Making Sense of the Jungle Liz Todd ’19 was able to extend her Spring Term Abroad and spend the summer in Brazil, where she worked for an environmental agency.
“I realized that my professors had helped instill an academic drive in me that motivated me to read paper after paper about the region and country on a variety of subjects and drove me to fully immerse myself in the culture here.”
Liz Todd ’19
Hometown: Oldwick, New Jersey
Major: Geology and Environmental Studies
Minor: Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies
Q: Where did you go this summer?
I had the opportunity to extend my Spring Term Abroad and stay in Brazil to work in Manaus, Amazonas. I worked for the Instituto de Proteção Ambiental do Amazonas (IPAAM), an agency within the government of the Brazilian state of Amazonas that is responsible for the environmental regulation of the Amazon jungle and the interior of the state. I had the opportunity to work in the geoprocessing department, completing projects with ArcGIS, map making, deforestation and environmental analysis/licensing.
Q: What was your favorite aspect of your summer abroad?
Manaus is located in the middle of the Amazon jungle on the bank of the Rio Negro, northwest of the Econtro das Águas, or the meeting of the Rio Negro and Rio Solimões. I loved living in Manaus. Although it is still a developing city, it is teeming with vibrant Amazonian/Brazilian culture and life. However, my favorite aspect of living in Manaus was my proximity to the jungle, the river and the northern waterfall region of Brazil. I was lucky to enough to live and travel by boat upriver during my STA, and, between that and living and exploring the regions around Manaus, I was able to fully experience the wonders of the jungle and the natural spaces here.
Q: What did an average day for you look like?
I usually started my day with a trip to the gym to do my workouts for the track and field team around 5:30 a.m. After a quick breakfast of traditional Brazilian food, I headed to work at IPAAM, which started at 8 a.m. My work ended at 2 p.m., so I had the opportunity to explore the city and culture with my friends. Manaus has a great nightlife and some of my favorite things to do were to head down to the Teatro Amazonas and listen to live music in the beautiful plaza outside or to go play futsal at night once it cooled off. Most nights I ate a late dinner with my wonderful homestay family, then either went out or read papers and books on the region.
Q: What was the most rewarding and fulfilling part of your experience?
I would say it was the exposure I gained. I generally think that people at Washington and Lee are unaware of how privileged they are and the struggles that many other countries and regions experience. Manaus is a rapidly developing city in a third-world country that is experiencing a economic crisis, and it is constantly being rocked by government corruption scandals that jeopardize the already unstable Brazilian government. Living there opened my eyes to many of the challenges that developing regions are facing. Things that I take for granted on a daily basis in the U.S. are considered a luxury here, and common utilities, such as electricity, are extremely expensive and unaffordable to many. As a result, I devoted a lot of my personal time this summer to learning exactly how stability, economic growth, infrastructure, illegal activities, overall quality of life and environmental policies intersect in the Amazon, and how these are developed in a country like Brazil.
Q: What was the biggest challenge you faced?
The biggest challenge was the language barrier. I came to Brazil speaking very little Portuguese. Though I had worked with the university-endorsed program, Mango Languages, the amount of Portuguese I had actually learned before my arrival was inadequate. However, Brazilians tend to be extremely friendly, and though I met very few people in Manaus who actually spoke English, I was able to pick up Portuguese as I went. I don’t have much of a problem understanding, writing and speaking Portuguese after living here for three-and-a-half months. It was definitely a steep learning curve, because my work and a lot of the papers I read were all in Portuguese. Despite the fact that it was tough at first, I’m really glad I was so immersed; Portuguese is a beautiful language, and I love that I can understand the beauty of it now.
Q: Who served as a mentor to you this summer, and what did they teach you?
My biggest mentor was Alex Rivas. Alex is a professor at the Universidade Federal do Amazonas (UFAM), and I lived with him and his family. Alex is one of the leading environmental economists in Brazil. He has written multiple books, and most of his work explores the ties between the economy and the environment as it pertains to Manaus and Amazônia. Living with him and being able to ask him questions regarding my work here, and the region, was extremely helpful and enriched my time here immensely. His research and work are areas I am extremely interested in, and I look forward to learning more about it in the future.
Q:What have you learned at W&L that helped you in this endeavor, and what will you bring back to your life on campus?
During my time at W&L the professors in the Geology and Environmental Studies Department have done an amazing job of fostering my curiosity and passion for learning. After my arrival in Brazil, a completely new environment for me, I realized that my professors had helped instill an academic drive in me that motivated me to read paper after paper about the region and country on a variety of subjects, and drove me to fully immerse myself in the culture here.
I think Professor Jeff Rahl, from the Geology Department, has been critical in the development of my ability to ask, and then answer, critical questions, which has definitely served me well here. I also look forward to bringing back aspects of my life here to campus this fall. Learning Portuguese has unlocked a treasure trove of information, and as a trilingual student I look forward to bringing foreign research back to my studies at W&L. In addition to language, I look forward to bringing a new perspective back to campus. It is easy to become ingrained in the Washington and Lee “bubble,” and the ways in which my views have changed will have a positive impact on my life on campus, as well as my academic and athletic pursuits.
Q: Has this experience impacted your studies or future plans in any way?
This experience has reinforced my desire to go into the environmental field. The environmental field is multi-faceted, and I have been lucky enough to be immersed in the heart of that complexity in the middle of the Amazon jungle. I don’t think I could have worked and lived in a better place in terms of gaining real-life experience toward both my majors.
Q: Why is this kind of experience important to W&L students?
When you’re on campus, it’s extremely easy to get lost in the rigors of the academics that the school is known for. In terms of personal and academic development, it’s essential to pull yourself out of academia and see the real-life applications of the degrees you’re working toward. In addition to that, experiences like mine can push students outside their comfort zone and allow them to learn in ways that aren’t often available in a traditional academic setting.
Q: Describe your summer adventure in one word.
Q: What kind of funding helped make this experience possible?
My work was facilitated by Professor Jim Kahn and made possible by the Johnson Opportunity Grant and a grant from the Washington and Lee Environmental Studies Department. I am extremely thankful to the involved entities because without their generosity and time, my work with IPAAM and my time in Brazil would not have been possible. The funding and help I received is one of the many ways that W&L invests in its students and constantly helps push us to grow as individuals, professionals and academics. The quality of opportunities and resources that the professors and the university make available to students continues to astound me, and I consider myself extremely lucky to have been able to benefit from them in such a profound manner.