UI Fulbright scholar to start a children’s choir in Brazil

Jill Oberhart, a UI Fulbright scholar, will touch down in Brazil in November, where she plans to start a children’s choir.


Tian Liu

Jill Oberhart poses for a portrait at Voxman Music Building on June 28, 2019. Oberhart is a recipient of Fulbright scholarship.

Andy Mitchell, News Reporter

Jill Oberhart thought she was too ordinary to be a Fulbright scholar. Her peers and instructors thought otherwise, and now she will step into a larger world.

In the middle of her shift at the office for Veteran’s Affairs in Iowa City, Oberhart got word that she will head to Brazil as a Fulbright scholar. While she was expecting to be contacted about a full-time job she had applied for as a contingency plan, instead she saw the congratulatory email.

“It’s such a weird thing to open in an email,” Oberhart said. “Like, here’s this prestigious thing for you in your Gmail that you can’t even open at work.”

The UI alum has been a musician for most of her life, which makes perfect sense looking at her family tree. Her mother played piano and trombone, her great-grandmother was a piano teacher, and her great-grandfather played bass in a U.S. Army band. Music runs deep in the family.

Her experience with music started early; she sang in her church choir at age 5. While she continued singing through high school, along the way she picked up a variety of instruments, including the cello for four years, the clarinet, and her weapon of choice, the bassoon.

“I kind of just knew that I always wanted to do music,” Oberhart said. “I felt like if I didn’t really pursue it as a degree, I would probably just stop, which would be kind of sad because it’s always been such an important part of my life.”

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Part of the Bettendorf native’s plans for her Fulbright is to start a children’s choir in Brazil, wherever she may end up, teaching them to perform popular music from the U.S. and Brazil. It’s a niche that one of her professors in Portuguese and Fulbright recommended, Cristiane Lira, a UI lecturer and director of Portuguese undergraduate studies, said there are some gaps that need to be closed.

“In most places in Brazil in public education, kids have no access to classical music …” Lira said. “I think that having the opportunity to have her there, and work with kids and teenagers as well, and put together a choir would help people get connected to music, and it would be a beautiful, beautiful project.”

Lira, who is from São Paulo, said the first time she could see a concert of classical music she was 29, in the U.S. While one of the original ideas for Oberhart involved teaching kids instruments, it turned out to be too costly, so they opted for teaching choir.

Oberhart also sees languages as just a different set of instruments.

Lira said she was impressed with how quickly Oberhart picked up Portuguese in 2017. Only two years later, she’ll work where Portuguese is the dominant language.

The music and psychology major is driven by more than just a love of music. Coming to the UI, she wanted to study to be a social worker but had to switch her plans. Her supplementary project in Brazil is studying gender norms and relationship expectations. She has done extensive work for the past three years at the Women’s Resource and Action Center to help prevent sexual violence as a part of the WRAC’s Violence Prevention Education team.

“Working with Jill has been amazing, I feel as a supervisor, I feel super-spoiled to be working with an amazing student,” said Martha Pierce, a WRAC violence-prevention specialist.

Oberhart is set to leave in November, and the specifics about where in Brazil she will stay and what the plan will be are still up in the air. But playing it by ear and improvising is nothing new, she said.