For spring graduate Elise Steenburgh, a gap year in Brazil was a formative experience that shaped their learning and interests at Oberlin. In February 2023, Steenburgh will return to the country that was a source of cultural and academic inspiration with a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship.
A resident of Rockville, Maryland, Steenburgh spent a gap year with Global Citizen Year before enrolling at Oberlin. They stayed with a host family in Florianópolis, Brazil, immersed in the culture and language while working at a wildlife conservation facility.
“My engagement with a diverse international cohort and the locals of Floripa enchanted me with the wonder of cultural and linguistic exchange, and this experience helped shape my college career,” says Steenburgh. After working full time with veterinarians and caretakers of monkeys, parrots, penguins, and turtles (among others), they decided to major in biology and environmental studies with a minor in comparative American studies.
At Oberlin, Steenburgh found community in the Experimental College (ExCo) program. In Spring 2021, they taught a Steel Pan ExCo. Through a private reading with Visiting Instructor in Environmental Studies Brad Melzer, they also created a Biomimicry ExCo.
“I developed skills in preparing and delivering presentations, facilitating discussions, and leading classroom activities through teaching the Biomimicry ExCo. During that experience, I realized my desire for more teaching opportunities to prepare myself for a career in environmental education,” Steenburgh says.
Teaching the Steel Pan ExCo also had a profound effect. “Two students came in to get extra help with learning the first song, and by the end of the session, they had learned it completely— and it was only the second time they had looked at it. After showing their parents their progress on FaceTime, I felt a deep sense of gratitude and fulfillment in having been able to foster a space for these students to learn about and play an instrument that is culturally significant to them and their families. This experience was the first moment I really considered becoming an educator.”
Steenburgh has been a teaching assistant for Capoeira courses taught by Associate Professor of Theater and Africana Studies Justin Emeka, and they credit Emeka for deepening their understanding and respect for Afro-Brazilian diasporic traditions.
During the Fulbright year, Steenburgh intends to practice Capoeira Angola, and they hope to get immersed in music. “I originally chose to go to Brazil for my gap year because I loved playing bossa nova. Instead of learning more bossa when I was there, I was exposed to the diversity of Brazilian music—sertanejo, funk, and MPB—which I broadcast on a WOBC radio show during my first few semesters at Oberlin. I used the radio show, titled “Tudo Bem” (all’s right), to feature a different genre of Brazilian music each week with history segments in both English and Portuguese.”
Steenburgh has been a member of Oberlin Student Cooperative Association (OSCA) since their first year, having worked as head cook and housing coordinator. They have worked as events coordinator and co-chair of the Multiracial Students Association; served as chair and treasurer of Oberlin Capoeira Angola; and has been a member of the steel pan ensemble Oberlin Steel.
This spring, Steenburgh has been doing research with Associate Professor of Environmental Studies and Comparative American Studies Jay Fisko. They presented at the HBCU Climate Change Conference in New Orleans in April 2022.
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