When Reginaldo Ribeiro received an acceptance letter to the University of Montana, he typed the state into a search bar. He was surprised to see images of mountains and snow, the opposite environment of his native Brazil.
When Brazilians think of the United States, they picture a big city like New York, or more familiar places like Florida and California, Ribeiro said.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God! What is this state?,’” he said.
Ribeiro is part of the Brazilian Scientific Mobility Program, a government-funded initiative to send 100,000 Brazilian students over a five-year period to study in science-related disciplines at universities around the world.
UM received its first round of 11 Brazilian students in spring 2012, and enrollment has since increased. At the beginning of March, 16 more students arrived, bringing the total number of participants to 45.
Once the students are nominated by their home universities, the International Institute of Education must accept their applications, which are then sent to their chosen universities. If accepted, the students study abroad for a year with a full-ride scholarship.
When he first learned of his acceptance to UM, Ribeiro talked to past students of the program in his hometown of Anapolis, and they calmed his fears. He would have a great time, they said, and the community would make sure of it.
“They welcome the international students, and the place is beautiful,” they told him.
Ribeiro boarded a plane to Montana in August, and started classes in the School of Pharmacy, one of the most popular fields in the program. The students do an internship related to their major after a year at UM.
“We are supposed to get involved in science courses, or do development or research here to bring to Brazil when we come back,” Ribeiro said.
When spring semester ends, Ribeiro will move to Chicago for a summer internship with a pharmaceutical company.
Paulo Zagalo-Melo, director of the Office of International Programs, said improved recruitment efforts led to an increase in students this semester. A native of Portugal, Zagalo-Melo put his Portuguese to use when he attended educational fairs in three Brazilian cities last fall.
Past students influence their peers when they return to their native country, adding more to the program, he said.
“In Brazil, word of mouth is the strongest tool of recruitment,” Zagalo-Melo said.
Peter Baker, UM's international program developmental officer, said the program benefits not only Brazilian students, but the University as well. It allows students to take courses in distinctive programs such as environmental studies and forestry, and gives UM students the chance to work with them in the classroom, he said.
“They’re bringing a lot of global perspective to the University, their own experiences, and just their academic ability to the classroom,” Baker said.
Yet, the students still have to adjust to a different academic system at UM.
Most universities in Brazil are four-year schools, but students only take classes related to their major, Baker said. Physical therapy and pharmacy are graduate degrees at UM, while in Brazil the programs are undergraduate degrees, he said.
Baker said the difference in the learning structure adds value to the students’ experience, like for Ribeiro in the pharmacy program.
“If he works for a multi-national pharmaceutical company, then he’s going to have that English language proficiency along with his skill in Portuguese and pharmacy,” Baker said.
But the University also has to work to with students to accommodate for varying levels of education, he said.
Depending on their English level, some students must take an intensive English language course over a semester through the English Language Institute at UM before they’re eligible to take classes in their majors.
Bruno Andrade, a biotechnology major, is one of those students. Andrade arrived in Missoula in March with the latest wave of Brazilian students who will take classes at the English Language Institute over the rest of spring semester and into August. He will start biotechnology classes this fall.
“The University has a strong field in biomedical science, so I think it’s great here,” Andrade said.
He said cultures have different ideas on how to solve problems. To find solutions, one can learn from cultures like the U.S., he said.
And that’s not the only thing the students learn while abroad. While Americans may move out at the first chance after graduation, Brazilians don’t follow the same path.
Zagalo-Melo said the majority of college-age Brazilians get degrees at universities close to home and live with their parents.
“This is the first time they’ve lived out of their home, so this is such a big experience for them,” he said.
For any exchange student, Zagalo-Melo said the experience teaches you about another language and culture, but most of all about yourself.
“Obviously you’re out of your comfort zone, so it’s not going to be easy. But that’s the most amazing thing about studying abroad.”