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Focusing on Brazilian students’ U.S. experience

Bible garden at PUC Rio 

The first group of roughly 600 students from Brazil’s “Science Mobility Program” aka “Science without Borders” returned from the U.S. in recent months. More than 5000 more have already gone to programs and thousands more are expected to travel in a program that is meant to send 101,000 Brazilians out of the country to study in the STEM field.   PAS Brazil is using the opportunity of so many students to learn about Brazilian experience in the U.S. with a series of focus group style meetings held in various Brazilian cities and so far have been carried out in São Paulo, Belo Horizonte and Rio, with plans for similar outreach in Porto Alegre, Fortaleza, Recife, Brasília and Manaus.  We have been achieving what we consider an ideal group size of around twenty participants, small enough to control and not intimidate any individual participants, but large enough to get some synergy and back and forth among participants.  The sessions are almost entirely in Portuguese, with a few questions about English capacity asked in English.  Response has been good. Students like it that we are taking the time to talk to them and word of our efforts is spread well beyond the initial groups

Tree at PUC Rio 

This group recognized that they were pioneers and were not surprised that it was a challenge. We talked about the necessity to move fast and they seemed to accept that had we not moved quickly to get the program running, we could have lost the initiative and maybe success. Two of the women had gone to Parson School of Design in New York. They said that they were welcomed there, but nobody knew exactly what to do with them.  Interestingly, however, when the second wave of Brazilians showed up for fall semester, it was easier for everyone.  One woman recounted the story that she was used to having to explain to everyone her unique status and was surprised when she made one of her usual calls, prepared to explain, the person on the other side of the conversation blandly said, “Oh, you are Science w/o Borders.”

Medical care was a concern. The SwB kids have insurance, but they are uncertain what to do and how to use it.  One guy hurt his knee and had trouble figuring out who would pay the bills and how. Another was bit by a stray dog and needed shots. That also was painful both physically and logically.  There is also the challenge of multiple bills.  In many U.S. clinics, each of the groups bills separately. This, I told them, is also a problem for Americans, but it is little solace.  

Most of the students managed to get summer internships and one woman’s summer internship matured into a full-time job with CH2MHill in Brazil.  But they found it more difficult than the next wave of students because they arrived in January.  Many positions were filled already by that time and everybody had to scramble.  Universities were helpful in this regard.

We heard some complaints that coursework in the U.S. did not easily translate into Brazilian credits.  Some were bureaucratic problems that should be easily solved. For example, American courses have less class time but more homework than most in Brazil.  A Brazilian course might have ten class hours and so the schools think it is ten hours versus three in the U.S. 

A representative from PUC made a valid point that Brazilian schools were required to accept credits as part of their agreement with CAPES, but it was likely that the courses would be more general and less core. The idea would be to take courses in the U.S. that were not available or not available in the same way in Brazil. There is no reason to take calculus II in the U.S., for example, when the same thing is in Brazil. The very fact that classes are different – a good thing – means that they will not easily translate into the standard courses in Brazil. One participant commented that she saw her time in the U.S. as a special benefit and did not expect a direct translation. Not everyone could be so magnanimous.  One participant complained that some SwB students were just taking fun classes like football or archery.  He thought this was not in the spirit of the program.  Other participants did not think this was happening often, or at least not often enough to be a serious problem.  

We got the usual observations that American schools demand less time in class, but require more homework and professors in the U.S. are more open to working with students and discussing things with them. There is less distance between professors and students. This is something I thought right and natural, but I am beginning to see that this is one of the fundamental strengths of American education and a source of much innovation.  American students are not expected to master as much material as they are encouraged to discover it. American universities also encourage students to study in teams and do projects with other student. Our Brazilian students like this. They also mentioned, as the others have before, that American classes start on time and people show up when they are supposed to be there.  What is becoming a meme is the idea that American professors have office hours when they are actually in the office.   The students complained that their Brazilian professors sometimes are not there for office hours, even when they have an appointment.

I closed with a set of ideas I am developing that seem appropriate and that seem to resonate with groups of young people and academic.  I thanked them for their interest in my country and told them that I think that their participation in this program will help bring our countries into better partnership.  I complimented the Brazilian initiative. I told them I hoped that they might return to get their PhDs in America or do other sorts of advanced study (America is indeed the best place for this) but that we want them to return to Brazil and do their real work here.  They are more valuable to Brazil and to us in their own country. We are not looking for a brain drain to the U.S. but rather a brain circulation and idea exchange that helps all of us.  We are looking for the win-win.  As I said, they like it when I say it, I believe it and it has the virtue of being objectively true – all good things. 

My pictures are from PUC Rio. Up top is a Bible garden. It features plants mentioned in the Bible. Below is a big tree in one of the buildings. A nice thing about Brazil is how they can mix indoor and outdoor space. 


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