Exploring Colombia: Rice’s GREAT Project offers cultural immersion for young adults with special needs

GREAT Project Colombia
GREAT Project Colombia
Rice international students, scholars and supporters volunteered to help young adults with learning differences learn about Colombia at an April 13 GREAT Project event. (All photos provided by Adria Baker)

Rice University’s Global RICE Empowers Academics and Training (GREAT) Project continues to bridge cultures and foster inclusive learning experiences. Its April 13 event explored the vibrant tapestry of Colombia, showcasing the diversity and richness of Colombian culture through engaging activities and interactive sessions for young adults with learning differences.

The workshop was put on by a dedicated team of international students, scholars and supporters who hail from countries including Brazil, Thailand, Japan, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Costa Rica, Mexico, Madagascar and Colombia. Felipe Arevalo, a Fulbright researcher in electrical and computer engineering, and Alejandra Rodriguez Quevedo, a senior cognitive sciences major, led the event.

Felipe & other team lead
Alejandra Rodriguez Quevedo (left) and Felipe Arevalo led the Colombia event.

“I am very grateful to the GREAT Project for the opportunity it has given me, not only to teach and support the young adults but also to learn from them,” Arevalo said. “The objective of this activity was only to give them a small sample of Colombian culture from its own roots with native students and accessible methodologies that they can take in their memories.”

The workshop started with an overview of Colombia, followed by interactive sessions divided into four thematic tables: coffee and food, biodiversity, music and sports. Each table provided a unique lens through which participants could explore different facets of Colombian life, blending academic learning with cultural immersion.

“We even had one alumna, Catalina Vasquez who is currently in Colombia, take advantage of filming a highlight video, so the participants could feel they were walking in the streets of Colombia,” said Adria Baker, who oversees the GREAT Project.

At the coffee and food table, participants learned the art of brewing Colombian coffee and savored traditional Colombian snacks. Meanwhile, the biodiversity table took participants on a virtual tour of Colombia’s diverse ecosystems, from lush mangroves to high-altitude páramos.

“In each ecosystem, we stopped to identify the animals that live there, listen to their characteristic sounds and learn their names in Spanish,” said Maria Jose Guerrero, a researcher in electrical and computer engineering.

Shakira took center stage at the music table, said Nathan Queiroz, Fulbright foreign language teaching assistant and Center for Languages and Intercultural Communication lecturer.

GREAT Project Colombia
Four tables focused on different facets of Colombian culture: music (pictured), food, sports and biodiversity.

“Then we learned about Colombian musical instruments, and we did a workshop on how to build your own maracas,” Queiroz said.

The sports table celebrated Colombian athleticism, showcasing famous athletes from a wide variety of sports.

“We also had goals and hoops set up to give them a chance to shoot some hoops and score some goals for themselves,” said Mary Seifu Tirfe, a Rice360 Institute for Global Health Technologies fellow.

Throughout the workshop, participants rotated between tables, learning about various aspects of Colombian culture while actively participating in hands-on activities. Before the event wrapped up, the young adults learned Colombian dances and received certificates of completion, marking their successful immersion in Colombian culture.

“What a perfect day,” said Janis Zinn, the mother of one of the young adults who attended. “The students really did an outstanding job engaging and interacting with our kids. It also warmed my heart to see that after three hours of ‘togetherness,’ they still were hanging out socializing on the patio. How great is that?”

Arevalo, who assisted with January’s GREAT Project event on Japan, will now serve as a mentor to the next group of GREAT Project leaders, who are planning on a workshop on Africa for fall 2024.

“That’s another reason why it is special,” Baker said. “International students and scholars are mentoring one another as well as the young adult participants.”

For its innovative approach, the GREAT Project received a 2023 Heiskell Award from the Institute of International Education in the category of “Widening Access to International Education.” Learn more about the program here.