Maximizing the impact: virtual semester programs in 3 countries

by Daniel Alexander

Amizade program with ZooUnama

The second half of 2021 brought us wonderful experiences with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a cherished education partner of Amizade. Students from various fields of study engaged in virtual service-learning opportunities through semester courses in three different sites: Puerto Rico, Bolivia, and Brazil.

¡Hola, Bolivia!

For the third semester in a row, first-year engineering students from the university spent a full semester engaging with Amizade’s partners in Bolivia. This was the first semester of the program where the students were able to share a classroom and connect virtually using just one computer screen. This version of the program started with 6 weeks of cultural awareness and exploration led by the university, which complemented the Bolivia programming.

Amizade facilitators, site directors, and partners met with the group of students during the weekly course to lead group activities, to reflect on concepts like ethical storytelling and power and privilege, and to present on topics like water in Bolivia, urban gardening, sights and daily life in the city of Cochabamba, and Bolivian Folkloric Dance. During the presentation on life in Cochabamba, we got into a spirited discussion about favorite sports teams, from Wilstermann in Cochabamba to Illinois basketball. As always, the Folkloric Dance class was a huge hit, even in the virtual format.

At Amizade, we pride ourselves on the long-term nature of our partnerships and our projects: this semester it was impressive to see how each group’s work built upon the work of the two groups that came before.

Outside of class, students worked on semester-long projects in small groups with the Bolivian organizations El Molino, Tinkuna Warmi, and Tukuy Pacha. Their projects included building an impressive new website, digitizing a booklet filled with important health information, and creating social media posts to educate followers about gender-based violence.

At Amizade, we pride ourselves on the long-term nature of our partnerships and our projects: this semester it was impressive to see how each group’s work built upon the work of the two groups that came before. In the spring (spring in the Northern Hemisphere, but fall for our friends in Bolivia!) the program will continue with a new group of students. At the end of the spring semester, a group of Illinois students will travel to finally meet Amizade’s site directors and organizations in person. We can’t wait for that trip!

¡Te extraño, Puerto Rico!

Similarly to our Bolivia program, we just wrapped up our third semester collaborating with Dr. Luis Rodriguez’s Global Disaster Resilience course with first-year engineering students. During the semester, students connected in-classroom learning with real-world realities with our community partners in Puerto Rico, Caras con Causa. 

This partnership started in 2018, when Dr. Rodriguez traveled with a group of students to Puerto Rico during spring break. Since then, students have continued to learn about disaster resilience and engineering practice while also learning about the specific realities of the communities where Caras con Causa works. Throughout the semester, students review concepts of sustainability and resilience and their implementation in engineering practice. They identify trends in different societies and small communities during the periods after a disaster while also discussing the limitations to disaster resilience for vulnerable communities that may be overcome through education, engineering, and community activism efforts. Engaging with community-specific topics and realities in Puerto Rico allow students to consider how engineering practice and on-the-ground realities go hand in hand, and how human-centered design impacts their work as future engineers. In addition to learning about engineering concepts, Puerto Rican history, and community context, students strengthen their skills in cultural humility and cultural competence through group reflection and community partner engagement.

As in previous semesters, this group’s project was connected to the last group’s deliverables. By the end of the semester, students presented standard operating procedure reports and posters to accompany rainwater catchment systems designed by last year’s group of students. These catchment systems are located in Caras con Causa’s school, Escuela con Causa and are used by students and school staff for their school gardens. 

We are very proud of our partnership with the Grainger School of Engineering at the University of Illinois, and as we look to next semester and the possibility of traveling again, we look forward to what’s yet to come. 

Amizade program with the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana
Amizade community partner presenting to students from the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana

Muito obrigado, Brasil!

Just like in the other two VSL experiences in Puerto Rico and Bolivia, Illinois students rolled up their sleeves to partner with local organizations in Santarem, Brazil while exploring the particularities of the Brazilian healthcare system and biodiversity. APAE Santarém and ZooUnama Biopark were the hosts of their internships, where students engaged in grant searches and social media content production.

This full semester opportunity provided a wide range of speakers to address the ongoing challenges related to the COVID-19 crisis and deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. Among many sessions, two stood out as highlights: Dr. João Alho’s presentation on the challenges of the healthcare system and musician and songwriter André Coruja’s talk on the Brazilian culture crisis during the pandemic.

“It was very unique because we got to work with Amizade, a global organization, through Zoom and overseas (…) There was a focus on COVID-19 and the pandemic, which I thought was very important given that we only experienced this disease in the United States. It was nice to expand, specifically to Brazil. My perspective changed so much in this class, especially hearing the opinions of my classmates, other honors students. I realized that you truly don’t know what’s going on in certain places unless you have a direct connection like we had with Amizade.” -Jade Huan, student at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana and Amizade participant

We’re thankful for the opportunities to connect these students with our community partners at each site. Amizade hopes that the impact of these three programs will reverberate for a long time and that these students get to travel to these beautiful places one day. Whether it’s summer 2022 or in 10 years, Amizade’s partners are always excited to welcome alumni visitors to their communities!

Find out more about Amizade’s virtual semester programs here.