Focusing on students returning from the U.S.

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.   

After our third meeting, this one at PUC Rio, a pattern is becoming clear. The program is a spectacular success from the students’ point of view and the consistency and the unanimity of the responses in widely separated places are interesting. The caveat is that we have a self-selected group of people who want to talk to us. But the more statistically valid studies done by IIE seem to bear out much of what we are observing.  The following are major points.  

All of our groups recognized that they were pioneers and were not surprised that it was a challenge to get to universities in the U.S. in such short time and adapt.  We discussed the necessity of moving quickly fast and students seemed to accept that had we not moved quickly to get the program running, we could have lost the initiative and maybe not achieved the success that is clearly coming now.   

Two of the women who had gone to Parsons School of Design in New York, illustrated the evolution. They said that they were welcomed at Parsons, but nobody knew exactly what to do with them.  This problem was exacerbated by their arrival in January instead of the usual fall semester.   When the second wave of Brazilians showed up for fall semester, it was easier for them and by extension for those already there. One of the women recounted that she had become inured to having to explain to 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 with Science w/o Borders.”

Medical care was a concern. The SwB participants have insurance, but they are uncertain what to do and how to use it.  One participant said that he hurt his knee and had trouble figuring out where to go or who would pay the bills. Another was bit by a stray dog and needed a series of shots.  That was painful both physically and logistically.  There is also the challenge of multiple bills.  In many U.S. clinics, each of various care-givers bills separately and some of the bills come much later.  We explained that this 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 in environmental management matured into a full-time job with CH2MHill in Brazil.  But participants in the first wave of students found it more difficult than the next because they arrived in January.  Many positions were filled already by that time and everybody had to scramble.  Universities were helpful in this regard.  All but a few actually got internships.

We heard some complaints that coursework in the U.S. did not easily translate into Brazilian credits.  Some were bureaucratic tribulations 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 where the U.S. would have only three and so the schools think it is ten hours versus three in the U.S. for credits too.

Brazilian schools were required to accept credits as part of their agreement with the Brazilian government made when they sent students to the U.S., but they expected that 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 taught much the same way 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 of course. Not everyone could be so insouciant about it this was one of the things that seems most to upset participants.  One participant complained that some participants 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 happening 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 projects with them. There is less social distance in the U.S. between professors and students. This is something many Americans find right and natural, but we are beginning to see that this is one of the fundamental strengths of American education, a source of much innovation and immensely attractive to foreign students.  Our Brazilian students observed that American students are not expected to master material as much as they are encouraged to discover it for themselves. American universities also encourage students to study in teams and do projects with other student, with professors acting as coaches or guides. 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 and they are usually really in their offices at these times and available to students.   

We close our meetings with a set of ideas that we find appropriate and that seem to resonate with groups of young people and academics.  We thanked them for their interest in our country and tell them that their participation in this program will help bring our two countries into even better partnership.  We compliment the Brazilian initiative. This is important, since we don’t want to give the impression that we are trying to steal Brazil’s glory.  We tell them that we hope 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 in their own place.  They are more valuable to Brazil and to us in their own country and in the long run to us too. 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.  They like it when we say that, and it has the virtue of being objectively true – all good things.