U of T news

Brazilian students bring dance, joy and culture to Toronto

More Science Without Borders students come to U of T than anywhere else in the world

(all photos by Arnold Lan)

Twice a week music drifts out of the University of Toronto’s Cumberland House as Brazilian students dance in snug embrace with Chinese, Japanese, Indian and Canadian students, everyone stepping, turning and spinning to the Forró beat.

As U of T’s education and research ties with Brazil have grown so too have the number of Brazilian students on campus. (Read more about U of T's research collaborations with partners in Brazil.)

Waves of Brazilian students coming to U of T are now leaving a mark on the university through a cultural exchange of their own: They’ve created a bi-weekly drop-in Forró class that teaches salsa-like moves from Brazil’s traditional folk dance to Brazilian and Canadian students alike, as well as international students from across the globe.

The Brazilian government launched the Science Without Borders (Ciência sem Fronteiras) program in 2012 to send science and tech minded students abroad. Since then, U of T has received more than 1,000 students from Brazil – more Science Without Borders students have come here than anywhere else in the world, according to the Canadian Bureau for International Education, which manages the program for the Brazilian government in Canada. (Read about engineering entrepreneurs taking part in the program.)

At its peak this past December, there were about 620 Brazilian students on campus, making it one of the largest groups of international students at U of T. Another 162 are expected this September. The program, which offers Brazilian undergrads advanced classes in their field as well as an internship placement over the summer, has recently begun to welcome more doctoral students, and this past summer Brazilian President Dilma Roussef announced a second phase of the scholarship program to begin in 2016.

For many Brazilians interested in the program, U of T has become their go-to destination.

Thiago Salvatore, 22, a Science Without Borders student, said while the University of Toronto is a top 10 school globally for computer science, he also wanted to come to Canada and specifically Toronto because of its reputation as a multicultural city.

“I can learn English. I can learn French. I can meet people from different countries and learn computer science. That’s why I decided to come here,” Salvatore said.

Besides, he says, Canadians are friendlier than Americans and that is a huge draw for many Brazilians who are known for giving strangers warm hugs and affectionate kisses on the cheek.

photo of a pair of students dancingThe free Forró (pronounced fo-ho) group was created in 2012 by the first batch of Brazilian students who came to U of T as part of the Science Without Borders program. The effort has brought some of Brazil’s brightest to U of T’s three campuses and the faculties of pharmacy, kinesiology, nursing, engineering, forestry, architecture and arts & science.

The hope is that they take what they’ve learned in research labs here to lead scientific endeavours in Brazil. While the Brazilian government provides the scholarship, the university has hired three staffers and four dons to coordinate the students’ schedules and provide non-educational programming for the group.

The Brazilian students asked U of T’s Centre for International Experience, where the Science Without Borders program is housed, for space to host Forró lessons.

“It’s not only to spread Brazilian culture in Canada, but it’s also a place to meet other people and show how our culture is,” Salvatore said.

As each batch of students leave Toronto for Brazil, they identify new students who have enough dancing skills to lead the next cohort of students.

Pedro Henrique Nogueira de Rezende picked U of T as his first option in Science Without Borders because of its reputation.

“In America, you’re not guaranteed to get the university you chose,” he said. “So you could end up getting one of the best universities in the world or one you haven’t heard of. For Canada, we’ve heard all these good things about its security and how polite people are. And if you choose a university here, it’s more certain you’re going there.”

When de Rezende first came to Toronto in July he knew little Forró himself, but the mechanical engineering student immersed himself in the dance and learned from students from other nationalities who brought their own dance technique into the classroom.

Because the group is quickly becoming popular by word of mouth, only half of the 20 to 40 students who show up on any given Tuesday or Friday evening are Brazilian. Some come from other parts of the world like the Middle East, Korea, Japan, Bangladesh and Russia and visit Cumberland House regularly.

Others are like Jacob Si.

He’s a Canadian of Chinese heritage who graduated from the university last year with an engineering degree and now works on a startup called Konectivity at U of T MADLab. Walking out of an engineering lab one day, Si caught a glimpse of people dancing inside Cumberland House.

A friend walking with him at the time happened to be from Brazil and part of the Science Without Borders program. He told Si the dance was Forró.

Si says in the beginning he wanted to learn Forró to learn more about his friend, a brilliant engineering student who helped him with difficult classes. But soon he became hooked and now he’s one of the group’s instructors.

“They’ve created a community where people can de-stress and just have fun,” Si said.

Dilya Anayatoza, 24, is from Kazakhstan. She heard about the group from Brazilians in the English language program classes she was taking in preparation for grad school.

With relatives far away, the dance group has become a way to feel a little less homesick.

“Our class is Brazilian, but most of the students are from different nationalities and countries,” Anayatoza said. “The main advantage is that I meet a lot of people, and they’re really interesting.”

photo of students dancing

Noreen Ahmed-Ullah writes about the undergraduate experience and community partnerships for U of T News.