Southern University entered into an agreement Wednesday to exchange students and possibly faculty with a university in Brazil starting as early as next spring.
Chancellor James Llorens signed the memorandum of understanding sitting side-by-side with Jorge da Silva, a professor and social scientist from Rio de Janeiro State University.
The two men called the agreement a boon for students at both schools and an opportunity for the institutions to learn from each other.
The program could also be an enrollment booster for Southern, which has seen its student population drop from nearly 9,500 students to below 7,000 during the past several years. Southern is prepared to accept as many as 500 Brazilian students starting next year.
Students making the trip from Rio de Janeiro to Baton Rouge will have their choice of which courses to take, but there will be a specific emphasis on taking English as a second language, computer science and classes in the information technology field, Llorens said.
Barbara Carpenter, Southern’s dean of International Affairs, said the university is also acting as a “host” school for the international Science Without Borders initiative, which intends to groom the next generation of young minds in the global scientific community.
Carpenter said the Science Without Borders students will study science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM.
As da Silva sat in a conference room Wednesday surrounded by deans from several of Southern’s colleges, he spoke about some of the social problems Brazil has that bear some similarities to the United States.
“People think we are a racial democracy in Brazil,” he said. “It’s because the elites want to portray that. How can a country that received at least 5 million slaves and had slavery for three-and-a-half centuries be a racial democracy?”
A growing wealth disparity and deep-seated racial tensions, da Silva said, have contributed to lingering inequalities in terms of educational opportunities and in the criminal justice system.
Just as race can be a taboo subject in the U.S., it has remained a topic that not too many people in Brazil are comfortable talking about even as it remains a polarizing aspect of the culture, da Silva said.
Of the 30,000 students enrolled at Rio De Janeiro State University, da Silva said only 5,000 are black.
He pointed to the significant disparity in the quality of public high schools versus private schools as leading to a wide achievement gap among Brazil’s black residents compared with those of European ancestry.
“If you don’t have the money to pay for a private high school, you won’t have the opportunities,” da Silva said.
Founded in 1950, the university is one of the largest out of many located in a Brazilian state that is home to about 6.3 million people. Besides the main campus in the city of Rio de Janeiro, the school has six other campuses.
It is known for its law school and its network of health care and health education facilities.
Southern’s partnership with the school is similar to an agreement the university made with a college in Turkey in April.
Under that agreement, Southern will exchange faculty, students and research initiatives with Abant Izzet Baysal University in Bolu, Turkey.
Southern also has expressed an interest in working out “three-plus-one” programs, in which students start at Turkish institutions and finish their bachelor’s degrees at Southern.