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Saturday, September 23, 2023

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(From left) SDSU Provost Hector Ochoa and alumni Cathy Stiefel and J. Keith Behner attended an April 27 reception at the College of Arts and Letters. (From left) SDSU Provost Hector Ochoa and alumni Cathy Stiefel and J. Keith Behner attended an April 27 reception at the College of Arts and Letters.

Philanthropists Keith Behner and Cathy Stiefel Fund Brazil Sustainability Initiative

The gift supports critical collaborations in scholarship along with student research opportunities.
By Leslie L.J. Reilly

J. Keith Behner (‘71) and Cathy Stiefel (‘92), who established the Behner Stiefel Center for Brazilian Studies at San Diego State University in 2014, have made a new gift to the center to support the study of climate change and sustainability in the largest country in South America.

The initiative will engage faculty from across SDSU with scholars from Brazil, a nation ravaged by decades of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. In a three-pronged approach, it seeks to:
  • Advance research on environmental  issues by funding visiting scholars from Brazil with expertise in sustainability, and investing in SDSU faculty research on the topic;
  • Provide resources for Brazil-based SDSU student research experiences; and
  • Promote critical knowledge exchange via community engagement.

"We are delighted that the center has become such a focal point for faculty collaboration all across campus,” Keith Behner said. “Cathy and I want San Diego State University to have one of the best centers for Brazilian studies in the nation, and it's well on the way."

Based at the College of Arts and Letters (CAL), the Behner Stiefel Center draws from faculty in multiple disciplines at SDSU to study globally relevant issues in Brazil in collaboration with Brazilian scholars, with an emphasis on social and environmental justice. Its namesakes are both distinguished alumni of SDSU, Behner from the College of Arts and Letters and Stiefel from the then-College of Business Administration.

Patio dedicated

SDSU Provost Hector Ochoa led an April 27 reception in which the sixth floor patio of the College of Arts and Letters was dedicated in the name of Behner Stiefel Center, honoring the couple’s three decades of support.

“As San Diego State University moves to become an R1 institution, investments in faculty who are performing world-class research are critical,” said Ochoa. “With the most recent gift from Keith Behner and Cathy Stiefel, SDSU is perfectly poised to pursue sustainability research opportunities and involve top researchers across campus.”

The emphasis on sustainability in the initiative addresses an SDSU priority as reflected by the current five-year strategic plan, the university’s Office of Sustainability, its Center for Regional Sustainability, and CAL’s sustainability program. The issue also has risen to the fore in Brazil, beset by deforestation, fires, and an increase in illegal mining.

“This new gift will enable us to foster important cross-cultural relationships for students, and increase awareness of global sustainability issues for the entire campus community,” said Monica J. Casper, dean of the College of Arts and Letters.

The initiative aims to add to the center’s network of Brazilian scholars. Expanding connections in Brazil and enhancing the presence of visiting Brazilian scholars at SDSU will strengthen existing ties and foster collaborations for joint publications, grant proposals, as well as partnerships in teaching and learning opportunities for students, officials say.

Student research

The initiative also includes opportunities for fully-funded student research experiences in Brazil.

“I am especially excited about this part of the initiative,” said Erika Robb Larkins, director of the Behner Stiefel Center for Brazilian Studies. “Students often face economic barriers which prevent them from being able to engage in international learning activities. With support from the new initiative, we are able to improve access to this transformative experience. Furthermore, working directly with faculty on research will provide students with hands-on training that they can bring into their future careers.”

Initial activities will focus on exchanges with partners living and working in climate-impacted (and especially fire-impacted) communities in the Amazon and Pantanal regions.

The new patio space is intended to celebrate the different perspectives, cultural understanding, and scholarship of the Behner Stiefel Center. Brazilian graffiti artist and muralist Eder Muniz painted murals on the patio walls to highlight flora and fauna of the Brazilian rainforests and to explore climate change and sustainability.

“The patio symbolizes the importance we place on sustainability,” Ochoa said at the reception. “When I look at this space, it is absolutely beautiful.”

Located a few doors down from the Behner Stiefel Center, the patio is a gathering place for students, faculty and staff who use the space for studying, meeting and socializing.