In this photo from the summer of 2017, Bowdoin College student Juan Magalhaes works to build the walls of a new kitchen at Lwaleng Primary School in White River, South Africa. Credit: Courtesy of Juan Magalhaes

BRUNSWICK, Maine — Juan Magalhaes began his sophomore year at Bowdoin College last month, a world away from the Brazilian slums where he was born.

“It’s a different reality,” he said Wednesday. So different that, while he tries to describe his life at Bowdoin to his mother back in Curitbea, a small city in southern Brazil, he’s pretty sure she can’t quite imagine it.

Credit: Courtesy of Juan Magalhaes

Beating nearly impossible odds, Magalhaes spent his childhood watching his mother and father, who left school after sixth grade, leave for work each day at 5 a.m. and return 17 hours later, whether they were sick or not. His mother worked on her parents’ farm and his father painted houses.

But they were determined that Magalhaes and his brother would not live the same lives.

“They never really asked us to work,” Magalhaes said. “All they asked was for us to study. They said, ‘School is your only obligation. You have to get good grades. You have to love school and love studying because that’s what will give you a better future.’”

Magalhaes listened. When he was 16, he was offered a full scholarship to an elite American boarding school in Brazil. He had 18 months to learn to speak English. Then, for two years, each day he traveled three hours each way to study.

That commute took him to “a completely different place, like paradise, full of opportunities,” he said.

When he was 18, his all-star soccer team traveled to Florida, and Magalhaes fell in love with the United States.

So he went home, made a list of the top 10 boarding schools in the U.S., and wrote to every staff and faculty member he could find. The Cate School in California offered him a full ride, he said.

“I was living the dream,” he said. “I was like, ‘Man, I’m really on top of the world right now.’ But I knew I had to do something to give back.”

At the Cate School, Magalhaes began thinking about how to do that. He traveled on mission trips to Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Mexico and the British Virgin Islands.

Credit: Courtesy of Juan Magalhaes

While on a mission trip in South Africa, Magalhaes helped build classrooms at Lwaleng Primary School in the town of White River. He learned that the school feeds its students lunch at about 10 a.m. because “a good 80 percent of them don’t get three meals a day,” Magalhaes said. “For most of them, lunch is the only meal. Some kids go to bed without eating and wake up with nothing in their stomachs.”

He knew his work wasn’t done, but he returned to the United States.

Despite long odds, he was selected as one of 300 — out of about 15,000 international applicants — to be offered a full ride to an American school. His first choice was Bowdoin College, he said.

When he heard that news, Magalhaes said, “I knew that was a sign. I knew there was a bigger plan. I knew I needed to dedicate all my extra time [to community service].”

That year, between house parties, T-shirt sales and a GoFundMe page, Magalhaes raised $10,000 for a program he founded, Don’t Forget About Africa. He and nine other students from around the world returned to the Lwaleng Primary School in South Africa and built a kitchen that now feeds more than 900 students each day, he said.

Today, Magalhaes, who is majoring in economics and Hispanic studies, plays for the Bowdoin soccer team and is vice president of the college’s finance club.

“I’ve been having the time of my life here,” he said. “I love this school. I love this city.”

Credit: Courtesy of Juan Magalhaes

But his fundraising efforts aren’t complete. While visiting Thailand last spring, Magalhaes met a social worker at the Ban Klong Sai school in Phang Nga.

“She showed me how the education system in Thailand lacks so many things — the facilities are not good — and more and more kids just decide to quit school,” he said. Enrollment is also dropping due to rampant child labor. The woman asked Magalhaes for his suggestions to keep kids in school.

When he returned to Bowdoin, he worked with fellow soccer player C.J. Masterson on a new project, The Change.

“Our goal with Project Thailand is to repair the roof and ceilings and walls of the school cafeteria, which gets debilitated during the monsoons,” he said. In addition to infrastructure repairs, the pair hope to give the school a proper soccer field, and maybe computers. They may offer a soccer clinic combined with lessons in speaking English.

Credit: Courtesy of Juan Magalhaes

As of Wednesday, the project’s GoFundMe page had raised $605 of his $5,000 goal. He hopes to reach that total by Jan. 1, 2019, in order to travel with Masterson to Thailand and complete the work over winter break.

Magalhaes plans to work in finance after he graduates from Bowdoin, but sees himself continuing similar projects around the world in his effort to help others from similar backgrounds benefit from education.

“I can see how I could use my networks and opportunities in the finance world to continue this voluntary work,” he said. “From here, it’s just exponential growth.”

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