Guess which college has the most Brazilian exchange students?

In Engineering Education, News

As Brazil hosts the World Cup, Florida and its flagship university maintain long established and strong ties to South America’s largest country.

Brazil is now the largest export trading partner the state has ever had, and UF is the primary destination for Brazilian students who want to keep it that way.

To globalize its workforce, the Brazilian government created the Ciência Sem Fronteiras or “science without borders” initiative in 2011. It offers fellowships for Brazilian students and faculty studying abroad to gain advanced training in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. UF has hosted more of these fellowship recipients than any other U.S. university — 243 to date. On the UF campus, the College of Engineering has emerged as a primary destination, with Brazilian students and faculty currently working in eight of its nine departments.

The foundation for this strong connection to Brazil started 100 years ago, when UF offered its first classes in Portuguese. In 1930, it launched the Institute for Inter-American Affairs, which was a forerunner of today’s Center for Latin American Studies. One of its functions was the coordination of exchange students between UF and Latin American universities.

During World War II, the search for raw materials to serve the war effort led the United States to Brazil, seeking rubber for tires. UF helped to combat malaria in Brazil by creating educational opportunities for “sanitary engineering” – which improved water and sewer infrastructures.

Renato Figuerido, an associate professor of electrical engineering at UF, often hears the sound of his native Portuguese in his classes. Figuerido worked at Universidade Estadual de Campinas (UNICAMP) in São Paulo as an engineering teaching assistant before moving to the United States. Like many of the Brazilian students on campus, he initially pursued engineering because he was interested in expressing his creativity through problem solving.

That’s also why many students are drawn to work with UF’s Engineering Innovation Institute, or EII. Located within the College of Engineering, the institute serves as a nexus of engineering innovation education and experiential programs. Its primary pillars are creativity and entrepreneurship with a foundation in the college’s research programs.

“My participation in the EII really influenced me to look for a career where I could bring innovation to my projects,” said Alvaro Queiroz, a civil engineering major from UNICAMP who spent a year at UF. “Today I am working as an innovation manager for an energy consulting firm in Sao Paulo and hope to start a company in the not-distant future.”

The Florida Chamber of Commerce lists Brazil as Florida’s largest trading partner and top export market in the world – with $20.5 billion in trades last year, the largest amount ever between Florida and a foreign country. The leadership at the EII has created alliances with Brazilian universities to educate and acquaint students with both sides of this trade partnership in an effort to keep it thriving.

“When they enroll in classes through the institute, we put these students into cross-cultural teams,” said Erik Sander, director of EII. “This improves their communication skills, in addition to what they are learning about entrepreneurship and innovation.”

Sander notes that an increasing number of multinational companies are strengthening their ties with Brazil. “Brazil is taking its place as a country on the international stage.”

Meanwhile, materials science and engineering major Amanda Vareli and seven of her fellow Brazilian classmates took time from their busy schedules to watch their team take on Mexico in the World Cup. Though she says it’s actually a relief to not be back home in the big crowds or the protests, none of these students would miss the chance to watch a Brazil game.

“Our supervisors are really understanding,” she said. “They just tell us to go.”

Gustavo Pereira, a computer information systems student from Recife – where the U.S. soccer team is playing Germany on June 26 – said he has enjoyed his time in the Sunshine State.

“The weather is really nice and reminds me of Brazil,” he says. “It was the best choice of schools, and the nice people I have met have made me feel like Florida is my second home.”