Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Student Odyssey into a World of Immigrants

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Student Odyssey into a World of Immigrants

Article excerpt

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. …

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