In Brazil, where there have been few relationships between universities and poor rural communities, Emmanuel Falcão is building bridges between them by offering university accredited service learning. This is having a major impact on communities and is transforming students and universities.

This profile below was prepared when Emmanuel Falcão was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2008.


In Brazil, where there have been few relationships between universities and poor rural communities, Emmanuel Falcão is building bridges between them by offering university accredited service learning. This is having a major impact on communities and is transforming students and universities.


Intellectuals in Brazil have long dreamed of offering rural extension or service learning experiences for university students in poor, rural communities, but there have been no successful programs. Emmanuel has created the first successful service learning programs in rural communities operating under university auspices by working in a different manner with each of his target audiences—students, communities, and universities.

Emmanuel created a structure and method for university students to learn from hands-on, in-depth service experience in poor, rural communities. By immersing students in the life of the community, where students from relatively privileged backgrounds often understand for the first time how others in their country live, the students’ life-changing experiences transform the way they think about their roles in society.

Emmanuel also breaks down resistance from rural communities by building relationships and trust over time and by encouraging students to learn from the communities while implementing their projects. Emmanuel generates real benefits for the community—a law student helping an indigenous community with land rights or a medical student promoting better nutritional habits. In addition, community members are certified to teach occasional university courses (for example, on traditional organic agriculture techniques), validating the worth of the unique knowledge and cultural heritage of these communities in their own eyes, as well as making it available to others.

Finally, Emmanuel focuses on the university, by first proving through the success and popularity of his model that service learning can be a valuable part of higher education. He has persuaded university administrators that they can create new programs to implement the philosophy that has long been embodied in Brazilian law but ignored in practice, of offering service learning as part of the university curriculum. These service learning experiences operate under the umbrella of the university but with considerable autonomy, which has made it possible to receive support from COs and government ministries. With students clamoring for service learning, additional funding available, and a structure that makes service learning a semi- autonomous institute within universities, Deans and Presidents have become supporters of this decades-old dream that seemed nearly impossible to realize.


Most university students come from privileged socioeconomic backgrounds, with little understanding of how the majority of Brazilians live. Universities have done little to address this issue and rarely encourage students to apply their skills towards servicing the public good. Access to higher education in Brazil is extremely limited for low-income people. According to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, in 2006, 66 percent of students enrolled in public universities were from the highest income bracket, while 2 percent were from the lowest bracket; statistics are similar for private universities.

Under Brazilian law, public universities have three obligations: Teaching, research, and service learning. Service learning, in theory, provides an opportunity for students to stretch beyond their boundaries, interact with Brazilian society, and learn how to apply their knowledge for societal benefit. Yet universities fail to promote service learning, which is overlooked and underfunded, so many students graduate without knowing what service learning is. Even when they do, most service learning is done within the university, creating courses, conferences, or seminars geared towards other students and not external communities.

Eighty years ago, Brazilian universities experimented with many innovative service learning approaches, from Popular and Free universities, rural extension programs, and a New School University. But after the depression and world war, these programs languished and were then phased out by military regimes, which focused more on technical learning. Brazilian universities have legitimized only a certain kind of scientific knowledge that tends to be narrow in scope, discarding the “popular” knowledge of local cultures and oral traditions. Despite efforts in the 1980s to create a new model of higher education, this limitation persists. Because of this orientation, the few service learning projects geared towards benefiting communities have approached them with top-down solutions—“helping” people instead of working with them.

At most public universities, only a third of the service learning projects take place in communities outside the university. In most of cases, the projects are created by university professors and applied by students without the participation of the community members as full actors in the process. They are thereby commonly seen as “objects” of research rather than active subjects in these actions. This culture of engagement could change if students called for more hands-on community work, but without universities’ support and recognition, this scenario is not likely to change.


Beginning with the University of Paraiba in northern Brazil, Emmanuel created a methodology for student service internships in communities as well as for community/local knowledge to be incorporated into university curricula. He is expanding this methodology to universities across Brazil.

Emmanuel’s organization, Advisor to the Specialized Multidisciplinary Group in Technology and Service Learning (AGEMTE), works inside universities in partnership with university centers for service learning. AGEMTE staff members, largely volunteers, supplement university services by advising students on how to conduct their community service internships and follow up with them throughout the course of their projects. AGEMTE’s activities are funded by both university service programs and various government ministries which support AGEMTE student projects because they contribute to Brazil’s development.

Student internships are structured so that students develop their project proposals only after living with a rural and/or marginalized community for about a month. They are encouraged to develop their projects with community members so that they can use their skills to answer real needs and be receptive to local knowledge to accomplish their goals. Generally, student projects promote economic development, community health, and legal rights, among other types of service. After developing their proposals, students return to their communities for 480 hours of internship service.

Through support from AGEMTE and by following the methodology Emmanuel has developed to work with communities, students have had some remarkable successes. Examples include: Obtaining legal rights to land for the Praia de Campina community; helping with agricultural reform in the Cruz de Espirito Santo Municipality; and creating a new university campus on the north coast of Paraiba. More importantly, students (often from privileged backgrounds) are transformed by a new understanding of poor communities in their country and a new orientation towards their roles and responsibilities in society. They become agents of change.

Part of the internship experience is for students to bring what they’ve learned from their communities to the university. They create course content for other students that is founded in popular knowledge and tradition, and often bring community members to the universities to teach courses. For example, a shrimp farmer might teach his sustainable farming techniques to an agriculture class. The universities’ give community teachers formal certificates in their trade, which for Emmanuel is an important way to validate local, cultural knowledge as a complement to curricula based in Western science.

Emmanuel’s work advanced significantly when the University of Paraiba approved the student internships and community exchange as part of the official curriculum. The program was popular, and students became the program’s best advocates. Students from other universities started coming to the University of Paraiba to enroll in AGEMTE’s community service internship course. Over ten years, the program received over 1,500 students from all over Brazil. When they returned to their universities, these students pushed for the establishment of the internships and the insertion of traditional community knowledge into the curriculum in their schools; these efforts have also been enthusiastically supported by a growing number of citizen groups. AGEMTE operates in six public universities, including the large and prestigious, University of São Paulo. as well as four universities that are independently replicating the model. Emmanuel is also piloting a replication in a private university, adapting the structure of the program to fit a different system.

Emmanuel is gaining momentum expanding his model across Brazil. Since there is currently much conversation in Brazil about the need to improve higher education, the timing is good. With the internship program so popular with students, public universities are finding that they can increase their status by adopting it. In addition, Emmanuel advocates for the concept with professors and deans in many universities, and has taken his idea to the national forum of deans of universities across Brazil. In many cases, universities have simply not known how to implement service learning, so there is great value in offering a tested structure and methodology.

Emmanuel’s current goal is to create fifteen Popular University Centers (CUPs) in universities across the country that can serve as hubs for students from the surrounding regions to participate in his community service internships and bring community knowledge to their school curricula. CUPs operate under the auspices of universities but with considerable autonomy, both in programs and fundraising. Citizen sector groups have developed partnerships with AGEMTE and CUPs which is helping to open other doors and provide more credibility and support for these bridge-building efforts.


Emmanuel comes from a humble background in the northeast, and his parents played an important role in shaping his future interests. His father was a nurse who felt it valuable to incorporate local knowledge into health care. His mother encouraged Emmanuel’s interest in food and agriculture, which later led him to look at problems of hunger.

Emmanuel entered the School of Mechanical Engineering of the Federal University of Paraiba, but the premature death of his older brother forced him to abandon school to work full-time. During this time, he volunteered at a community hospital. When Emmanuel returned to school, he enrolled in a new course on nutrition with a notion to fight malnutrition. But his studies were technical and based on research far removed from issues of hunger and the nutrition programs he knew were needed by the communities in which he had volunteered. He began to think about service learning as a way to tie classroom learning with practical applications to benefit people.

Emmanuel’s first service learning project was his own: To promote alternative income generation activities for the coastal community of Costinha after it was forced to stop hunting whales. Though Costinha was confronted with serious social problems, including widespread hunger, Emmanuel was ineffective to help because he was using university methods not grounded in the realities of life in the local communities. He researched and created his own methodology to work with communities.

Emmanuel learned of the many efforts over the past one hundred years to have universities reach out to poor, rural communities and he became convinced he could build bridges between the two worlds. He offered a few students in-depth experiences in rural communities and had to overcome huge obstacles in the communities and the university. It took him more than ten years to overcome these obstacles and create a successful, replicable model. His students were his most enthusiastic and effective advocates, beginning in the communities where it took an average of four years to gain trust and confidence. Then, university deans had to be persuaded to make service learning part of the curriculum, while not smothering it in university bureaucracy.

Emmanuel has built a successful model in Paraiba and has begun to expand his approach to ten other universities. He will not rest until he builds robust and sustainable bridges between universities throughout Brazil and poor, rural communities, which transforms and improves both.