Experiential learning class plans spring trip to Brazil

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Music, Theatre & Dance senior Christina Manceor performs at Uma Noite Brasileira at the Ford School of Public Policy Thursday. Buy this photo

By Will Greenberg, Daily News Editor
Published January 29, 2015

Add this to the list of nominees for coolest class of the year.

A group of 22 graduate students have been working since last semester on creating their own experiential learning class. Called the International Economic Development Program, the class is through the Ford School of Public Policy’s International Policy Student Association, and each year consists of class work in Ann Arbor followed by a spring break trip to a foreign country selected by the students. This year the group is going to Brazil.

The group, consisting mostly of Public Policy students but also law and natural resource and environment students, is in the process of studying the country, organizing the trip and raising money to pay for their travels. The class hosted a Brazilian cultural night Thursday—“Uma Noite Brasileira”— both as a fundraiser and educational event for the campus.

Lessons on Brazilian dance, a performance from the Vencedores Samba Bateria drumline and Brazil trivia drew a small crowd to the Ford School great hall. The group generated “a couple hundred bucks” in donations.

The trip is estimated to cost between $45,000 and $50,000 total and the primary funding comes from the Ford School, the International Institute, the William Davidson Institute, the Graham Sustainability Institute and the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies.

The guests Thursday included Ford School Dean Susan Collins, who said the IEDP program was a valuable part of the school.

“It’s wonderful that students put together the program to educate people on Brazil culture and have this lovely evening,” she said.

The IEDP class curriculum and trip itinerary were planned entirely by the students. Students applied to the program last September and have been organizing the class since November 2013. They will be in Brazil for the duration of spring break.

Chanera Pierce, a Public Policy graduate student, said the IEPD program was the reason she chose the University in the first place.

“One of the most attractive features was the opportunity to not only critically examine a country but to actually visit,” Pierce said. “I saw that and I was like, ‘One, I will be at this school; two, I am going to do this program.’ ”

Rory Pulvino, a dual-degree graduate student in Law and Public Policy, is group president and said the IEDP program also drew him to the school. Pulvino said Brazil’s wide array of socio-economic populations paired well with his interest in economic development abroad—compelling him to propose Brazil originally.

The goal for the class is to learn about Brazil’s policies through direct contact with the country’s stakeholders. Students are researching five focus areas — economic development, social welfare, environmental issues, urban planning and security —and producing policy analysis papers following their visit.

Pulvino said the group will meet with representatives from Brazilian organizations like the Ministry of Cities, the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation and the Ministry of Social Development, among others.

“I’m interested in land issues, property issues and natural resource management and Brazil obviously has a lot of these issues,” he said. “They have the Amazon, which is obviously a massive global natural resource that needs to be managed, hopefully correctly. They also have urban issues that are very interesting, especially in terms of property laws.”

Matthew Manning, a Public Policy graduate student, was one of the members who worked on creating the original syllabus for the class. He said it was important to both educate everyone on Brazil before the trip, as well as prepare the group with skills like public speaking. He said the prospect of getting final papers published is also appealing to many in the group.

Also included in the curriculum are frequent posts to a public blog and presentations to the class on students’ respective Brazil research.

“The website right now, what we want, our vision for it is to be kind of like a resource on just Brazil in general to build up a following of people,” Manning said. “We wanted to incorporate a strong writing element. And of course presentation skills are very important in a professional environment so we wanted to also have this presentation.”

While still in Ann Arbor, the group is contacting to experts on Brazil and urban issues to learn from first-hand sources. Manning said he recently scheduled for Paulo Sotero, director of the Wilson Center’s Brazil Institute in Washington, D.C., to visit in February.

Though the IEDP program has run since 2000 — with students traveling to countries like China, Peru, Jordan and others — this year’s trip is made unique by its advising professor: Public Policy Prof. Melvyn Levitsky, who was the U.S. ambassador to Brazil from 1994 to 1998. His resume also includes serving on the United Nations Economic and Social Council and other senior-level positions throughout a 35-year career as a diplomat.

Levitsky, who surprised guests Thursday with a rendition of “The Girl From Ipanema,” said he hopes to offer an extra level of insight to the students from his own experiences in Brazil. Levitsky said another goal for the trip is outreach to the community, establishing connections with organizations to create a two-way street of collaboration between Brazil and the University. He said he hopes to encourage students in the area to apply to the University and also establish an internship opportunity for current University students this summer—a common goal of each IEDP program.

Manning, Burdette and Pierce all said Brazil actually shares similar racial and social issues to the United States, both today and throughout history. However, they said most Americans are unfamiliar with those parallels. These topics include police brutality, racial tensions and poverty in the favelas, or Brazilian slums.

Pierce has already done research on Brazil’s social policies. She said her report on Brazil’s “Minha Casa Minha Vida” (My House My Life) national housing policy gives her a head start on exploring the country next month. More specifically, Pierce is interested in further exploring the country’s racial tensions and how the laws affect Afro-Brazilians.

“Just because they didn’t have a formal and institutionalized policy that supported discrimination does not mean their ongoing policies did not implicitly support discrimination,” she said. “So, you have the Black community having the lowest literacy rates, or they are largely not employed in white-collar positions.”

Another interest for many students is the economic impact of the 2016 Rio Olympics. Manning and others explained how opposition groups to the Olympics have sprouted following the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, with many Brazilians seeing the event as doing more financial harm than good for the population as a whole after mismanagement and possible corruption.

Manning said he’s looking into arranging meetings with both the Olympic committee and opposition groups in Rio.

Levitsky said he’s also excited for the students to work through the planning process of a diplomatic trip.

“If somebody’s doing a trip, like the President of the United States, to the director of a section in a non-governmental organization, the trip is not for fun. They’re going to find out and try to learn how, actually, Brazil has done quite a bit better in terms of growth—although the last couple years aren’t as good—than so many other countries.”

According to the CIA World Factbook, Brazil ranked eighth globally in gross domestic product in 2013. Many of the students in the class said their peers who are less familiar with the country tend to short sell its success, considering it a “developing” country rather than a major global force.

“In reality, it’s a much more complex story on the ground,” said Lauren Burdette, a Public Policy graduate student. “If you don’t actually learn the history of a country and learn what’s actually happening on the ground, you run the danger of making a lot of assumptions of what life is actually like there and assumptions can make really bad policy.”