Thérèse Walsh recounts her non – traditional adventure in Rio….

I sit at the top of a favela buried in the heart of the mountains of Rio de Janeiro. At twenty years old I have managed to land myself with the adventure of a lifetime working with an NGO in the poorest communities of Rio. My international team and myself lay baking in the thick Brazilian heat of the courtyard of the school we are working in. One Moroccan girl lays fasting in the heat, medical she is half way through Ramadan and patiently waits for the sun to fall. One American boy lies napping in the shade, A Puerto Ricans girl reads while a German girl sits listening to her IPod. There are twenty of us in total – all international students who were brought to work in Rio by the student-run organisation AIESEC.

I went through the usual “What am I going to do all summer” phase this time last year. It’s around now when the murmur starts up – “I’m doing an internship, or I’m going on a J1, Inter railing, volunteering, backpacking” etc.. Its all a bit worrying when you haven’t exactly figured out what you’ll be doing in a week, much less laying out plans for four months. I never would have expected that I would end up spending four months living and working in Rio de Janeiro. I had narrowed my summer down to three options by week 7 – #1- stay at home with a soul destroying part-time job whilst watching my friends let me know what a great summer they were having via instagram. #2- Go on the famed (if overly overrated)  J1 or #3 – try volunteering. As clichéd as it sounds I decided I wanted to gain something more than just money for a summer – with many June and July’s in the past spent in mundane part-time jobs, I thought  it was time for something different.

The sun bakes the terrace as we wait for the little Havaiana – clad children to come in for what they have began to call the ‘gringo lesson.’ We are supposed to be teaching these children about human rights, cultural diversity and entrepreneurship… through Portuguese. My team includes one Spanish speaker, one Portuguese speaker and myself with the basic language skills I have acquired – constantly tested and ever improved upon. (I’ve learn to say all kinds of teacher like things – “stop that, put it down, give it to me, leave her alone” etc etc).

Rio is famed for its panoramic beauty and vibrant culture but much less Brazilian sun is shone on the epic divide between rich and poor in the country. All of the children we are working with have a very slim chance of ever going to university – there is no grant system, no support, no chance. The phenomenal university fees in Brazil  are only for the wealthy and education is more a question of privilege then a right. I could talk about how epic Rio’s beaches are, or the great views of Sugar Loaf Mountain but I’d much prefer to talk about its people. We have arrived into Rio just as a wave of Brazilian riots have begun – the young and the old take to the streets and clash with police on a daily basis. Everyone has taken to wearing white – a colour of protest. The vehemence is felt around the streets and foreigners are told to take care – the university students who have arranged for us to come to their city urge us to be careful on the routes we take home. My volunteering experience is an epic one – mainly because of all the people I am working with – twenty of us flew to Rio within a week of each other. We begin our day at the bottom of the favela – taking a motor taxi up through tiny teeming streets. Our days are spent working in different NGO’s or schools, at night we meet up on Copacabana to chat about our lessons, occasionally going to famed AIESEC parties. We spend the weekend lounging on the beach. Its the perfect mixture of work and leisure. The best part is all the different people we get to work with – the students from the main university in Rio have created this entire project in order to benefit their local community. With something like volunteering you get as much out of it as you put in. The people you work with are vital to the success of the project – They’re the ones who will change the way you think, allow you to really delve into their culture, show you what you really need to know about the community you are trying to benefit.

It took me a while before I found what organisation to go away with, somehow I came across AIESEC. It’s the world’s largest student run, not-for-profit organisation, present in 122 countries and countless universities.. They work to provide leadership by means of exchange – and each year hundreds of volunteering and internship opportunities in a range of countries – for a mere €399. Costs did not include flights but once you got to your country of choice you are provided with accommodation with a host family and an entire organisation of people to ensure you get the full experience of the country. I was chosen as an intern to the Gira Mundo project in Rio De Janeiro – based around exploring cultural diversity through a range of workshops and classes for children and teenagers. Having being to Rio briefly once before I was aware of its tourist filled antics. I was hoping to discover something different when I traveled there to volunteer – in the words of G.K. Chesterton “The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see.” I discovered an entirely new view of Rio that summer – people with passion trying to change their country, students trying to educate not only themselves but those around them, and children with love for everything and everyone.

I urge you to look at your options this summer. They say travel is rebellion in its purest form and as a student, travel is one of the greatest ways to educate yourself regardless of whether you end up in New York, New Delhi, Prague or Rio – you’re going to come back with something more than you had when you first left.