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A Small Glimpse into Higher Education in Brazil

Back home in the states, higher education in communities of color is the hallmark for success. College is an end goal that students of color are pushed to reach, finding out later that higher education is only the beginning. Yet, even before attending college, conditions are set in the family, community, neighborhood, and even in oneself, that put someone able to only do so much. I wanted to figure out how students in Brazil get to be students at the university level, specifically at PUC-Rio, a private university; and even more precisely, students of low-income communities. For instance, what programs are offered to them? Do students of color – particularly brown and black people – find difficulty in the process? How’s life at the university and what are some student activities? How are their studies, and are students able to find a job quickly after graduation?

Higher education in Brazil (as in any other country) is of paramount importance to closing the financial and social inequality gap that permeates Brazilian society. It is a ladder to success. Here at PUC-Rio, the same can be said. There are students from all social and racial classes, though the disparities among low-income students and wealthy students is striking. There exists a very extreme but subtle inequality, one you can feel but not see. For instance, Brazilians are famous for not resembling a face, per se, representable of Brazilians, given that there are White, Brown (mixed-race), Black, Asian, Brazilians. In short, Brazil represents a multiracial powerhouse among worldwide societies. But walk around campus and speak with students, and there is minimal to no interaction between that of a wealthy student and an underprivileged one.

Brazilian high school students typically go to college after having taken the ENEM exam, or ‘Exame do Ensino Medio,’ (High School Examination) an SAT-like standardized national exam, that began operating throughout Brazil in 2009 as an entrance admission exam to hundreds of public and private universities in the country. Though not all universities – for example, PUC-Rio – accept the ENEM score as its only admission exam to the school, it is a major factor for Brazilian students to expand their pool of options in several higher education institutions. ENEM works on a determinant system whereby the students’ score on the exam directly affects their school options in a mechanism called Sisu, or ‘Sistema de Seleção Unificada’ (Unified Selection System). Sisi in fact only allows students to see which top three universities they can apply based on their ENEM score. PUC-Rio, like some universities, however, also offers its own entrance exam.

Once accepted, students graduate within four to five years. Importantly, some of these students enter universities in part through affirmative action policies. The system was implemented during former President Lula’s administration and requires public universities to reserve 50% of their yearly enrollment to low-income, black, brown, indigenous, and disabled students – the other 50% is open to any other applicant. These quota policies were implemented to curb the inequality within Brazil and give an opportunity to deprived Brazilians, an action still highly contentious to this day. The students who entered the university through these affirmative action policies live a different life than that of the student whose parents are wealthy and provide for their financial stability. They pay their education through available financial assistance from the government and university, and are dependent on working outside school to make ends meet, such as paying for rent and food. A very similar reality of life in the states to first-generation college students, but one that is more severe and evident. For instance, where buses and the metro are the predominant vehicles to arrive and leave campus, it is very common knowledge wealthy students prefer to call an Uber, citing other means of transportation as dangerous.

On campus, student life is different than that of the states. Life on campus is minimal to none existent, other than for going to classes and the in-between time students use to chat before their next class begins. For instance, here at PUC-Rio, there aren’t any residence halls where students live and share their experience, nor does there exist a big campus sports culture, even when soccer here dominates everyday life. Brazilian students tell me it’s more apparent in public universities, making PUC-Rio, a private university, an exception. One peculiar fact I learned is a hazing game called ‘trote’ Brazilian students perform on first-year students wherein they have to do something at the behest of another student to ultimately organize a ‘chopada,’ a beer party, to celebrate the new students’ arrival; a dangerous welcoming that every year results in the deaths of Brazilian students. It is well known, and very popular among students, and although the government and university officials have denounced it, it is not illegal. Though these are more dominant at public schools, the experience at PUC-Rio is minor. Here at PUC-Rio, and in other schools as well, efforts have been made to change the trote into a well-intended tradition by organizing food collection through the new students or performing undemanding games.

In terms of their studies, students obtain a bachelor’s degree between four to six years. In the case of ‘pre-med’ and ‘pre-law students,’ as students intending to become doctors or lawyers are called in the states, Brazil follows a somewhat European model curriculum where its students begin on track to become doctors and attorneys all in one school without requiring them to obtain a bachelor’s degree first. After their six years, for medical students, and five years, for law students, they are full-fledged doctors and lawyers; though Law students must take an exam like the bar exam to be able to practice law; the exam is called ‘Brazilian Law Order Exam.’ Medical students are not required to complete residency but can do so for a specialization. Students pursuing a bachelor’s degree in psychology, or engineering, for example, graduate within five to six years and receive their diploma without having to take an exam like law students, much as it is for countless other majors.

After graduation, finding a job is easier said than done. Most students with previous experience in internships end up working with the same organization or company, though others struggle to find a well-paid job to accommodate their needs. Law and engineering students find it easier to find an internship, most of which are paid, though others have complications and further minimize their chances at a good paying job. Students too may pursue a master’s degree after undergraduate studies, and unlike the US, they must first obtain a master’s degree to apply for a Ph.D. program. Notwithstanding, Master and Ph.D. programs are fairly like those at home, with universities having their own applications and method of choosing candidates based on their academic, professional, and research experience.

Lastly, the most notable fact I found about education in Brazil is that low-income students predominantly attend public schools throughout their K-12 education, yet, switch to private ones in higher education. They do so because public universities are impacted with wealthy students with a robust K-12 education they received from private schools; the K-12 educational system is considered inadequate and thus most wealthy students are sent to prestigious private schools with a higher level of value compared to public ones. The value of education thus flips, though there are some exceptions, such as here in PUC-Rio, where the private university is the same, if not better, than other public universities. This fact too is highly contentious, as underprivileged students struggle to compete with wealthy, better-educated students, in entrance exams for universities across the country and abroad.

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Hiroshima Excursion and Miyajima Island

On the last weekend of November I visited Hiroshima with my exchange program. We got the opportunity to learn more about the history of WWII and the atomic bomb, as well as hearing from an atomic bomb survivor. I learned a lot of new things and it really opened my eyes. With history, you generally only hear one side of the story; however, there are two sides to every story. Being able to hear a first person account of the incident was incredibly moving.

From Tokyo Station Hiroshima is about a four hour shinkansen ride, each way. This was a good time to catch up on sleep, do homework, or talk with friends. Upon arriving in Hiroshima we took a street car to the hotel where we stayed for the night. In the morning we made our way over to the Peace Memorial Museum. We also got to walk around the the Peace Park.

Here’s a famous structure in the Peace Park. The view under the arch encompasses the dome that was destroyed.

Here’s a closeup photo of the dome.

The Hiroshima National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims is where we listened to the bomb survivor. As I said, it was a great experience learning about the history of the bomb and hearing a first-person account. That wasn’t all there was to the trip, however. On Sunday (the next day) we rode a ferry over to Miyajima Island, which is very famous for this iconic shrine along the beach. When the tide is high, it’s as if the shrine is floating.

There were also a ton of friendly deer that let us pet them!

I’ve always grown up with the idea that deer are wild animals, and while these ones are indeed wild, they are used to all the people and enjoy the attention (although they mostly just want food). Miyajima Island is one of the most beautiful places I have visited in Japan, probably second after Chichibu, Saitama. We were also able to take a rope-way up a mountain!

The rope-way ride was incredible and something I’ll never forget. The fall colors were beautiful and it was really relaxing. The rope-way didn’t take us all the way to the top, though. After the rope-way ride, we hiked about thirty minutes to the very top. Here are two photos from the top.

As cliche as it is, no photo can truly capture how incredible the view from the top was. Unfortunately, it was a little foggy that day, but the view was breathtaking. There are no mountains in Ohio, so actually standing on top of a tall mountain and looking down over all the trees and ocean was a truly rewarding experience. I’m very thankful to have been able to go on this excursion with my exchange program. Hiroshima is a great city that has recovered tremendously well. Hiroshima is full of history, and Miyajima Island is just off the coast, full of its own history and beauty. I highly recommend visiting Hiroshima, especially Miyajima Island, if given the opportunity.

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Navigating US-Russia Relations on a Personal Level


I think one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced in my study abroad experience is making friends with students of my own age. Russian college students my age are usually pretty shy at first, and you definitely have to approach them first. This can be absolutely terrifying if you’re feeling slightly intimidated and already concerned about your language abilities. Then there’s the added factor that Russian is a live language, and unlike our understanding professors, in the non-classroom setting, people speak quickly, conversationally, and often with rather unclear articulation. Russian intonation is also difficult because it’s very direct and strong. To my American ears, Russian intonation can sound aggressive or forceful because of the strong accented emphases (intonation Pattern #2!) when actually it could just be someone being emphatic and expressive.


Another thing I’ve noticed is that Russians are very direct. Americans seem to speak with a lot of “padding” and “cushioning.” I remember learning early on in maybe elementary school about the sandwich technique—say something nice, something critical, something nice. Here in Russia, there is no sandwich. People will tell you upfront and publicly that you’re acting sketch, missed the point, or your paper is subpar or that you shouldn’t use an elevator if you’re not old. Grades and commentary are also published publicly. There’s no “politically correct” culture.


Also, no one is interested in small talk. Given the tense relationship between America and Russia, I was nervous about navigating the difference of views, but there was definitely no hiding. From the very first night of staying with my host mom, I was asked about how I felt about Putin, Trump, Ukraine, homosexuality, and Jewish people…and the very first academic class I walked into I was asked by the professor about my personal view of communism and the Revolution of 1917. Mouths dropped literally open as my American friends and I stared at each other in disbelief. I also noticed in casual conversation with cashiers or even talking to my own peers, people are also not afraid to ask you about how much your parents make or how expensive your clothes are or other questions that would otherwise seem very rude (like I don’t even know the answers for these questions from all my American friends back home).


It can be very disconcerting at first to skip the “how’s the weather stage” and jump right into sociopolitical views and money but in a way, I’ve enjoyed being able to speak about real things. St. Petersburg, Russia is a highly cultured place. Everyone goes often to the theater, ballet, opera, or Philharmonic. People know their art, their books, their poems, and their history, and it’s just absolutely fascinating to get into a debate with someone over Brother’s Karamazov or the suprematist art movement and Malevich’s Black Square. I can hum Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet and someone else will be able to recognize it and hum with me.


For me, so far the best way I’ve found to navigate controversial conversations or classes is to just listen and always ask why someone thinks the way they do and what happened in their lives or what they were exposed to that have helped them form their opinions. People are just people, and everyone’s opinions come from somewhere. I’ve been awakened to the power of the objective, respectful listening and asking questions. Once I quiet myself and let go of whatever righteous or defensive feelings I might have, I’ve realized there’s much I can learn simply by being exposed to these ideas and to completely opposite, different viewpoints.


I think it’s in these moments that I realize just how powerful study abroad is, and how happy I am with my decision to go to a more “off-the-beaten” country.


For one, in terms of language immersion, it’s been incredible.  While it’s not totally remote and you still can find English, it’s really not that dominant compared to like when I visited Tallinn, Estonia or Budapest, Hungary and signs were in English and pretty much everyone spoke perfect English. In my everyday interactions such as buying food from the grocery store or buying my bus tickets, I’ve been forced to use Russian and even though it can be embarrassing or awkward, every situation has made me improve.


For another, I have never been so challenged and thought so much about what I believe and where I come from. My Soviet music history class shows the perspective of the Russians during the Cold War. My Russian host mother provides the Russian perspective on current events. My Russian peers challenge my beliefs and my behavior as an American. And I can’t help but think as I approach the end about just how good it’s been for me. The idea of history as a prize being written by the victors has never been quite so tangible as now. The idea that there are no absolutes. That there’s always another side….


Of course, this doesn’t mean that I’ve changed my own beliefs or behavior. I am an American citizen—a product of my upbringing in rural Montana and my liberal arts education, but I am just a little bit more aware about what’s out there in the world and the myriad of ideas and beliefs that exist. It’s like my ideas have gone from 180 to 360. There’s an entire 3-D sphere of perspectives and it’s been an exciting challenge to expand my ideas of who I am, what I believe in, and how I want to shape the world.


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Ma Famille Française

One of the most exciting aspects of your time abroad is the incredible, completely random people you will meet along the way that will become a very important part of not only your study abroad experience but your friends/family for the rest of your life.

If you’re like me, you may be planning to study abroad in a more independent manner – as in you are not going with a program led, a pre-planned group of students who will be with you for the duration of your time abroad with a host. If you’re doing it like me, you are moving solo… to a new country…for a year. Sounds a bit scary.

When I enrolled in my year-long program to Lyon, France I had never been to France, or even Europe, and I did not speak French. Needless to say, I was a bit worried. I decided to download Tandem, a language learning app that matches you with people around the world who you can practice language with via message or video chat. You want to learn their native language, and they want to learn yours. It’s a great way to develop local dialect and practice your pronunciation, but I never thought it would lead to new friendships. By an amazing stroke of luck I was matched with a French student, Alex, from Lyon, France! By an even more amazing stroke of luck, Alex would be coming to study in my hometown in Idaho at the same time I would be going to France.

Neither of us had ever been to our exchange countries and quickly agreed that we would ask our families to look after one another when we arrived. We coordinated with each other, and our program coordinators, to arrange our arrivals, housing, moving help, etc. When I arrived in France, Alex’s uncle & cousin, Magid & Kenza, were eagerly waiting for me at the airport, saying “BIENVENUE ERIS!”, and ready to help me get all settled into my French life. I would never have expected that they would become an unforgettable and vital part of my year in Lyon. From football games to dinners, a beautiful engraved bracelet that I still wear every single day, and even helping me break into my own apartment when I locked myself out, they were the best French family I could have asked for.

Fast forward to present day, 2.5 years later, and I have just returned from my first post-exchange trip back to France to see Magid, Kenza, Emmanuel, and friends. It’s still incredible to me that near-strangers have become a permanent and irreplaceable part of my time in Lyon and my life, truly like family.

I strongly encourage you to explore new and exciting channels to meet new people, before, during, and after your time abroad. We live in an age where we are not confined to just those around us. We have the opportunity to make connections around the world, and you never know how those people will impact your life and your time abroad.

Cheers and happy travels,


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Then and Now: What I’ve Learned

The first thought I had leaving Dubai airport, as I struggled to drag my old worn out suitcase and keep up with my driver as he escorted me into the parking garage was, “Wow, it’s really humid.”

My second thought was, “What have I gotten myself into?”

As a rambunctious and adventurous woman its hard for me to admit, but that first night was rough. Exhausted and alone I walked into a bare dorm room and just laid on the bed, the protective plastic crinkling underneath me. The silence was suffocating. I unzipped my bag and slowly filled in the empty spaces: carefully placing my picture frames, hanging my clothes, and laying out my bedding preparing for a relatively sleepless night.

Nearly four months later— and in the midst of my final weeks in the semester – I often reflect on that first night and why I chose the UAE.  When people think of study abroad they think of grand adventures and luxurious excursions, but as I sift through the memories of the last few months my favorite ones are the small and mundane moments. Going for karak down the road, coffee dates, bonfires in the desert, late night rehearsals, and conversations in simple and broken Arabic.  The biggest lessons and the happiest moments were where I least expected them, and when I stopped trying to seek them out and trying to plan for them. I had to learn to go with the flow, something that does not come naturally to me in the slightest. Time is more relative for Arabs culturally and letting go of my American view on time and punctuality was a great hurdle.

Academically this semester was similar to my previous one back home, except a few credit hours lighter. Another thing no one tells you about study abroad is that you still have homework to do, essays to write, and tests to study for. However, it is much more about what you are learning that what grade you get. I audited a course for the first time, Arabic linguistics. I begged the professor to let me take it, confident I was up to the challenge. If I recall correctly her email back started with “let’s be realistic” and ended with instructions for who I needed permission from if I wanted to audit it. As a student who tends to obsess over percentages and my GPA, it was both uncomfortable and relieving to sit in a classroom knowing that I could make infinitesimal mistakes and it wouldn’t matter. A feeling I hope I can carry with me when I return home.

I came to the UAE to get better at my Arabic. If I have to say I have one regret it is that I did not take enough risks and talk to enough people in Arabic because I was too embarrassed. That being said I learned so much more about the culture and world perspective of Arabs, each one different then the other. To look past superficial differences, at first I didn’t think we were that different and in truth we weren’t thanks to the internet and globalization. Honestly it was almost more fun to listen to what questions they had for me, a common one being what I thought about american gun control policy. But a lot of these people faced things I never had to deal with, including arranged marriages and parental pressure to get married. In the end I learned to listen to everything and never assume.

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My Shakespearean Tragedy…but Everything Works Out in the End

My study abroad was not glamorous. In fact, during the initial week of my study abroad in Guayaquil, Ecuador at La Universidad Casa Grande, I felt as if Shakespeare could have written a tragedy detailing my immersive experience. I didn’t travel to 12 other countries, drink espresso and eat pastries every morning, nor attend beach parties and sightsee with other exchange students (I was the only student who was not from the same university in France). I was not confident enough in my Spanish to get a bus ticket and explore Ecuador on my own and my host family situation was not ideal. I was destined to be miserable.

I communicated my concerns to my director at Nebraska Wesleyan University and while she agreed to look into a replacement option, she encouraged me to first visit La Universidad Casa Grande to be certain that there was nothing for me in Guayaquil. As fate would have it, my university was phenomenal. The professors allowed me to explore topics like Rafael Correa’s revolución ciudadana and public policy formation for improved orthodontic care in Medellín, Colombia. The academic rigor included analytical papers about economic, political, and social development in Latin America, weekly group presentations, and weekly Spanish reading assignments. This experience inspired my interest in inter-American development and I have become an advocate for sustained relations between countries in the Western Hemisphere and human security that extends beyond regional borders. My study abroad affirmed my career path and ultimately led to a semester-long internship with the Department of State.

Outside of the classroom, I knew that if I was to travel anywhere in Ecuador, I would have to do it alone, considering my circumstances – and so I did. I lived with indigenous families in the Amazon Rainforest and Sierra Nevadas, biked an active volcano, scuba dove in the Galapagos, and took weekend trips to various communities known for silver and orchids – large exports in Ecuador. Because of the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship, I not only gained the experience of a lifetime, but learned how to do it alone. As I have reflected on my life experiences thus far, the one thing that has been quite easy to learn is that I have an obligation to my community to create spaces for citizen-state interactions. Whether in the classroom or in the public arena, I believe it is my responsibility to use my academic training to understand political, social, and economic phenomenon to identify and suggest more efficient systems under which everyone can prosper. I internalized that I am capable of taking care of myself and was reassured that while this small-town Nebraska, first-generation college student has struggled to keep moving at times, I am resilient and deserving of life opportunities. As I look to graduation in May, I can confidently say that my study abroad opened a door to a world that Nebraska could not have offered me and for that, I am ever grateful.

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What experiences from your time abroad as a Gilman Scholar continue to resonate and influence you today?

One aspect of my study abroad experience that continues to resonate with and influence me today is the cultural lifestyle of the Brazilian people. From my perspective, Brazilians are selfless, social and outgoing. Unlike Americans, Brazilians do not concern themselves with the future. Rather, they indulge in the present moment and prioritize relationships.


Rosa, my Contemporary Brazilian Social debates professor at my host university, once said, “Brazilians are a happy people. Brazilians are social, friendly and anything but shy. If you sit by a Brazilian on the bus, you will know all about his or her life by the time you reach your bus stop.” It’s true. The Brazilians that I met were chatty, friendly, welcoming, open and very outgoing. I was able to be myself around Brazilians without the fear being judged. As a result, I developed a strong sense of belonging within the Brazilian community.


An example that illustrates the Brazilian character is their approach to life’s circumstances. Even amidst high levels of poverty, (in Brazil’s slums (favelas)) Brazilians were happy and content. Rather than dwell in self-pity, Brazilians found happiness in the small joys of life. Brazilians turned their negative situation into a positive one. They built a strong sense of community around them; cared for their neighbors and devoted their lives to improving the lives of others. Even when they had very little for themselves, they gave more than one can think possible.


A perfect example of this occurred when I volunteered as an English teacher at a local Non-Profit Organization, in a Brazilian favela. During my time as a volunteer, I met the coordinator of the NGO (Andreia) and discovered that Andreia too, was a resident of the favela. Rather than seeing herself as a victim,  Andreia chose to improve her community by running her own nonprofit for local children.


Because this perspective has influenced me in many ways, I no longer take anything for granted; family, friends or material possessions.I am thankful for everything I have and I indulge in life just a little bit more than before I studied abroad. I am no longer a self-centered individual. I am more confident, more secure and more self-aware. I care more about relationships and I have chosen to devote my life to improving the lives of those around me.


In order to share my experiences with students who are considering applying to the Gilman scholarship, I will give public presentations to community colleges, informing students about studying abroad, the Gilman scholarship and my experience studying abroad in general. The goal of these presentations will not only be to encourage students to apply for the Gilman scholarship but to increase the likeliness of working with students directly, in order to encourage them further to study abroad and apply for the Gilman scholarship. Upon working directly with students, I will further share my experience studying abroad and give students specific resources to help them do so, such as helping them through the Gilman scholarship application process and providing external resources for extra help.


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