Iowa State has developed strong ties with several universities in Brazil over the past 10 years through a student exchange program. Thanks to the passionate support of Iowa State’s Brian Steward, and other colleagues, the exchange program has continued to evolve into further opportunities, including a two-week study abroad program.
Steward, associate professor in agricultural and biosystems engineering, helped establish the program after his first visit to Brazil, which was delayed by an unfortunate national tragedy. “I was first planning to visit Brazil for a conference concerning a partnership right before 9/11,” he says. It wasn’t until the next spring that the trip was rescheduled.
Steward returned several times following that first trip, serving on graduate committees, teaching graduate courses, and conducting research. In 2009-10, he spent nine months in Viçosa teaching and working on research on recent modeling and simulation technology as applied to the control and automation of agricultural machines. Each of these trips has contributed to the growing partnership developing around the student exchange program.
The program has been funded by two different FIPSE grants (Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education), sponsored by both the U.S. Department of Education and their Brazilian equivalent, CAPES. The current FIPSE grant is part of a consortium between Iowa State, University of Kentucky, Federal University of Viçosa (UFV), and Federal University of Campina Grande (UFCG). Recently, the consortium has teamed up with another group that includes the University of Illinois, Purdue University, University of São Paulo, and UFV.
“The FIPSE-CAPES projects require the formation of consortium groups working together to facilitate the exchange of students,” explains Steward. “The reasons why we chose to work with this group is that both of our projects were funded in the agricultural and biosystems engineering area and we both have a common partner in UFV, so it made sense to work together.”
Operating as a reciprocal program, the exchange program allows students to pay tuition at their original institution and be swapped with another student from the university where they plan to study abroad. Steward says this kind of system has made it easier for students to participate because they are paying what they normally would pay. “The only additional cost is covering living expenses and in some cases that cost is much lower in another country.”.
Four Brazilian students participated in the exchange program at Iowa State during the fall semester – Igor Torres and Jonas Dantas de Miranda Neto from UFCG, and Ligia De Oliveira Serrano and Maria Antônia V. M. Starling from UFV. The students, who have become good friends, arrived in August and continued their studies in Ames through December. While each had challenges studying in a new country, they collectively say the biggest challenge was adapting to the academic differences.
“There were some differences in the classes, such as the duration of the class and the much larger amount of homework, that I needed to adapt to,” says Miranda.
Making these adjustments in stride, the students say their experiences were exciting, and well worth their time and travel. They note that the technology provided was helpful in terms of learning, but the atmosphere on campus made their stay on campus even better.
“I liked how big yet accessible everything is; Iowa State has such an amazing infrastructure,” explains Starling. “The transportation is efficient, the faculty is very comprehensible, and everyone was very welcoming.”
The opportunities at Iowa State have also considerably influenced them. Torres, who enjoyed a course in wind energy, is intrigued by the new graduate program in wind energy, science, engineering, and policy that will be offered at Iowa State, and may even return to further his schooling.
For these students, and many who come to Iowa State, getting a well-rounded education has come from reaching beyond attending classes. Serrano joined the student chapter of the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE) and was actively involved in the organization while he was at Iowa State, while Neto made several connections within Sauer-Danfoss that may help lead to opportunities back in Brazil.
Iowa State students have also benefited from the exchange program, spending a total of 22 semesters in Brazil.
Their success influenced Steward and his colleagues to form a two-week study abroad program introducing students to different agricultural practices in Brazil. In 2010, the program took 10 Iowa State students and eight students from the University of Kentucky for what many said was an eye opening opportunity.
While abroad, the group looked at how agricultural technology was used and how automation technology compared as a function of scale in Brazil. “It was interesting for the students to see the farming production scale in Brazil,” explains Steward. “The sizes of farms can range from small, 10-acre farms to farms bigger than those we have in America. They are often as advanced in terms of farming practices and sometimes even more so.”
Due to excellent feedback, the study abroad trip will be offered again in May 2012. Steward is currently looking for students who are interested; the application deadline is January 15, 2012.
Steward will be returning to Brazil once more before the study abroad trip to select the next group of Brazilian students who will participate in the program. “We interview each of them, which is a rigorous and competitive process. Only 16 positions are available at the American universities, and we usually have around 60 Brazilian students apply,” he says.
Despite the large number of Brazilian students eager for an exchange opportunity, Iowa State’s numbers aren’t as high. “There are always more Brazilian students who want to participate, but at Iowa State we often have to do a great deal of recruiting,” Steward explains. Financial challenges and cultural barriers are two of the factors contributing to this trend.
Steward believes the exchange and study abroad programs are important for American students to consider and pursue. They offer personal development, new relationships, and preparation for careers at a time when it is most convenient to travel abroad.
“Most companies today have global sources of operations or at the least are looking to expand globally,” says Steward. “They need trained folks with engineering skills and technology skills who can interact with people in these rapidly emerging economies.”
Additionally, the experience offers students a new cultural understanding and appreciation; something Steward says has been most valuable to him. “I don’t think someone can truly understand his or her own culture until going to another country,” he says. “There are so many different expectations and cultural assumptions around the world that when you come back, you will start to look at your own culture more critically rather than simply accepting it.”
As a result of these benefits, Steward has been working towards making students on campus more culturally aware. He urges people to step out of their comfort zones and learn about the international students on campus and get to know them on a personal level. He hopes that as students begin to follow his advice they will be more willing to take advantage of the great opportunities the student exchange and study abroad programs have to offer.