Grant helps students study, volunteer in impoverished nations

by Nathan Hall

Renee Hoffman spent 10 weeks teaching English in Xela, Guatemala, paying for her airfare, housing and part of her rent money back home in the United States with the help of a little-known grant.

The Paulo Freire grant, named after the revered Brazilian educator and philosopher who died in 1997, is offered through the International Service and Travel Center. Worth $2,000, the grant is earmarked to help U.S. students interested in studying education and volunteering in poverty-stricken countries.

“My experience was very powerful and significant to me, and I know that the grant helped make it all come together,” said Hoffman, a senior sociology student.

Hoffman said she was already planning to volunteer abroad, but on a whim filled out the Freire grant application at the International Service and Travel Center office and was eventually able to use her award to live in Xela.

“I chose Guatemala partly because I’m already fluent in Spanish, but also because I wanted to be able to be around a still very strong indigenous culture,” she said.

Many students who have received the grant say it has given them more than just the opportunity to study or volunteer in another country.

“I definitely urge people to take the time to find community service experiences where they see the most potential for making a difference in the lives of the people with which they are working and for raising their own awareness about poverty, oppression and about themselves,” said Milo Sybrant, a senior global studies student who studied in Senegal.

Sybrant currently interns as a legal assistant for an immigration lawyer at Centro Legal, a nonprofit law office in St. Paul that provides legal services for low-income members of Minnesota’s Latino community.

“I think there is definitely a good amount of money available, and that helps a lot because studying abroad is very expensive,” said Scott Daby, a senior microbiology student.

Daby spent eight months in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, after receiving the grant. While in South Africa, Daby worked in a Salvation Army day care center, helped high school dropouts at a continuing education center brush up on their English and worked on a recycling program for an environmental awareness non-governmental organization.

“Even if you’re just doing it for the summer, it’s an experience outside the academic setting that you could never get here,” Daby said.

Man behind the money

Freire, who died of a heart attack on May 2, 1997, wrote dozens of books and was a key force behind the literacy movement and educational reform in South America. The Brazilian government, which exiled him for 15 years to Bolivia, Chile and later to Geneva, condemned Freire’s close ties to leftist politicians in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, during the 1960s.

His socially progressive views on the role of psychology and teaching in society inspired the creation of the Paulo Freire Institute at UCLA in 1991, which still exists today. Freire is arguably best known for creating the “pedagogy of dialogue,” a teaching style that treated all students as equals rather than humiliating slower learners.

However, many teachers still criticize Freire’s methods for what they view as relying heavily on mysticism and a simplistic type of political analysis.

“(Freire) was an amazing person,” Sybrant said. “I’m honored to receive a grant bearing his name.”

Nathan Hall welcomes comments at [email protected]