Students at Dillard University, a small, historically Black university in New Orleans, welcomed a new crop of scholars this year from an unlikely place: Brazil.
As part of an agreement between the Historically Black Colleges and Universities Alliance and the government of Brazil, Dillard was one of the first universities to receive students from a competitive scholarship program, the Brazil Scientific Mobility Program. President Obama and Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, agreed to a study abroad program for more than 100,000 Brazilian students. So far, an estimated 5,000 students have come to the U.S. under the program.
Dillard started a pilot program with just 12 Brazilian students in January 2013 and was the first university in the U.S. that offered English as a Second Language classes to these students.
Dillard now has 33 Brazilian students living on campus and attending classes, first in ESL courses, then in traditional courses after they’ve developed better English skills. Most of the students are in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, and they are required to complete an internship while in the program.
Aurea Diab, professor of Spanish and Portuguese at Dillard and organizer of the program, is a native of Brazil and has become close with many of the students.
“I’m like a mother hen,” Diab said. “They call me for everything. I’m not only directing the program; I’m like a mother of 33 now. They even call me Mom.”
The program is described as a “sandwich” – students complete a certain number of courses in Brazil, come to the United States for a year or more, then return to Brazil to complete their degrees. Ideally, the Brazilian students are more prepared to enter the job market once they return home with new skills from American universities.
The program itself is not easy to get into; the students are all considered high achievers at their home universities with impressive test scores and published work. The scholarships pays for all of their expenses, including plane tickets and laptop.
“That’s a lot of money that their country is investing in those kids,” Diab said.
At first, the interaction between Brazilian and American students was difficult because both sides were intimidated, Diab said. The Brazilians tended to hang out in groups, and American students weren’t sure how to approach those groups.
“So we made this rule that they can only sit in groups of two in the cafeteria,” Diab said, “so that they have to interact with other students.”
Dillard’s student body, approximately 1,200 students, benefits from having this added diversity as well.
“Dillard being small and being an HBCU, students don’t interact that much with different students, especially foreigners,” Diab said. “Now with so many foreigners, they can see that there is a different world out there.”
Diab said Dillard students and staff are even starting to pick up Portuguese words and will stop her in the hallways to practice their new-found language skills. They’ve even requested that Dillard start teaching Portuguese classes again.
The Brazilian students benefit from the increased technology, English skills they get in classes, and from experiencing an entirely new culture,
“The only problem is the Brazilian students want to stay, or come back as soon as they finish their undergraduate studies,” Diab said.
In January, Diab and Dillard University will welcome 25 more Brazilian scholars as part of the program.