Brazil Trip Helps Students Find the Humanity in the Humanities
Emily Weir

Nov. 29, 2018 — “Going to Brazil was a life-changing experience, and I am confident that many of my classmates would say the same,” said Layla Hay ’21 just after her Humanities II class returned from a November trip there. 

“The trip provided authentic, personal experiences to go alongside things I learned in the classroom,” she said. Before the 31-person group of sophomores and teachers left for South America, they’d studied aspects of Brazilian history such as slavery, colonization, and indigenous struggles. But, said Hay, “It wasn't until we actually arrived in Brazil that I related the lessons I learned to the world I saw around me.”

“Seeing it for yourself” is what sets NMH’s Humanities II study-travel courses apart from NMH’s other globally themed classes. In other years, Hum II groups travel to China, India, South Africa, and Spain and Morocco. Whatever the destination, students learn about the country in several linked courses. For the Brazil group, these were world history, biology, and world religion. 

Students prepared for the trip for two months. “The most important things I learned in Hum II classes were to ask the big questions and to dig deeper,” said Emma Chaffee. “We were always told to look below the skin of a question. Without learning how to ask the big questions, I wouldn’t have gotten the full experience of the trip.”

In early November, with their background work done and suitcases packed, the NMH group waved farewell to friends and flew from New York City to Rio.

Blog posts from the trip attest that, as Hay, Julie Sprankle, and Kiran Patel wrote, “This trip has been a wonderful experience all around. We visited tourist sites such as Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro; learned about African religion and its roots in Brazil, including visiting a candomblé house on Itaparica (above); learned about environmental changes in the diverse Brazilian ecosystems; and interacted with many age groups. Practicing wrestling, capoeira [a mix of dance and martial arts], and even math with elementary-school kids who live in a favela within Rio; singing and dancing with high-school students in Salvador; sharing poetry with college students in Itaparica, and learning through presentations from multiple adults throughout our travels — all of these allowed us as outsiders to relate more to Brazilian culture.”

They saw huge turtles and tried Brazilian delicacies such as manioc and guava juice, toured Baroque churches and a favela, marveled at centuries-old trees and planted new ones, learned about water pollution and (oops!) discovered why you shouldn’t sit on fire ants.

“The trip allowed me to learn in a whole new way,” said Chaffee. “In class, we learned a little about Brazil’s history and biodiversity, but when we finally got there, we got a deeper understanding and could see the effects that slavery, biodiversity loss, and power and powerlessness have on the country. We talked to the powerless and powerful. We saw the ports where slaves came in, and met people whose ancestors were slaves. We went into nature to learn the ecosystems and animals that are part of Brazil. I learned what Brazil is really like.”

Teacher Tim Relyea, one of four adult trip leaders, said the trip’s strength lies in “the experience of interacting with young children, fellow students, community leaders, educators, and activists from all walks of life throughout our time in Brazil. The trip makes the abstract (culture, history, power and privilege, religion) real (humanity!).”

That’s what happened for Hay, who said, “Going to Brazil made my worldview more inclusive and made me more mindful about those who are different from me.”

Photos courtesy Humanities II class members.

Captions (top to bottom):

• The church and convent of Saint Francis in Salvador, an example of colonial Portuguese architecture

• Learning about Afro-Brazilian religion at a Candomblé house in Itaparica

• Chef's hats and aprons given to students at the Pierre Verger Foundation Center in Salvador, where the group enjoyed a traditional Brazilian lunch

• NMH students wrestled, played soccer and learned capoeira with these students at  Energia Olympica Project, Rio de Janeiro