It is a landmass large enough to hold the entire United States – and that includes Hawaii and two thirds of Alaska. In fact, this country is bigger than every nation on the planet except Russia, China and Canada. It is also as rich or richer in natural resources than almost any place on earth, producing the world’s largest volume of meat, grains, coffee, oranges and iron ore. Yet, few – relatively speaking – could name it. But, in a shrinking 21st century world, that could soon be changing.
Originally named “terra de brasil” by early European explorers for the red dye extracted from the brasilwood tree, this South American country has been the continent’s economic engine for decades. Today, Brazil, despite enduring its second straight year of a sluggish economy, is calculated as the seventh largest economy in the world with a Gross Domestic Product of more than $1.7 trillion. But for most Americans, it remains a secret.
“Brazil is an amazing place to take a journey,” says Mary Gershwin, a Colorado native who has been taking this journey since her teens when she spent a school year as an exchange student in Brazil. Today, Gershwin, who is fluent in the language and culture of the country, is President of the Denver-based U.S.-Brazil Connect, a non-profit organization dedicated to fostering a better understanding of the country for college-aged students and other younger people curious about their world.
For those selected for the trip, “It’s a great time to travel, to step outside and realize it really is a small world.” A group of approximately 200 will make the trek this June and spend a month living and working in various parts of the country.
While there, they’ll polish their Portuguese language skills, work with native Brazilians on improving English-language skills and, ideally, add a few bricks to a foundation essential for a future working with government, business and others involved in this intercontinental relationship.
Exactly where these students do their four-week stay in Brazil is tantamount to a ‘roll of the dice.’ Gershwin says they could end up in any of the 26 states in Brazil’s five geographic regions. Some will have their experience in the mountains, others in the rain forest region and, still others, will spend their time in one of the country’s urban areas, including Rio or Brasilia. “It’s a matter of getting to know people and being part of that place,” says this Coloradan by birth, Brazilian by soul, traveler.
What makes the program so valuable, says Gershwin, is that it sows the seeds for a stronger public-private relationship between Colorado, the U.S. and South America’s economic hub. Right now, the relationship is limited in so many ways because “fewer than ten percent of Brazilians speak English.” But that is changing. Slowly.
“For centuries, it was only the rich who spoke English or French,” says Gershwin. Today, in an interconnected, interdependent world, a lack of English-speakers – in any country – but especially in South America’s largest country – is a marked disadvantage. “English is the coin of the realm.”
Because Spanish and Portuguese are closely related languages, Gershwin has tapped into Florida and Miami Dade Community College for students willing to invest a little sweat equity. But she wants to recruit locally among Latino community college students, too. More local Latino students – along with other Colorado community college students – “would be great.”
While expenses – lodging and meals – during the four weeks of the program are covered by U.S.-Brazil Connect, each student is responsible for their “round-trip plane ticket, visa, health insurance and any travel expenses to attended weekend workshops.” (Website airfares from DIA to Rio de Janiero begin at approximately $900 but rise to as much as $2,000.)
Still, for those, including Deania Lynette, a Michigan nurse who took part in the four-week program one year ago, it was unforgettable. “I was changed by this experience,” she says. And it wasn’t simply the shock of being in another country. It was learning to adapt to a world that, for her hosts, was the norm. “I’m from Michigan and when I get cold I just turn the heat up,” she says. “My students told me home doesn’t come with heaters in Brazil.”
Still, the four weeks she spent in Brazil last summer exceeded all of her expectations. “I am enamored by the friendly, warm inviting culture,” says Lynette. “I now have an expanded worldview and a wanderlust to travel that I hope lasts the rest of my life.”
Whatever Gershwin experienced with her initial taste of Brazil only made her hungrier for a culture that was a light-year removed from the Littleton life she lived in high school. It changed her forever. But over the course of the four decades that have passed since her exchange student experience, she has also seen her ‘second home’ change, as well.
Before its economy slowed, Brazil rode a decade-long rocket to prosperity for many and, for others, on a trip simply out of poverty and into a growing middle class. According to the World Bank, Brazil’s middle class nearly doubled during this period from 11 percent to 22 percent. Nonetheless, the separations between opulence and poverty – extreme poverty – are dramatic.
Also during this ten year period of national prosperity, which has now ground to a halt, Brazil’s economy grew at five percent annually. Its growth placed it ahead of France and into fifth place in world economic rankings. The country increased its world trade in mining, agriculture and finance. Brazil is now the ninth largest trading partner with the U.S.
But economies ebb and flow and Brazil’s will weather this downturn. Certainly that is the expectation of Brazil’s Confederation of Industry, a consortium of businesses throughout the country who partner with Gershwin’s organization to fuel this annual intellectual exchange.
To enhance the relationship between the United States and Brazil, says Gershwin, programs like hers are important as is a good mix of students. That is the reason U.S.-Brazil Connect also includes a group of older college students on this South American working adventure.
The Global Leaders Fellowship Program incorporates an 18-week English-language coaching program which is conducted on-line with a four-week in-country visit, which can be in any part of the country. Gershwin says those involved in this component of U.S.-Brazil Connect build leadership skills, learn a new culture and, perhaps best of all, make life-long connections in business, friendship or both.
U.S.-Brazil also brings to Colorado and two other states a group of students from Brazil for two weeks each February. The students, high school and college-age, visit businesses, high schools, work to improve their English-language skills and, of course, “take some time out for fun,” says Gershwin. But, because Brazil’s summer falls in February, coming to Colorado is nothing short of a cold-water wakeup for some. But, “They love it.”
One challenge Gershwin’s organization has in the months leading up to this visit is finding host families for the visiting students. Anyone interested in serving as a host family should visit www.US-Brazil.org for more information.