Brazil: The Nuts and Bolts

January 1, 1998

Judith Zwolak

Measuring over 3.2 million square miles, Brazil is one of the largest countries on earth. Of the 150 million people who live within its borders, however, fewer than 6,000 Brazilian college students study in the United States annually and fewer than 400 students from this country travel to Brazil in educational exchange programs, says Bill Lennon, director of Tulane's Center for International Students and Scholars.

"These numbers are very small compared to other big countries," Lennon says. Past hurdles to educational exchanges with Brazil include an astronomical inflation rate and a stronger cultural connection to Europe than the United States, he adds.

To help higher education institutions across the United States develop exchange programs with the largest country in Latin America, Lennon, with Tulane faculty and staff members and other "Brazilophiles" from New Orleans, held a workshop in November with the playful name, "International Education in Brazil: Not for Beginners."

The workshop was one of five "Country/Culture" seminars held at universities throughout the country last year sponsored by United States Information Agency and the Association of International Educators. Lennon, who lived and worked in Brazil for over five years, says New Orleans was an appropriate place for the workshop and calls the Big Easy the most Brazilian city in the United States.

"Those of us who have lived in Brazil feel so much at home here," he says. "We have strong coffee and rice and beans and Carnival. Music is very important. People like to talk and are friendly. We also have hot weather and the African influence is very strong."

Brazil, like New Orleans, is not easy to categorize, Lennon adds. "It's a complicated country in every sense of the word--politically, socially, economically and educationally." To give the 28 workshop participants from colleges and universities across the country insight into Brazilian culture, Lennon and fellow presenters gave a two-day crash course on the country's history, geography, educational system, political climate, cultural behaviors and African influences.

They also addressed practical concerns such as how to advise a Brazilian student and where to find resources to set up linkages and study-abroad opportunities in the country. Lennon, as part of a panel presentation on cultural values and behaviors, addressed the cultural traits that make Brazilians unique. One such trait is the value of rhetoric, he says.

"The ability to converse and talk a lot is valued," Lennon says. "A U.S. student going to Brazil better be prepared to join in conversations because if they're quiet or shy, Brazilians are going to assume that this person is not very interesting and has nothing to say."

Another Tulane faculty member, Wayne Reed, professor and chair of physics, discussed his experiences as a researcher and lecturer in Brazil and as a director of Brazilian graduate students who perform a year of their doctoral work at Tulane. He also collaborates with visiting professors from Brazil. One tip he gives those who aspire to collaborate with Brazilian institutions is to learn to speak their language.

"Speaking Portuguese in Brazil makes all the difference in the world," Reed says. "It wins the hearts and minds of the people there." Reed adds that Brazil offers substantial opportunities for science and engineering collaborations. "Brazil is a gigantic country that is pouring a lot of resources into science and technology," he says. "There is a very strong, growing and highly skilled labor force in the sciences, technology and engineering that is making the country leap ahead."

To get a first-hand sense of Brazilian culture, workshop participants also spent an evening at the Cafe Brasil restaurant and club where they took on the roles of exchange students from the United States. As they chatted with workshop presenters who acted as Brazilian locals, they ate a typical local meal of black beans and rice with pork pieces and collard greens.

They also watched a performance of candomble, an Afro-Brazilian religious ceremony, by members of the samba group Casa Samba, which includes Carolyn Barber-Pierre, associate dean for multicultural affairs. Other Tulane participants included Ana Lopez, associate professor of communication, Timmons Roberts, associate professor of sociology and Latin American Studies, and Ronit Weingarden, associate director of the Center for International Studies.

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