By Tamara Murga '16
When asked about her trip to South America, Mariana Porras ’18 says it made her feel “new.” After exploring two countries over the span of 10 days through an analytical lens, the 20 other students and alumnae who accompanied her could easily relate.
“My trip to these distant places unlocked a part of me that I’ve never known to exist,” says Porras. “Returning home, I am new.”
Since 2011, Michelle Melendres ’03, PhD, associate professor and director of the Honors program, has taken traditional undergraduate students and Honors scholars on global immersion trips. Along with coursework, the experience enables students to dive deep into different aspects of a country, such as its culture, through a series of research assignments under one theme. In past years, students have traveled to Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, and multiple countries in Europe.
This May, Porras and her peers explored the theme of “privilege and poverty” as it related to Brazil and Argentina. Scholars examined the contrast between the rich and the poor in different cities and how this impacted its citizens.
Their quest began in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The class divisions they had read about were thrown in stark relief as they journeyed through the municipality: a sea of broken windows and lack of electricity alongside the mountains, juxtaposed by lavish restaurants and elaborate structures down below.
“This observation allowed me to further understand the complex contrasts between privilege and poverty,” says Porras. “It allowed me to reflect about some of the things I take for granted that others may identify as necessities for daily living.”
The group’s explorations were not limited to the streets of Rio de Janeiro. The scholars ascended to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain — the peak of Guanabara Bay in Rio that overlooks the Atlantic Ocean — via a glass-sided cable car. Melendres and her students also scored a ride on a cogwheel train up the Corcovado Mountain to see the famed Christ the Redeemer statue and indulge in a breathtaking view of the city.
The group then headed south to Buenos Aires, Argentina. There, the students saw concrete scenarios of what they had researched beforehand: To what extent does privilege benefit a community? For example, a visit to La Recoleta Cemetery — labeled as one of the best and most beautiful cemeteries in the world — showed how wealth could guarantee an extravagant place to lay a loved one to rest. Meanwhile, in the downtown areas, local educators protested for equal pay and higher salaries amid national inflation and a devaluing peso.
“In addition to all the amazing sights we have been able to visit, we were also fortunate to witness the mobilizing of people and activism for social justice and social change,” Melendres wrote on the Honors program’s Instagram account, her post accompanied by a photo of the demonstration in the streets.
Throughout the 10-day trip, scholars reflected on privileges within their own lives, many sharing that being a first-generation college student can be considered a privilege.
“Privilege is, as a first-generation student, the opportunity to gain travel knowledge and skills that promote my independence,” Porras says.
Next year, Melendres will embark on yet another global immersion trip with a new class. The 2019 journey, slated to take place in Norway, Denmark and Sweden, will explore social behavior.