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If it seems like all the university presidents and vice provosts are visiting Brazil these days, that’s because they are. Just last week, a delegation from the University of Michigan made the trip and, a month earlier, representatives from 66 colleges traveled to Brasilia, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro in what the U.S. Department of Commerce billed as its “largest education services trade mission ever.”  In April, nearly a third of Canada’s university presidents traveled to Brazil on a weeklong trip that produced 75 new partnerships and scholarships (on paper, that is).

“In Canada, we talk about the ‘nanosecond of opportunity’ for working with Brazil,” said Paul Davidson, president of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. “This is not something we can get around to. This is something we need to do now.”

A number of forces have converged to inspire the interest in Brazil. Its rapidly emerging economy is the world’s sixth- or seventh-largest, according to different assessments, and there's no shortage of buzz about how the BRIC countries -- Brazil, Russia, India and China -- will be major world powers in the future.

Furthermore, Brazil's government has invested heavily in higher education. A new government scholarship program, Science Without Borders, promises to send up to 100,000 Brazilian undergraduate and graduate students overseas by 2014. Host countries include Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, the United Kingdom and the United States. More than 16,000 scholarships have been awarded so far, according to Denise de Menezes Neddermeyer, director of international affairs at the Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel (CAPES), one of two Brazilian funding agencies charged with administering the program.

“What they’re investing in science and education is enormously impressive and unusual,” said Mary Sue Coleman, Michigan’s president. “I’m hoping it will stimulate much more interest in scholars at Michigan for getting involved."

Science Without Borders

The first cohort of 591 Science Without Borders students arrived on American campuses in the spring; a second cohort of 1,363 followed this fall, according to data provided by the Institute of International Education, CAPES’ partner in the U.S. Cohorts of 2,500 students each are expected in spring and fall of 2013.

“We’ve never seen a program of this scale ramp up this quickly, or be such a targeted and strategic intervention,” said Allan E. Goodman, IIE’s CEO and president. Goodman cited a number of innovative aspects of the program, including its focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. Undergraduates who receive the scholarship study overseas for one year, after which they return to Brazil to complete their degrees – thus largely eliminating the perennial problem of “brain drain.” The undergraduate scholarships also include an internship component; U.S. companies that have sponsored interns include Boeing, DuPont, and Frito-Lay.

The scholarship program has fueled much of the recent interest on the part of foreign universities in finding partners in Brazil. Marcelo Knobel, vice president for undergraduate programs at the University of Campinas, said the attention is welcome. “Here at UNICAMP, we have at least two or three delegations per day,” he said, noting that he had just come from a lunch with representatives of 12 German universities. “This is a very good consequence of the program. We have attracted the attention of the world and finally they know more about our higher education system.”

But while Knobel is generally supportive of the scholarship program and its aims, he raised questions about its scale and largely unilateral nature. He questioned whether it needed to be so large when government resources could be spent on other priorities, notably primary education. (“At the end of the day,” he said, “the taxpayers of Brazil are financing universities abroad.”) And he lamented that there were not more opportunities for two-way exchange. Science Without Borders does include a few hundred scholarships for visiting researchers to conduct work in Brazil, but the vast majority of scholarships support outgoing students.

Promoting Exchange

Those interviewed for this article repeatedly stressed the objective of sending more American students to Brazil. In 2011, President Barack Obama set a goal of increasing the number of Americans studying abroad in the Caribbean and Latin America from 40,000 to 100,000.  Only 3,099 U.S. students studied abroad in Brazil in 2009-10. The majority of these students were on short-term programs.

Daniel Obst, deputy vice president of institutional partnerships at IIE, which recently sponsored a yearlong program to stimulate university partnerships in Brazil, said that there was immense interest among participating colleges on both sides to increase the number of American students studying in Brazil and to improve the capacity of the country's universities to host them. Obst said one challenge is that Brazil's public universities are large and decentralized, and are only beginning to develop student services functions. Brazilian universities also offer very few classes taught in English.

Language remains a barrier to exchange, on both sides. Neddermeyer, of CAPES, said that the main challenge in scaling up the Science Without Borders program is English language proficiency (or foreign language proficiency more generally, for students who travel to non-English-speaking countries). In the U.S., data from the Modern Language Association show that, in 2009, 11,371 American students enrolled in Portuguese classes, making it the 13th most commonly taught language on college campuses, behind Biblical Hebrew and ahead of Korean. (Enrollments in the most popular language, Spanish, exceeded 860,000.)

Still, the interest in forming partnerships is high. For example, Illinois State University has signed memorandums of understanding with five Brazilian universities and is poised to sign three more. The university, which was one of 18 colleges that participated in IIE's International Academic Partnership Program, is pursuing a number of possible opportunities, including: developing a study abroad class in transcultural nursing, training of Brazilian scholars in the use of a nursing simulation lab, and teleconferencing in the classroom, according to Rita Bailey, the assistant provost. Bailey is enrolled in introductory Portuguese, offered at Illinois State for the first time this fall and taught by a Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant. Illinois State is also hosting 21 Science Without Borders students on campus.

“The Science Without Borders program somehow just woke everyone up,” said Mary Baxton, who works in international recruitment and admissions for California State University at Northridge. Baxton participated in the September Commerce Department-sponsored trade delegation to Brazil.

 “The Olympics are coming, the World Cup is coming, and suddenly eyes went to Brazil,” she said. “I think we were all shocked at how agile it is and how ready it is to start working with U.S. higher education partners.”

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