campus in Massachusetts is a long way from Brazil, Bezis-Selfa didn't have to look far to give his students a taste of Brazilian culture. The Greater Boston area, it turns out, is home to one of the largest Brazilian populations in the US - one that increased 60 percent since 1990.

Across the country, many professors such as Bezis-Selfa are looking in their own backyards to enrich their courses. They find that by combining community involvement with rigorous academics, they give students a more fulfilling experience, and at the same time force them to think critically about cultures "hidden in the shadows" and send them into areas where they normally wouldn't venture.

"There are very interesting parallels between Brazil and the United States," says Bezis-Selfa, whose own ethnic background is Latino and Greek-American. "Geographically, they are comparable in size. [Brazil's] population is approaching 200 million, which isn't far off our national population. By getting a greater understanding of Brazilian history and culture, students will think about what it is to be an American a little differently and think about American history a little differently."

A couple of months ago, Bezis-Selfa organized a field trip to Boston. The students visited the Brazilian Immigrant Center in Allston, Mass., enjoyed a lunch featuring feijoada (black bean and pork stew), and explored various Brazilian stores. This was a completely new experience for the seven students on the trip because they had never been to this part of town and none of them speaks Portuguese.

Earlier this semester, the students organized Brazilian cultural events on campus and will host a fundraiser to help raise money for the immigrant center. Ten percent of the students' grades will be based on these community-involvement activities.

"I want the students to be cognizant of the Brazilians who live among us," says Bezis-Selfa.

"It's important to understand the historical and cultural context that Brazilians come from and how the communities are tied to the larger world."

Prof. Laura Barbas Rhoden of Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C., discovered that one of the best ways to increase her students' level of Spanish proficiency was to expose them to nearby Latino communities. For her class "Advanced Spanish with Community-Based Learning," her students tutor children in elementary and junior high schools that are 30 to 40 percent Latino.

"It's not an opportunity necessarily for them to practice their Spanish, says Dr. Barbas Rhoden. "It's really for them to gain exposure to the way different cultures interact in the United States."

What's most fascinating, she says, is that the junior high and elementary schools are only about five to seven minutes from the Wofford campus. "My students would have no cause for driving there; not much retail business, nothing by way of entertainment. They find it completely surprising, and I think it's a really good experience for them."

Freshman Sarah Whitener, who tutors two third-graders every week, says Barbas Rhoden encourages them to seek out as many opportunities as possible to practice their Spanish. "We go to a Hispanic business and ask the owner or employee about their business or where they are from," she says. "It's about building relationships in the community, and it helps us to learn our Spanish and helps them learn English."

When Matt Nelson and his peers visited Brazilian neighborhoods in Boston recently, he found it broadened his education. "Most of my history classes are big lecture classes," says Matt.

"Before this class, I really didn't know much about Brazil at all. When we visited some neighborhoods, everything was in Portuguese." By adding the community component, he says, it opened his eyes to the various businesses nearby and also to some diverse music.

Music is thought of as "the newspaper of the Brazilian people," says Bezis-Selfa, "so it's vital for students who want to have an understanding of Brazilian history and contemporary culture to really engage with the popular music. Just reading a lot of academic stuff isn't going to do it."

For the radio show, Matt settled on composer Caetano Veloso. "I had never heard of him prior to this class. but I picked him because he's a symbol of the rebellious movement in the 1970s and because his music is really good."

While Bezis-Selfa would love to get the students more involved with the community, he admits that logistics are difficult. The Brazilian Immigrant Center is far from campus, and because his students don't speak Portuguese, they would have trouble communicating with the public.

"If you put some 19-year-old [at the center] who doesn't speak the language, it's not going to help anybody," says Bezis-Selfa. "But on the other hand, there would be a lot of educational value in exposing students to what it's like living in the shadows, as so many immigrants do. It's alienating."

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