“I loved the food there.”
“It’s very natural to speak Portuguese now.”
“When you’re having lunch with [a friend’s] whole family, it’s definitely a close encounter. You’re part of the family for that hour or so!”
“Get used to rice and beans.”
Rebekah Wiles with friends on the beach during a visit to Rio de Janeiro.
That’s a small sampling of what two students, David Petersen from Knox College and Rebekah Wiles from Colorado College, had to say about living and studying for five months in the city of Juiz de Fora in southeastern Brazil.
They recently returned from the ACM Brazil Exchange Program, where they were not only immersed in the culture and society of that vibrant, diverse country, but also – as students from liberal arts colleges – experienced the much different style of academic and campus life at a Brazilian university.
The Brazil Exchange offers direct enrollment at ACM’s partner, Universidade Federal de Juiz de Fora (UFJF), for students from ACM colleges in any major. Along with Portuguese language study, students typically take two or three elective courses from UFJF’s regular class schedule, all taught in Portuguese alongside Brazilian students.
“I’ve always been enthralled by Brazil and always wanted to go there,” said Wiles. A biology major, she’s interested in the country’s biodiversity, and UFJF has a wide range of courses related to environmental studies.
Petersen is an international studies major with a focus on Latin America. “Brazil [has] a very large and growing economy that, especially in the United States, nobody seems to be paying attention to,” he said. “I wanted to get a foothold into the Portuguese language, because that might be coming into demand here in the U.S.”
Immersion in Portuguese language is a central feature of the Brazil programs. Before going, Wiles had completed a two course sequence in Portuguese at Colorado – it “provided a good, solid foundation,” she noted – and Petersen had taken an independent study class in the language.
David Petersen and former Knox College dance professor Raquel Cavalcanti, now teaching at Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais.
The program includes a two-week intensive Portuguese class when the students arrive. According to Peterson, even in that short time, the combination of excellent instruction and personal attention made a big difference. Fairly quickly, they picked up enough language ability to handle the basic tasks of daily life, and their conversational skills continually improved throughout the semester. Taking university courses in Portuguese, however, proved to be a much larger challenge.
“The first couple of weeks I did not understand anything,” Petersen said of the course he took, titled History of the First Brazilian Republic. “Towards the end [of the semester] I got better, but it was still difficult to understand lectures. I felt good by the end that my competence in the language had improved enough that I was actually able to [fully] participate in some of the group projects that we did.”
Wiles took three biology courses, all focused on topics in zoology, and noted that the lecture-based teaching style used by her professors was a marked change from the discussion-oriented classes she’s accustomed to. As she made friends with some other students in her courses, though, they would study together and help when she had questions.
The main housing arrangement, for Brazilian as well as international students at the university, is to find a room in a shared apartment called a república. Wiles found a spot in an apartment with several Brazilian students, while Petersen lived in a small apartment in a house owned by a family that rents mostly to international students.
David Petersen admiring Argentine beef on a grill during a churrasco (barbecue) with the family of a friend in Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais.
For both, it was a new experience to be responsible for cooking their own meals. “It’s cheap to eat out there, with the exchange rate, so that’s handy, but I did usually cook,” said Petersen. He learned to make rice and beans – the staple of the Brazilian diet – and some other dishes, as well. “They’re mostly bar food,” he explained. “One is mandioca e torresmo, which is yucca and pork cracklings and is fantastic. I miss it a lot.”
Compared to their daily college routine in the U.S., where it’s just a quick stroll across campus to get from the dorm to a class or a meal, living independently in the city and commuting to the university took some getting used to. Once they settled in, though, they found Juiz de Fora to be a pleasant and interesting place to live.
“I did really like the feel of it,” Wiles said of the city center, where she lived. “There were definitely a lot of young people, and most of them are students, and I liked walking to the supermarket and walking everywhere.”
There were clubs, restaurants, and bars where students hung out, and Petersen noted that there were often cultural events and parties put on by students and academic departments at UFJF. He also took some lessons, offered by the university’s physical education department, in capoeira, a Brazilian art form that’s part dance, part martial art, and part game.
“Brazilians are so welcoming and warm,” said Wiles. “They’re very interested in foreigners and learning other cultures…. They’ll cook lunch for you, and we’ll all eat together. It’s great. [Meals are] a social thing and a family gathering, because usually the whole family would eat together.”
Rebekah Wiles and a family of capybaras that lived by the river on Avenida Brasil in the city center of Juiz de Fora.
Both Wiles and Petersen were invited to spend the Christmas holiday with the families of friends at small towns outside Juiz de Fora. Overall, neither of them traveled a lot – although both took trips to places on the Rio coast and got some time on the beach – and when they did it was usually nearby within the state of Minas Gerais, where Juiz de Fora is located.
The language immersion was clearly a success for Petersen and Wiles, as both count themselves as fluent and are building on the language skills they developed during the program.
“I’ll definitely try to get back to Brazil sometime,” Wiles said. In the meantime, she’s maintaining her language skills by getting together with a group of Portuguese speakers at the college that meets regularly.
Petersen also said he “definitely would like to return to Brazil,” perhaps as a tourist to explore more parts of the country or to work, if the opportunity arises. Given his experience on the program, he’s confident in his conversational ability in Portuguese when he goes back. “I do wish my vocabulary was a bit larger,” he said, “but beyond that, it doesn’t really take much conscious thought or effort [for me] to speak Portuguese.”
Photos are courtesy of Rebekah Wiles and David Petersen.