Volunteer work leads to master’s thesis for Brock student

Master's student Ashley Hobden with children in a favela or shanty town in Rio de Janeiro.

Master's student Ashley Hobden with children in a favela or shanty town in Rio de Janeiro.

After finishing her undergraduate degree in psychology and child and youth studies at Brock University, Ashley Hobden spent a good part of a year volunteering in impoverished communities in Brazil.

She worked with families and children living in the mountainside shanty towns known as favelas in Rio de Janeiro. The lifestyle and culture of the favela was quite different than what Hobden experienced growing up in Burlington, Ont. The concept of childhood began to interest Hobden as she continued with her volunteer work, particularly what childhood means and how it’s defined.

“I started to question the ideologies and assumptions about what it means to be a child,” she says. “When we think about children, there’s a tendency to subject our experiences, attitudes and views universally – a one-size-fits-all idea of the childhood experience.”

Those questions led Hobden back to Brock last September to begin a master’s degree in child and youth studies. Her thesis work also means a return to Rio de Janeiro this year to spend four months studying the daily life and cultural practices of the favela as it relates to the childhood experience.

“It’s not uncommon in the favelas in Rio to walk into a bar at 11 p.m. and see kids sitting at a table with parents. Your immediate reaction is to think that this is wrong, but this is cultural,” she says.

“Around Christmas, you’ll find six-year-olds signing up their families for a campaign to be provided with food. Your first thought is to ask why they are doing this and not their parents. But you have to put aside your preconceived notions as to what you think is right or wrong. Instead, you have to ask yourself ‘What can we learn from this?'”

Hobden hopes her research will bring new understanding to alternative approaches to viewing childhood, and the impact culture and society have on the perceptions and concepts of childhood.

“By looking at childhood in certain ways, there are implications in regards to policy, practice, and education for children,” she says. “I think there are huge implications for seeing childhood in cultural ways and recognizing the importance of cherishing children’s voices in developing and shaping policy that affects their lives.”

Hobden is one of about 125 graduate students presenting research at the Mapping the New Knowledges Graduate Student Research Conference on April 10. The annual showcase of graduate student research and scholarship will feature oral and poster presentations, the 3MT (Three Minute Thesis) Contest, and the presentation of the Graduate Mentorship Awards.

The conference runs 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Plaza 300 and 400 levels and the Cairns 300 level. All are welcome.

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