Rio Center Stories: Julia Dias, SIPA Student and Executive Secretary of Brazil Talk
Q: Hello, Julia. Thanks for taking the time to meet with me today. To start off, can you tell me a bit about Brazil Talk and your involvement with the program?
A: Brazil Talk is a platform guaranteeing that Brazilian students at Columbia will not lose contact with Brazil. We are at the midway of academics and what is happening right now. We focus on three main things. We are writing a lot of papers and op-eds, but we also want to guarantee that we have access to the Brazilians that are making things happen: lawmakers, politicians. In the past few years, we’ve brought in several candidates in the last election, several senators, indigenous leaders, amazing singers, activists. The idea is to just have access to all different perspectives that are happening in Brazil and have a discussion with them in a close space. The idea started with making sure that we are developing this academic knowledge that is not far from what actually happens in the country. As a lot of students here have deep interests about the country, we hope to bring this deep experience of Brazil to the world, so we have all of our events presented in English, and we have a lot of guests that are not Brazilian. The idea is to share what is happening in Brazil to the rest of the world.
Q: Could you expand on the relationship between Brazil Talk and Columbia? Following that up, could you touch on your work with the Lemann Center for Brazilian Studies and the Lemann Dialogues?
A: We’re Columbia students, SIPA students, the Law School, Teacher’s College. We do a lot of things with ILAS (Institute of Latin American Studies) and LASA (Latin American Student Association). We went to the Brazil Conference at Harvard in 2018, so sometimes we do work with other universities. The Lemann Dialogues were organized by the Global Center and the ILAS and the Lemann Foundation, and we partnered with them to take advantage of the people they were hosting to invite them for interviews.
Q: I read that your founders were two graduate students at Columbia; could you tell me more about your relationship with graduate student programs?
A: Brazil Talk is 100% managed and run by graduate students from various schools, mainly SIPA. One of the founders is the founder of república.org. His name is Eloy. Brazil Talk enables SIPA to have so many events about Brazil. I was asked by a friend of mine from South Korea if Brazil had some huge investment in Columbia because she heard about events related to Brazil or with Brazilian policymakers every week. I think only Brazil, Mexico, and China have student organizations that are "country-focused". It makes a huge difference in our ability to discuss national matters at Columbia. I think one good example would be a panel with Toomas Ilves; former president of Estonia and Ronaldo Lemos; a Brazilian SIPA professor and president of ITS RJ. We talked about what Brazil and Latin America can learn from the Estonian experience with Digital Government and Digital Identity. We’ve also had many great Brazilian names like Marina Silva because we are in New York, and New York is a center that brings and attracts a lot of those names. For example, every year, the UN does the meeting with the main leaders and the environment forum at the same time, and this week, we have 6-7 events with politicians and policy makers who are already in New York.
Q: Through your time “as both a student in SIPA” and as a member of Brazil Talk, you have probably worked a fair amount with the Columbia Global Centers and, specifically, the Columbia Global Centers at Rio de Janeiro; could you touch on these experiences?
A: At SIPA I'm expanding my knowledge on digital government and innovative technologies, as well as delving into different aspects of social policies — from health to food security, financial inclusion, and affordable housing. As the Executive Secretary of Brazil Talk, I had the opportunity to co-organize fifteen events that gathered more than 1,000 participants and 300,000 viewers through live streaming. It has been an honor to moderate several of them, including one with Marina Silva - former Brazilian Senator and Minister of Environment. The Global Center of Rio de Janeiro is a wonderful partner and has shown its support in crucial moments for our organization's growth. For instance, they provided access to high-level speakers during the Lemann Dialogue so we could record interviews in the middle of the event and expand our networks.
Q: As a Columbia student yourself, I am sure you have much to say concerning your time and experience at the university. Moving away from your work with Brazil Talk, could you talk more about what it’s like to be Brazilian student at Columbia today?
A: I can speak more to SIPA, as I am currently studying there. Most Brazilian students intend to go back to Brazil, so I think this is an amazing opportunity to pull from this international pool of knowledge. It’s not an American school, it’s an international school. We’re in contact with Latin American students and Asian students. I think that Brazil is very well represented in the school. We have a lot of amazing Brazilian professors. This past semester, SIPA did this consulting project to really focus on how the judiciary system was using artificial intelligence in Brazil. There were Brazilian students, but there were also students for Japan, China, among others. I do think it’s an amazing way to show what Brazil is doing to the public. Not only in politics, but what the country is doing to develop in an economic and social aspect, as well as environment.
Q: The Columbia Global Centers of Rio De Janeiro recently discovered that the first Brazilian to attend Columbia University was a medical student in 1866, and since then, the relationship between Brazil and Columbia has only grown. Portugués instruction dates back to as early as 1914, for example, and we’ve seen many Brazilian students and professors throughout these last two centuries grace the halls of the university. That said, however, the United States is perhaps, no longer the prime destination for students coming from outside of the country due to the current political climate. Could you speak to this? Is this particularly true for Brazilians? If so, why?
A: I do think the US still has some of the best universities in the world, but I think the current government’s policies are scaring a lot of people, so a lot of Brazilians don’t want to come to the US to face the uncertainty of being deported. This definitely puts the university at a disadvantaged position. I think there are a lot of scholarships in European universities, which is very attractive. If you compare the dollar, the euro, and pounds, it is very difficult to come to the US without scholarship, so the participation of Brazilian students in the US is very attached to the scholarship. With the universities here becoming so expensive, Europe becomes a very attractive region for study.
Q: Do you think this trend will continue?
A: I think it will depend on the government’s future policies and the election that happens this year. Master’s degree programs in Europe are much more academic than in the US, and I think that makes students more attracted to the US. In the US, most universities have this very practical approach, so it is truly differential, but it’s truly up to the election. It seems that the country doesn’t want international students.
Q: Do you share this feeling that Brazilian students, such as yourself, are less wanted at institutions such as Columbia?
A: I think Columbia has a very protected policy for their students, so I never felt such in the university, but with the last couple of weeks, especially after the COVID pandemic, the Trump administration made us feel less wanted than before. But I really appreciate the posture of the university. Even when COVID started, I really like the posture of not expelling international students from their dorm. I think all the universities had a strong opposition against this recent measure. I’m not going to say that all universities were great at reacting, but I think all universities were fast to make a united front in the judicial system, MIT, Harvard, Columbia, for example, preparing all the documents they needed to succeed so fast.
Q: How do you think Brazilian impact in international education/American education will continue to manifest in the future?
A: Brazil is one of the main countries of Latin America, so I think it would definitely still be very important in the educational system, especially in graduate schools. With COVID and the Devaluation of the Real, it would depend a lot on the next election and the US policy on whether they welcome international students. The world has become more competitive, so there are great schools everywhere, and they’re being very successful in attracting Latin American, Brazilian students. I think it’s a very competitive environment for students. I do think Brazilian students and the US are very-much alike. Most students are rich, white, come from private schools. I do think universities in the US and foundations with scholarships need to take a look at what students they want here because Brazil is not completely represented by students here in the US.
Q: Do you have any closing statements you’d like to share?
A: The current Columbia students from Brazil were very disappointed with the lack of diversity from the students that received scholarships. While we know that several amazing people, as social entrepreneurs from poor backgrounds, were approved at SIPA through a Lemann project that supported their application, none of them were given scholarships and consequently, none of them are going to be able to come. Meanwhile, most of the funding was awarded to students from similar backgrounds (white, Sao Paulo, wealth). Columbia shouldn't waste the opportunity to have a more diverse, enriched group.