As a tour guide at Oberlin College, I often talk to top-tier students who are comparing my college with those of very similar prestige. When asked how to describe my Oberlin experience so far or what I love most about the school, my response is always: Oberlin provides opportunities.
As an environmental studies and economics double major with a passion for sustainable development through improvement of the “triple-bottom line", or the “Three Es” (environment, economy, and equity), Oberlin has offered me incredible encouragement and support. I have taken great classes, had rich experiences in student organizations, and contributed through college and Oberlin community volunteer opportunities. However, the experience facilitated by Oberlin that has contributed most to my development was a summer 2011 internship with a small sustainable energy nongovernmental organization (NGO) in Maceio, the capital of Brazil’s Alagoas Province.
I began searching for an environmentally related summer internship in South America in early 2011. I was particularly interested in Brazil because it is an economic lion and it has many environmental issues. I accepted an eight-week internship in Maceio with a small NGO called EDS-Sustenergy because I thought it offered the most on-the-ground experience. A grant from Oberlin’s Doris Baron Student Research Fund, which supports projects of environmental studies students, helped me finance my travel to Brazil.
I spent my first two weeks in Maceio taking intensive Portuguese classes to become proficient in the language. I speak Spanish well, having lived in Mexico during middle school, but I found the Portuguese lessons challenging at first. My brain was used to speaking Spanish, but slowly I began to register the new sounds and rules. My language improved as I spent more and more time speaking with fellow classmates and the Brazilian locals. I quickly made friends and loved spending time learning about the culture and history. As I became more confident with my new tongue, I began exploring the city. I nosed around markets, and signed up for tours to see the surrounding areas. I joined a hole-in-the-wall gym and learned the basics of Brazilian jiu-jitsu from a very generous former mixed martial arts star from northeastern Brazil.
After my introductory two weeks, I began to intern for EDS-Sustenergy, a sustainable development company, which partners with USAID and Brazilian governmental organizations in rural northeast Brazil to improve sustainability, increase access to clean water, and provide rural inhabitants with green energy. I was able to see firsthand the positive effects sustainability and green energy can have on individuals and entire communities. I worked four to five hours a day doing odd jobs around the office and talking with EDS’ director, David Cerqueira. He explained to me the political and economic ins and outs of sustainability in Brazil. He wrote grants to fund green projects to be completed in collaboration with local community partners.
The completed projects made fundamental and essential changes in the lives of the people they affected. One project, for example, installed a desalination system and water retention pond that provided a community with clean water, thus eliminating the need to walk four miles to and from the closest water source. Another project installed photovoltaic panels and batteries at 172 schools in rural Alagoas. Before the project was implemented, these schools relied on only sunlight to provide light to teach. The panels and batteries powered the schools’ lights and fans, doubling available teaching hours.
I was able to contribute to EDS-Sustenergy by improving its website’s English translation of the NGO’s project descriptions. During the internship, I also developed a spreadsheet that tallied the production capacity and resource use of the Alagoas communities that produced cassava flour. EDS-Sustenergy used this background information for planning future projects.
To help me fully appreciate the organization’s work, Cerqueira always took time out of his day to describe for me the various sustainability projects—past, present, and planned. In addition to the work day, David allowed me to sit in on business meetings with local stakeholders to study how to conduct business.
My internship in Brazil helped me grow personally and professionally. Personally, the experience allowed me to learn a new language, jiu-jitsu skills, and the confidence that comes from living in a different culture. Professionally, it allowed me to see firsthand how environmental projects in a middle-income country can be planned and executed, and the tremendous difference they bring to the lives of the people that they touch. This internship made me realize how alternative energy and clean water can improve the health of community members and that it is fundamental to their economic development. The internship also reinforced my dedication to promoting the “triple bottom line” through environmental work.