The University of Georgia is one of eight schools around the country taking home a prestigious award for international collaboration, gaining recognition for deep ties with the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais.
NAFSA, a nonprofit focused on international education, picked UGA for this year’s Paul Simon Spotlight Award award, named for the Illinois senator who championed global education. UGA was one of three winners of the Spotlight Award, which recognizes specific partnerships. Five other U.S. schools won for overall internationalization.
From the outside, the UGA-Minas Gerais Partnership launched in 2015 might seem like a simple exercise in weighing strengths, then allocating resources well. But the award suggests that UGA’s strategic approach is not all that common.
After an evaluation by the Office of International Education uncovered a bevy of existing research ties between UGA professors and their partners in Brazil, UGA leaders helped fan into flame those embers of collaboration.
Now, UGA scholars have worked on some 20 collaborative research projects covering topics ranging from health to linguistics and beyond. A few examples: looking with Federal University of Viçosa at how temperatures affect Zika-carrying mosquitoes, and working with Federal University of Minas Gerais to examine digestive diseases in poultry and jointly devise educational tools in indigenous languages.
This specific approach of capitalizing on existing partnerships is surprisingly rare in international education, said Brian Watkins, director of partnerships for the UGA Office of International Education, told Global Atlanta.
For one, it’s not always easy for unwieldy institutions — sometimes operating in silos — to find out just what their scholars are up to around the world. UGA alone has 17 schools and colleges where faculty run their own study-abroad programs and maintain various cross-border partnerships.
New data tools tracking joint publications between Georgian and Brazilian researchers made it easier to find existing collaborations. But Brazil also made a strong showing when the university compiled its institutional partnerships into one comprehensive global map for its Global Gateway site.
“Brazil is, by and large, the country where we have the most institutional agreements,” Mr. Watkins said, (though China is nipping at its heels).
With these facts in view, UGA then leveraged the universal language of academic researchers: funding. Working with partner institutions and the Minas Gerais State Foundation for Research Support (Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado de Minas Gerais), UGA provided “seed funding” for a workshop in Brazil to encourage cross-border teams to pitch projects for grants that would soon become available.
With funding, Mr. Watkins said, “You can’t stop them from collaborating. They start spinning up projects and waving their arms and before you know it you’ve got some stuff going on.”
Fundação Oswaldo Cruz, or Fiocruz, Brazil’s national health research foundation with a large lab in the Minas Gerais capital of Belo Horizonte, helped with funding, as did Merial, the European animal pharmaceuticals giant with a presence in the Athens area.
UGA played matchmaker, targeting researchers on both sides with complementary work, Mr. Watkins said.
“Since we had done the homework in advance we knew already that they were going to strike a spark, which they did,” he said.
Brazil has a few characteristics that make it a prime partner, including a strong network of higher education institutions and a government committed to funding scientific research. Indeed, finding a critical mass of partners in one country isn’t easy — much less in one state.
“It’s not so much a bilateral, pin-on-the-map type approach; it’s more of a regional, strength-to-strength type of process,” Mr. Watkins said.
UGA also had another motivation for deepening ties with Brazil. The university is designated as a home for the Portuguese language Flagship Program, a U.S. government-backed initiative to foster proficiency in languages deemed critical for national or economic security.
Flagship’s undergraduates are required to complete an internship or study program in Brazil. Many of them are pursuing multiple majors in addition to their language studies, so the program both drove existing Brazil collaborations and benefited from new ones, Mr. Watkins said.
“It’s all synergistic. You can teach someone in a classroom anywhere in the world, but if you get an interesting research project or a hands-on learning project on the ground, it just adds a completely new layer of complexity and nuance to it,” said Mr. Watkins, who previously ran the international business program at Mississippi State University after a law career that took him to Indonesia and briefly to the Federated States of Micronesia.
He believes that the partnership with Minas Gerais can be replicated with other countries with strong institutions and ready access to funding, perhaps including China.
Last year, Latin American institutions and funders provided about half the research money flowing from overseas to UGA, which boasts a Latin American and Caribbean Studies Institute designed to foster interdisciplinary collaboration.
In praising the NAFSA award, UGA President Jere Morehead said the university is a “global enterprise,” while NAFSA said in a statement that universities must continue to innovate when it comes to preparing their students for future global leadership.
“With institutions like these continuing to strive to incorporate creatively global perspectives onto their campuses, I am confident we can prepare our students to succeed and ultimately strengthen ties around the world,” said Esther D. Brimmer, NAFSA’s executive director and CEO, in announcing the awards.
Other winners include Babson College, Baldwin Wallace University, Harper College, St. Lawrence University, Stony Brook University, Texas Tech University and the University of Florida.
UGA was No. 11 in the country for sending students abroad in 2015-16; it hosted 2,273 international students in the same year.
Learn more at the Office of International Education’s Global Gateway.