When he was in high school, Marshall Eakin spent a summer in Guatemala. This was no fun-in-the-sun beach vacation. It changed his life.
He was there to work, assisting public health clinics by giving smallpox inoculations, DPT shots and polio vaccine to the needy. “I came of age in the 1960s, and I was very socially aware and politicized as a teenager, and I was looking around for something socially useful to do,” he explains. “When I came back, I said to myself, Whatever I do when I grow up, it’s going to have something to do with Latin America.”
He kept that promise. Today at age 56, Eakin is a professor of history at Vanderbilt and an internationally recognized expert on the history of Latin America—Brazil in particular. But he’s fulfilled another promise, too, by staying engaged with social justice issues in Latin America.
Eakin’s abiding concern for Latin America’s less fortunate—and for raising the social awareness of Vanderbilt students—has led him to conduct special undergraduate summer courses in places like Chile and Nicaragua. These courses immerse undergraduates in local culture and history while also giving them the tools to help impoverished local communities.
Such courses are known as “service learning,” a blend of classwork and real-world experience that is becoming increasingly identified with Vanderbilt University. After all, it was at Vanderbilt in 1987 that the Alternative Spring Break (ASB) program originated. Now more than 100 colleges and universities nationwide participate in this program (known nationally as Break Away: the Alternative Break Connection). More than 400 Vanderbilt students take part each March in service projects benefiting communities in need.
Eakin, who served many years as faculty adviser to ASB, has been a leading advocate for such service-learning experiences at Vanderbilt. “When other faculty members ask why I do this, I say it’s because it’s the most powerful teaching I’ve ever been able to do. I could teach till I’m blue in the face about Latin America, but it’s all hypothetical.
“One example: I had a family from Oaxaca come to a class that I co-taught with Bill Partridge, an anthropologist at Peabody. The family didn’t speak much English, so the entire class period was done in Spanish. All the students had studied at least enough Spanish to understand what was going on. And they sat there and questioned this Mexican immigrant family: ‘Why did you come here?’ ‘What do you do now?’ ‘What was it like getting here?’ ‘Are you going back to Mexico?’
“I could have just told the class to read a book. But those were real, live people. And those students will remember what they learned that day.”
Growing up in Houston, Marshall Eakin never set out to be a service-learning guru, or even a university professor for that matter. As he puts it, he just kept following his interests in Latin America. They eventually led him to earn his master’s degree at the University of Kansas and his doctorate at UCLA, both in the history of Brazil. “What drove me all along was that I wanted to understand Brazil, and I wanted to write about it.”
After two years at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, Eakin came to Vanderbilt in 1983. At the time, he now says, he had no idea what a fortuitous career choice he had made. “Here was a first-rate university,” he says. “It’s even better in Latin American studies. And it’s among the top five places for Brazilian studies in the United States. I hit the jackpot.”
Just as important for Eakin was that Vanderbilt emphasized—and continues to emphasize—teaching among its faculty. In fact, Eakin maintains, “Vanderbilt puts more emphasis on teaching than any major research university in the United States, except maybe Notre Dame and Georgetown.” That balance between teaching and research has remained important to him.
For much of his career, Eakin’s scholarly research has focused on the post-World War II industrialization of Brazil. In addition, he has sought to engage a broad audience outside university confines, publishing well-received general histories of Brazil (Brazil: The Once and Future Country, 1997) and Latin America (The History of Latin America: Collision of Cultures, 2007). Since 2004 he has served as executive director of the Brazilian Studies Association, an international organization that promotes the study of Brazil.
Says colleague Earl Fitz, professor of Portuguese, Spanish and comparative literature at Vanderbilt, “Marshall’s a major figure in the field. He’s a specialist in Brazil, but also a Latin Americanist by training, so he’s able to speak about Brazil while at the same time connecting Brazil with the rest of Latin America and the world. His book The Once and Future Country has become a real gateway for people who want to become involved with Brazil and issues pertinent to it.”
For most of us, being a leading authority in our chosen field would be enough to keep us occupied, right? For Eakin, though, working with students seems to be the icing on the cake. He teaches with visible enthusiasm, and his collection of teaching awards attests to his success in reaching students. Among his distinctions at Vanderbilt are the Jeffrey W. Nordhaus Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching (1991), the Chancellor’s Cup (1994), the Madison Sarratt Prize for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching (1994), the Chair of Teaching Excellence (1998–2001), and the Joe B. Wyatt Distinguished Professorship (2004–05). In 1999 the Carnegie Foundation and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education named him Tennessee Professor of the Year.
“I’m always struck by his ability to build rapport and his engagement with the students,” says Allison Pingree, director of Vanderbilt’s Center for Teaching. “He’s down to earth. He knows a tremendous amount, but he doesn’t come across as arrogant at all. He also has a rare combination of commitment to transformation of the whole person along with insistence on high standards of academic rigor.”
Now Eakin is getting an opportunity to take his interests in transformative experiences and service learning to a new level. In August he was named director of the Ingram Scholarship Program. Established in 1994 by then-Board of Trust Chair Bronson Ingram, the scholarship program pays full tuition to high-achieving students who also demonstrate a commitment to community service. Forty-eight Ingram Scholars are enrolled during the current academic year.
Impressively, the program requires Ingram Scholars to participate in at least 20 hours of community service per month during the academic year, plus additional summer service projects at places in need across the U.S. and the globe. For Eakin, his new position will enable a different kind of teaching. “It will allow more mentoring and will be much more individualized,” he says, “and it will also be very rewarding because I’ll be working with students who are all incredibly smart, highly motivated and socially conscious.”
During 2009–10, Eakin once again must balance his passions for teaching and scholarship. Before his appointment as director of the Ingram Scholarship Program, he won a Fulbright-Hays Faculty Research Abroad Fellowship, which is funding a year of research in Rio de Janeiro. There he is working on his next book, a study of Brazil’s national identity titled Becoming Brazilians: Making a Nation and a People, to be published in English and Portuguese. So for this year he’ll oversee the Ingram Scholarship Program long distance, via Skype, telephone, e-mail, and extended trips back to campus until he’s back at Vanderbilt full time. Meanwhile, Provost Richard McCarty and the program’s staff will make sure the students are provided for on a day-to-day basis.
Still, it’s going to be a challenging year for him, he admits: researching and writing a book and taking charge of the Ingram Scholarship Program, all while 4,952 miles from Nashville. But as he discusses the balancing act his career requires, Eakin seems energized yet serene. Though he doesn’t say it, it’s clear that he’s doing what he loves, and he’s making a difference—both for communities in need and for his students.
“I’d say that service learning is where my Latin American interests and my social-justice interests converge. Working with our Ingram Scholars is a great way to bring these things together in teaching and the classroom.”
© 2013 Vanderbilt University | Photography: JOHN RUSSELL
Conversation guidelines: Vanderbilt Magazine welcomes your thoughts, stories and information related to this article. Please stay on topic and be respectful of others. Keep the conversation appropriate for interested readers across the map.