Philanthropists Keith Behner and Cathy Stiefel Fund Brazil Sustainability Initiative | Information Center


The donation supports essential research collaborations as well as research opportunities for students.

By Leslie LJ 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, made a new donation to the center to support the study of climate change and sustainability in the greater great 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 aims to:

  • Advance research on environmental issues by funding visiting scholars from Brazil with expertise in sustainability and investing in SDSU faculty research on the subject;
  • Provide resources for research experiences of SDSU students in Brazil; and
  • Promote the exchange of critical knowledge through community engagement.

“We are thrilled that the center has become such a focal point for faculty collaboration across campus,” said Keith Behner. “Cathy and I want San Diego State University to have one of the best centers for Brazilian studies in the country, and we’re well on our way.”

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

Dedicated patio

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

“As San Diego State University prepares to become an R1 institution, investments in faculty who conduct world-class research are critical,” Ochoa said. “With the most recent gift from Keith Behner and Cathy Stiefel, SDSU is uniquely positioned to pursue sustainability research opportunities and engage top researchers on campus.”

The initiative’s focus on sustainability responds to an SDSU priority, as reflected in the current five-year strategic plan, the university’s Office of Sustainability, its Center for Regional Sustainability, and the University’s Sustainability Program. CAL. The issue has also come to the fore in Brazil, plagued by deforestation, fires and an increase in illegal mining.

“This new gift will allow us to foster important cross-cultural connections for students and increase awareness throughout the campus community of global sustainability issues,” said Monica J. CasperDean of the College of Arts and Letters.

The initiative aims to strengthen the centre’s network of Brazilian academics. 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 opportunities. and learning for students, officials said.

Student research

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

“I’m particularly 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 that prevent them from participating in international learning activities. With the support of the new initiative, we are able to improve access to this transformative experience. Additionally, working directly with professors on research will provide students with hands-on training they can bring to their future careers.

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

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

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

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 to study, meet, and socialize.

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