Navigating the Brazilian Academic World

Historically, most Latin American societies assigned a monopoly on the certification of higher education to the public university system. Their work as the main producers of knowledge for national development has been considered equally as important as their role as vehicles for upward social mobility through the universal and, in some contexts, free admission of students. Such a perception conceives of education as a strategic tool for the democratization of “underdeveloped” countries with high degree of social inequality (Further discussion here:

The public system is normally argued to provide the best education available, based on its close relationship to the intellectual community and the latter’s desire to collaborate in the task of national development. The majority of leading Brazilian professionals have studied in the public system. Most students attend public universities and work in their city of origin. For some of the faculty, teaching is a part time activity, which creates a close relationship between professional/everyday issues and in-class activity as well as influencing their research agendas. The contradictions within these institutions are numerous: constant announcements of international awards to Brazilian public universities and a brain drain of some of the best intellectual talent to the developed world run parallel to inadequate budgets and often sharp tensions with the federal state, misallocation of resources due to political influence, an underpaid faculty with a high rate of turnover, insufficient office and classroom space and inadequate infrastructure, and shortages of technological amenities for research and development. The relative decline of the public system and the rise of private universities since the 1980s is directly linked to these realities.

Private universities, both lay and confessional, have only been allowed to award degrees in recent decades. Parallel to the decline of the state systems, over the past decade or so, private schools of varied size, orientation, and quality have multiplied. These institutions are generally smaller, have fewer students, and have more developed administrative infrastructure. Classroom organization tends to keep groups together for the whole cycle of studies, while the administrative organization is similar to that of a U.S. college or a local high school. Classes tend to be more focused on professional areas and offer degree programs in fields abandoned by the state system. Despite their initial success, however, a high proportion of the private universities eventually abandoned capital/tech intensive degree programs and ended up concentrating most of their resources on more traditional programs that required fewer resources to educate students, thus replicating the asymmetry and vices of the traditional system and its degree offerings.

The values embodied in the public education system are “structure, autonomy, and responsibility.” In this system, students pursue a degree according to publicly accepted rules. They are literally on their own in the face of a massive bureaucratic system that often does not work perfectly. Students are responsible for keeping up with all the “official” information (often transmitted orally in class), such as dates for various registrations, exams, course options, course schedules, etc., as well as with “unofficial” data, such as the best/worst instructors, the ideological orientation of departments that offer similar courses, the course or schedule options taken by their friends, available alternatives in case of sudden teachers’ strikes, where to find the required course material, or the right café to discuss philosophy or politics.  On the other hand, one of the greatest assets is the diversity of the student body in these institutions.  The interaction of two or three different generations and varied social backgrounds creates an invaluable mix of different types of knowledge from younger, inexperienced students, professionals in pursuit of a second career, working people with extensive field experience, or chronic one-course-per-year students with exquisite memories of the Faculdade.

Brazilian universities usually organize their degree programs—unlike liberal arts institutions—around a higher number of required courses, which are more focused on career-specific subjects. Professors make innumerable references to information particular to a given academic field that a U.S. student may not possess, assuming that students are able to grasp the content of those references and information.

At the classroom level, public universities usually have more class hours per week and more extensive reading requirements (whether students have done the reading is a separate matter). Courses are taught in two sections: a theoretical section with voluntary attendance, where the main professors offer authoritative lectures about specific or general issues with little or no teacher/student interaction; and a discussion section, where smaller groups analyze specific issues under the guidance of assistant professors or student teaching assistants, with very active student participation. Private institutions usually replicate this system, offering classes that combine lecture and discussion. In both types of universities, final exams, tend to consist of an all-inclusive oral exposition before a committee of three professors.

Foreign students should feel comfortable in Brazilian classrooms, for they tend to foster a friendly atmosphere.  Students should also get involved outside the classroom. As usual, the most valuable information is in the corridors. For example, students have to take the initiative to locate the required readings in advance, which may not be an easy task, in order to be prepared for exams. Likewise, students should make every effort to find and participate in student study groups, which are a very common form of academic support. Group contact and group study is highly encouraged, for it not only constitutes an excellent avenue for social integration, but is also an ideal means to learn what instructors actually expect in class discussions or exams.

Unspoken Expectations & Practical Suggestions

  • Professors expect students to ask questions whenever they feel they do not understand something.  Professors can’t foresee which student might need which information at which point in time. Remember: they won’t invite you to ask questions because they think it’s a given that everybody who has a question will ask! Needless to say, you are welcome to use that same technique with the staff of the School.
  • Professors assign their reading list but sometimes they do not cover each item as it is shown in the syllabus. The content of one article / book / chapter may be connected to another one, which may be confusing. Keep up with the reading list, even if a particular class doesn’t seem to reference any readings. Those topics will certainly be part of a broader argument of another reading and discussion. Organize all your sources and carefully study each title, abstract, and introduction to make sure you understand the logic of the content of each course.
  • It goes without saying that if you’re interested enough in the course, you are going to check out the course content, so familiarize yourself with it as soon as possible in order to be a well-informed participant during in-class discussions and to fully benefit from the lectures.
  • Professors do not provide a course pack. Most resources for the class will either be available in an online format (usually in a platform they will announce in the first class) or they will be available in a printed version at the “copiadora ou xerox,” located on the first floor of a given department where you take your class. You will need to pay to make a copy or print the files; students usually also bind their prints.
  • The internal academic logistics are usually easily solved with help from one or more of the buddy students assigned by the International Office to each exchange students. Each semester, they have to do the same for their class and will have the most updated information regarding to where to locate the course material. Be proactive and ask your classmates or your buddies.
  • Taking initiative and building a local network is an integral part of your educational experience because it is a skill you will need in order to work academically in nearly every field. Nobody expresses this expectation—it’s a given in
  • Likewise, nobody thinks it’s necessary to let students know they should have prepared the material before it is discussed in class. It goes without saying. In a way, the professors, by sharing their list of required or complementary materials, point out fields of possible interest or provide students with the basis from which they are expected to start exploring the field on their own.
  • In that sense, professors teach methods and support the students’ efforts, but in order to do so, they expect students to demonstrate efforts they then support.
  • Likewise, nobody will tell you that you are responsible for keeping track of your academic assignments, obligations, and appointments. If you haven’t worked with a calendar or time-management system before, the time has come to do so, simply to keep yourself abreast of deadlines and appointments that might either not be mentioned or mentioned just once. Be prepared to write them down whenever they’re mentioned – you might not ever hear about them again before you will have missed them. Sending reminders isn’t a practice here, where everybody is expected to keep track of their own obligations.
  • It is not unusual that the syllabus will be completed after the first class, after professors have a better sense of the group of the students in the class. During first class, be prepared to introduce yourself in front of your classmates. Include some of your background and explain your interest in the course.
  • Professors appreciate your collaboration in class. As often as you see fit, share information on how that topic might be seen in your country of origin, or how you have heard about it before.
  • While the responsibility for what you learn is yours, you are perfectly welcome to ask questions. Because you don’t have as much familiarity with the language to prepare your papers as Brazilian students do, it’s perfectly legitimate for you to explain your situation to your professors and ask them for support. Usually this is taken as a sign of your being interested in achieving a high grade because you show that you’re willing to work for the course. Everybody knows that no one (native speaker or non-native speaker) can understand everything. However, no one understands why the person experiencing a problem doesn’t come forward and ask questions (maybe twice if necessary). So don’t wait for a formal invitation–just ask!
  • Unlike in the US universities, Brazilian professors, and students relay on social media for academic communication. Almost every class has, at least, either a WhatsApp group or a Facebook page for course content sharing and announcements. You will also find official announcements made by the university on social media. While that sounds unconventional from the US academic perspective, it has become a good source for networking and lively updates.

Buddy Program / Living in Brazil and making friends abroad

Every semester, the International Office selects local students to serve as “buddies” or “cultural mentors” to collaborate with the exchange students’ process of linguistic and cultural adaptation. It is a win-win program: local students have the opportunity to interact with an international network on campus, and exchange students have the opportunity to start building friendship on campus and beyond.

Brazilian students (some of whom have little or no fluency in English, and little or no international mobility experience) have the opportunity to get to know cultural aspects of other universities and other countries without leaving campus. At the same time, they teach aspects of the local culture to their fellow exchange students. This intercultural exchange happens spontaneously throughout the semester and can be enhanced through a few initiatives, for example:

– cultural activities together (weekly, biweekly or monthly: go to the movie theater; watch a movie at home followed by a discussion, visit an exhibition, theater, concert, etc.);

– sport activities (hiking, clubs, waterfalls, gym, etc.);

– chats and cultural cafés about mutual language learning, slang in English and Portuguese, use of typical expressions of daily life in the region (from the local student and the exchange student);

– visits to regional fairs, festivals, etc.