Brazil's President Rousseff praises new study abroad program

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff spoke at Harvard University on the connection between country's rapid economic growth and education.

Steven Senne/AP
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff smiles as David Ellwood, dean of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, speaks to an audience on the schools campus in Cambridge, Mass., Tuesday.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and President Obama highlighted a student exchange program called Science Without Borders this week. Even though it doesn't resolve their differences over the United Nations' Security Council, currency wars, or nuclear issues, it's an area of cooperation that underscores how both countries acknowledge the need for stronger ties.  

The international exchange program which aims to send 100,000 Brazilian students to undergraduate institutions for one year of fully-funded study, was rushed through the Brazilian legislature after Mr. Obama's visit to Brasilia in March 2011. It garnered high levels of private sector investment within months, and has since placed students in nearly 100 US universities. 

While attention is often focused on policy disputes between Brazil and Washington, programs like Science Without Borders show how educational and cultural ties between Americans and Brazil's rising middle class are deepening. Brazil has made major strides in the past decade, moving some 40 million men and women out of poverty and into the middle class. And the Science Without Borders program is one of many initiatives to help the country achieve the 21st century standards of development needed to create a vibrant job market, innovative and growing economy, and bring basic services like electric power to all regions of the country. 

Educational inclusion is a stated goal of Rousseff's administration, and guaranteeing high quality education, from kindergarten to post-graduate studies, for all citizens is a prominent policy on her agenda. 

“We were … able to take on ourselves the leadership of our economic and social policies, and we went from a position of debtors to the International Monetary Fund, to the position of creditors,” Rousseff said during her speech to about 500 people at Harvard University's Kennedy School, where she capped off the second day of her first official visit to the United States last night.

Felipe Azevedo attended Rousseff's speech in Cambridge, Mass. He is one of the initial 600 students selected to participate in the Science Without Borders program, which specifically targets undergraduates studying science, technology, mathematics, and engineering.

“For me, when I come back to Brazil I want to finish my degree, graduate in mechanical engineering, and what I want to do is try to work with companies like Petrobras or Vale. Two very, very big companies, not just in Brazil but in the world,” Mr. Azevedo says. He is currently finishing his first semester at Washington University in St. Louis, where he takes courses like thermal systems and computer aided design. As part of the program, he will complete an internship in the States this summer before beginning his second semester at Washington University.

“Coming here and being near top technologies and research ... just being in contact with such technology and professors will be great experience for me when I come back and start working in Brazil,” he says.

Allan Goodman, president and CEO of the Institute of International Education (IIE), the organization helping facilitate the Science Without Borders program in the US says “this is way more than a traditional exchange program because of its scale and scope and how rapidly it started and how rapidly it grew.” It’s hard to find detractors of the program’s work, he says: “With any program, there are certain skeptics and critics. But I haven’t heard any on this one.”

Mr. Goodman says Rousseff reflected popular sentiment in Brazil when she created Science Without Borders. This was reiterated when the private sector quickly exceeded the government’s original call for a 25 percent contribution to the scholarship program (the government said it would take on 75 percent of the costs). “Industries really want this to happen because they need workers with a science and math background, and some knowledge of English,” Goodman says. He refers to Rousseff as “an education president.”

Azevedo says, sure, he may a beneficiary of the program, but “really, it’s money well spent … education is the main basis for a country to grow, so I think they’re doing the right thing in investing in education,” he says.  “It’s [the] first step of being a first world country.”

Next year the Science Without Borders program will start sending students to other foreign countries such as France and Germany, as well. The program is slated to run through 2015, but given its initial success – and Brazil’s vision for quality education and a globally-ready work force – there may be opportunity for further expansion.

“I must be clear that we have huge challenges ahead,” Rousseff said Tuesday night at Harvard. “Precisely because Brazil is a complex country, and the challenge of eradicating extreme poverty while working to implement high education opportunities.”

With nearly four months studying abroad behind him, Azevedo says he is already gaining insight into the US system. “In Brazil, students mainly help each other out with exams and homework and papers, but here … students don’t want to help each other because they’re trying to get the top grade in their class,” he says. It’s not a bad thing, he insists, just a cultural difference. “Being competitive is one of the main things the world wants from us, but we also need to know how to work with other people and cooperate,” he says.

Neither Harvard University nor the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are hosting Science Without Borders students this year, says IIE. But Rousseff met with representatives from both schools this week in an effort to expand the program in coming years. Some 1,600 additional students are slated to go abroad this summer as part of Science Without Borders.

This program is by no means one-sided Azevedo says. US-based students and institutions are learning a little something from their young Brazilian education ambassadors as well. “So many people think we speak ‘Brazilian’ in Brazil” he says. “It’s Portuguese.”

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