Learning across borders

UTSC is a destination - and a launch pad - for students studying in the Americas

Amy Stupavksy
Image of Ana Cecilia Velosa

Ana Cecilia Veloso: "This is the place to be."

UTSC’s partnerships with other countries in the Americas are bursting with opportunities. As international experience increasingly becomes an asset in the workforce, more students study overseas and engage in international activities, enhance global understanding and develop cross-cultural skills. Latin America offers UTSC students a chance to expand their civic awareness and social consciousness in developing countries. Similarly, Latin American students choose UTSC to complement studies at their home universities  and learn from a Canadian model.

During the current academic year, 35 Brazilian students arrived at UTSC to take part in the Ciência sem Fronteiras (CsF) program (Science Without Borders). Launched by the Brazilian government in 2011, CsF encourages Brazilian university students in science, technology, engineering and medicine to study abroad. The program aims to provide more than 200,000 scholarships, which cover tuition, travel, housing and living expenses.

Across the three campuses, U of T accepts more CsF participants than any other Canadian university. UTSC hosts CsF students in medicine and computer science. In Brazil, students enter medical school directly from high school. While at UTSC, CsF medical students enrol in health science and biology courses to give them a foundation in core concepts and English medical vocabulary. The students complete two terms of study, as well as a four-month research placement or internship.

“It’s a great opportunity for us to broaden our international student base,” says Erika Loney, manager of the International Student Centre, CsF’s office at UTSC. “We attract some of the best students from Brazil, all with varied backgrounds. These different world views enrich class discussions, our students and the campus.”

For Ana Cecilia Veloso, UTSC was the top choice. The third-year medical student at the Universidade Estadual de Montes Claros in Brazil was attracted by its reputation and the opportunity for a comparative approach.

“I study health systems and Canada’s health care is world-class,” she says. “I wanted to experience living in a country with a system that works well in comparison to Brazil. U of T has the top ranking for medical sciences, so this is the place to be.”

 At UTSC, Veloso takes a range of classes—anatomy, developmental psychobiology and even a French class for exchange students. She especially appreciates the teaching methods, which contrast with the problem-based learning techniques practised at her home university.

“In problem-based learning, we don’t have classes; we learn right at the hospital,” she explains. “Here, I’m practising material in a new environment with a new method that is different from what my colleagues in Brazil experience. It gives me a deeper knowledge and background.”

Matheus Rocha Goncalves, a third-year medical student at the Universidade Federal do Pará in Belém, Brazil, also decided to study at UTSC for its benefit to his education.

“Being in touch with talented professors and researchers opens doors for my academic and professional career in the future,” he says. “Having access to courses that are important to my degree—such as physiology, immunology and health sciences—that are taught from a different perspective than in Brazil enriches my knowledge of the subjects.”

Participation in CsF marks the first time abroad for many of the students and culture shock abounds as they discover differences in everything from weather, class sizes and professor-student dynamics to resumé writing and social interaction.

Originally from Maranhão, a small state in northeast Brazil, Goncalves arrived in Canada in August 2014—his first visit to a new country.

“I didn’t know anyone before coming to Toronto, but this was not a problem—it’s such a multicultural city, and people are friendly and receptive to foreigners,” he says. “It’s interesting to meet not just other international students but people from different regions of my own country. These people ended up being my closest friends.”

UTSC provides resources to ease the transition to life in Toronto. This year, the university also hired a Portuguese-speaking don to field questions and help the Brazilians acclimatize to Canadian culture.

“We are especially grateful to the don for introducing us to Tim Hortons and taking us to buy winter outerwear,” says Veloso. “People always want to help. One of the great things about being at UTSC is it’s smaller and the staff devotes more attention to us. It’s helped to make this one of the best experiences of my life.”

This positive association shows how much the students have become a part of the UTSC community.

“These students go home as honorary UTSC alumni,” says Loney, who has recently implemented certificates for CsF participants. “They are able to tell their colleagues that UTSC is a great place to study. They take their experiences here and go on to do great things for their educations, careers and country.”

Transformative international experiences also extend to UTSC students. Latin America is a popular destination for students in the co-op stream of the International Development Studies (IDS) program, which focuses on critical and cross-disciplinary understandings of development issues around the world.

Unique to UTSC and housed at the Centre for Critical Development Studies, IDS is now in its 30th year. During students’ fourth year of the five-year program, they undertake a placement of up to 12 months at an international development organization to gain real-world experience in the field. Some students find work terms through their own research and connections, but most secure placements through UTSC’s robust partnership network of non-governmental organizations, research institutes and private sector firms.

“The interest in Latin America is heightened because of Canada’s trade with the area, and it’s a fantastic opportunity to put language competencies to use,” says Katie Boomgaardt, IDS Co-op Co-ordinator. “It’s also interesting from a development perspective because it’s evolving quickly.”

Rani Aziz spent his term in La Paz, Bolivia, working with a local organization to lobby for rights of artisanal craftspeople. Now in his final year of IDS, Aziz believes that the experience has been life changing, both academically and personally.

“Beyond the professional takeaway of learning to be flexible and proactive, I also immersed myself in Bolivian customs,” says Aziz. “I have an affinity for Latin American culture. I participated in a Pachamama—or Mother Earth—bonfire festival, which strengthened my relationship to the people.” While overseas, co-op IDS students spend about a quarter of their time researching their final-year thesis paper. Inspired by the human connection, Aziz, now back in Scarborough working through material, decided to investigate the effect of Bolivia’s macroeconomic policy on its citizens.

“I was able to meet with the head of the national chamber of commerce and other government personnel,” he says. “Bolivia has the world’s second-largest natural gas deposits. Most government expenditure comes from natural gas revenues, and I wonder about the sustainability, how it will affect people’s lives.”

Deepening the exposure to foreign cultures also expands social activism. Monika Chmielewski is currently in Belize, working with the Ministry of Education to raise awareness about sexual and reproductive health to the country’s marginalized youth.

“The most rewarding part of my placement has been helping youths affected by teenage pregnancy, STDs and HIV-AIDS,” she says. “Hearing their stories makes me realize how much we take for granted in Canada. I am able to share knowledge and engage with this community in dynamic ways, including through workshops, social media and pamphlets.”

Chmielewski hopes to combine her passions for health care and development by pursuing a degree in nursing after she graduates.

“My dream job would be with Doctors Without Borders, the WHO or the Red Cross,” she says. “That’s one of the things I’ve realized through first-hand experience in development: the more skills and specializations you can bring to the table, the greater effect you can have.”

Denisse Albornoz presents an unusual perspective on the IDS program. Born in Ecuador and raised in the Dominican Republic and Peru, she worked with a research organization in Bangalore, India, examining how technology effects social and political change—a learning experience she can apply to Latin America’s history of resistance and civic action.

“In North America, I think Latin America can be a bit romanticized,” she says. “But IDS creates so much room for critical thinking and discussion that it pushed me to embrace new ways to think about Latin American problems and debunk my own paradigms. India made me see the same issues that pushed me into development in a different cultural context.”

Although her work term is over, Albornoz says her time in India has created waves of change in her everyday life. Her placement, research and volunteer work with Blank Noise—an arts collective in Bangalore that combats street sexual harassment—reinvigorated her interest in the arts and altered her perception of knowledge and education. She is working to bring Blank Noise to the UTSC Women’s Centre’s Stories of Resistance conference—a venture she credits to her global educational experience.

“It forces you to think out of your box and challenge yourself with new world views and ideas,” says Albornoz. “It creates an open environment in which UTSC becomes a true learning community.”