Column: In Rio, students tackle social issues like Olympians

Editor’s note: The opening ceremonies of the 2016 Summer Olympics start Friday amid headlines focused on Rio’s infrastructure problems, political turmoil and Zika virus worries. But members of the international community have also been working together to address some of the social issues facing Brazilians, embodying the best of Olympic values, teamwork and cooperation.

Andrew Sherman, head of school at the American School of Rio de Janeiro, has lived in Latin America (in three different countries) for two decades. Sherman discusses the privilege of living in a city hosting a global sports events and how Olympic preparations have brought together different segments of the community.

While the news around the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro seems to focus on violence, polluted water, corruption and doping tests, a program for teenagers in the region is using the event to promote excellence, friendship and respect. The emphasis on character development, embedded in the ethos of the Olympics, is a pathway to move beyond the media’s interest in problems, and instead focus on confronting and resolving the significant social issues impacting our lives.

teachersloungeStudents representing over 35 countries at the American School of Rio de Janeiro (EARJ) are part of the Olympic Values Education Program. These boys and girls participate to increase awareness of how people experience the world in different ways: they played soccer wearing blindfolds and basketball while confined to wheelchairs. This training also brought together students from different socio-economic sectors of Rio society to demonstrate how contact, communication and trust builds relationships. Afterwards, the EARJ cohort returned to our school and organized an internal Olympic Friendship Day.

Rio Olympics 2016

Students from the American School of Rio de Janeiro visit with a member of a parathletic team. Photo credit: Theresa Rodriguez and Carol Cavalho

Many of our students and teachers will take advantage of the school holiday break to volunteer at different venues. EARJ students are serving as translators (a bilingual educational program is a significant advantage here), stadium guides for international visitors and field supervisors for crowd control. Our teachers are even involved in the opening and closing performances; Brad, our Canadian high school English teacher, is leading a troop of more than 240 dancers.

We were fortunate to participate in test events at venues in the Olympic village, and to host visiting Paralympic athletes and the Rio 2016 Olympic torch. Elementary students were the first visitors to the diving complex and were able to watch a practice event for visiting delegations. The students involved in the Olympic Values Program invited Brazilian Paralympic athletes to play in a scrimmage with our students. We brought the Olympic Torch to campus and students in our design thinking lab created visual languages, icons and images, to represent Olympic host cities and sporting events.

Rio Olympics 2016

Students at the American School of Rio de Janeiro with their middle school PE teacher holding the Olympic torch. Photo credit: Theresa Rodriguez and Carol Cavalho

As an educator, I’ve found that living and working in the host city of the 2016 Summer Olympics has reaffirmed the importance of contributing to a larger project, and recognizing the importance of place for defining community action. In other words, the Olympics are more than a series of high-level competitive activities. Our students recognize that when people from all over the world come together and the lights shine brightly, it is time to consider what actions can be taken locally to make a difference.

For example, over the past year Tomas and Antonio founded a music school for underprivileged youth in a low income area bordering the school. Erik created a network of organizations committed to social responsibility, providing mutually beneficial networking opportunities to promote their cause and raise funds. Marina designed multiple small-scale projects to meet immediate needs and solve pressing problems, such as uneven sidewalks and limited mobility access issues for public spaces. These EARJ students tackle community concerns with the tenacity of world-class Olympic athletes.

The greatest privilege of living in a city that’s hosting a global sports event is simply the same reward I receive daily by watching young people explore, develop and realize their own potential to be agents of change.