The Human Element Behind International Scholarship Programs

Between 2015-2016, I was contracted by Harvard University-Laspau to help strengthen operations and supports for Latin America’s most ambitious international scholarship initiatives. Working behind the scenes with the Ministries of Education, Ministries of Science and Technology, and private funders across the region, I quickly learned that it was the human element, relationships built around respect and trust, that made systems flow. 

The scholarship initiatives included the Fulbright Program across nearly all Latin American and Caribbean countries (a return to the program that supported my research in Brazil several years ago as a Ph.D. student), Kellogg Foundation, Organization of American States, Colciencias, Becas Caldas, INICIA Educación, Innóvate Perú, MIT-Universidad de Buenos Aires, and the massive program, Ciência sem Fronteiras/Science Without Borders, in partnership with CAPES and CNPq of Brazil.   

The scholarship programs reached to the top executive branches of governments across the Americas and often involved cost-sharing agreements with the private sector. Contracts were complex and involved national development agendas to improve all areas of science, technology, education, mathematics, humanities, and beyond. These scholarships went to the highest-achieving students from Latin America and the governments’ investment in their overseas training was tied to all national development plans. 

My role was to work behind the scenes of these programs, sorting through problems that often pinned on language use, differences between U.S. and Latin American university systems and supports, cultural assumptions, communications that required face-to-face contact. I would often station myself in the ministries of education, science, and technology to understand where miscommunications occurred and in doing so—by taking the time to ask the simplest of questions about verb tenses in a contract or listen to the logic behind the construction of scholarship applications—I witnessed the human element behind the flow of hundreds of thousands of scholars around the world. The teams responsible for running these programs were working incredible hours under intense pressure and they did this each day because they knew that the future of their countries depended on the development of these scholars. Working alongside these warriors of international education was as humbling as it was inspiring.  

The experience working across the Americas, using Spanish and Portuguese and cultural skills to get to the source of roadblocks preventing programs from operating at their full potential, was like a second Ph.D. degree. This lived-degree showed me that often, because these scholarship programs were so tied to national research agendas and took on political weight, the human element was what made everything work. In other words, the movement of scholars around the world not only required extremely strong relationships, in-depth cultural knowledge, and a deep respect for the work of the people who kept the programs running each day, it was their humanity and human touch that made systems work. Systems, platforms, and data—even for scholarship programs that sponsored research projects in technology and science—were actually secondary, despite our digital epoch. I learned a great deal from this (especially from the CAPES and CNPq teams in Brazil, the INICIA Educación program in the Dominican Republic, and Fulbright across the region) and designed Blue Sage to be a student-centered global education development consultancy. 

If the human element of the Science Without Borders is what kept the program thriving in the face of all odds, the same can be said of the scholars themselves. In an age of measured outcomes, data-driven analysis, and the need to show impact quantitatively, methods to receive and efficiently share qualitative data can be challenging to institute (even though that impact is precisely what motivates the administrators to work 20-hour days, and sometimes more). A recent article by Frederico Menino attests to this the need for qualitative reporting. 

The stories of the Latin American and Caribbean scholars—their intercultural development, their language development, their cross-cultural problem solving, all of the things U.S.-based study abroad programs seek to support and highlight—was almost a luxury item, something that everyone wanted to hear (and needed to, especially as the political and economic crisis of Brazil threatened the longevity of Science Without Borders). Yet stories from the field were difficult to receive in an efficient way. Having worked for so long in U.S.-based education abroad in Brazil where terms like intercultural learning and cross-cultural navigational skills are so used (even IDI measurement systems have emerged) the Latin American stories and qualitative impact of many of the scholarship programs were not documenting this "other" type of learning that was happening. There was a whole poetic description of the immersion process, the challenges of working across cultures and languages that was not being documented (and certainly not to the fault of the administrators).

That is when BRASCON surfaced. It was a celebration of the human element of Ciência sem Fronteiras as well as the program's major impact on STEM research, a conference organized and largely imparted by the graduate student-scholars themselves. Blown away by the emotive impact of the conference in March 2016, I wrote two articles on my personal blog (one in English, one in Portuguese), and it is with great excitement that BRASCON will have its second annual conference at the University of Southern California between March 11-12.  For more information, check out their webpage and the terrific support that partner BRASA is offering to Brazilian nationals applying to universities worldwide. These acts of sharing is precisely what motivates the small yet dynamic teams of administrators at CAPES and CNPq, the governing bodies of this massive Science Without Borders scholarship program. 

Please stay tuned for some of the informal interviews that I conducted at Harvard University last March, where BRASCON began! Blue Sage Global Education is now focused on numerous internationalization projects outside of the scholarship domain and, by translating and editing key documents that raise the profile of Latin American internationalization efforts, bringing the human element to that language-based work as well. 

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