An Interview With Alma Mater

Higher education in Brazil isn’t a topic that frequently comes up over the Cialfo watercooler, so when we received the opportunity to chat with Fernanda, Linnea and Gabriela of the Alma Mater Education Consultancy, we were thrilled!

A little bit about the Brazilian system: higher education in Brazil adopts a mix of public as well as private. Undergraduate degrees (graduação) in public universities are totally financed by the government, while in private institutions prices vary significantly. Additionally, there is no unified academic credit system in Brazil – the regulating bodies of the Ministry of Education counts the hours of instruction. A full time year of higher education usually equals 800 to 1,200 contact hours in Brazil, equivalent to 50-80 U.S credits.

The University of São Paulo is Brazil’s leading higher education institution, was founded in 1934, and is the highest ranking university in Latin America. Higher education in Brazil is split into three categories: universities, university centres and integrated faculties, and schools of higher education. Federal and state universities are free for students, but their reputation means it’s fiercely competitive to get a place.

Alma Mater is a higher education consultancy based in Brazil, helping students with applications to university, post graduate, summer programmes and boarding school. Founded in 2012, they have an office in Rio de Janeiro as well as Paris.

 

Tell us a bit about Alma Mater and your journey till today. What were the highlights, and what were the setbacks? What was available in the market when you were starting out?

Alma Mater Education Consultancy is a Brazilian independent education agency, which has pioneered exclusive college counselling in Rio de Janeiro and Brazil. The company started in 2012, founded by Corinne Tisserand, in Brazil, and has now grown into a team of 6 with offices in Rio de Janeiro and Paris.

We are currently advising circa 80-100 students per year. 96% of our clients get into one of their first three choices, and all of our students get into international education. In 5 years, we have had clients from more than 6 states in Brazil and work with Brazilian candidates based internationally, in countries such as Italy, France, UK and beyond.

College counselling is a relatively untapped market in Brazil, and many strong candidates look to international counsellors in the US, to help them with the application process. Our availability on the ground, speaking the local language, with more accessible consultancy fees, means that more Brazilian students are able to have the guidance and advice to help them get into strong educational experiences internationally.

What’s the Alma Mater office like?  

We have a cosy office in Rio de Janeiro, in a neighbourhood close to where many of our clients’ study, which we also share with a tutoring company who offer test preparation for standardised and proficiency tests. Our work environment is informal, has a ‘young’ feel to it, and is heavily dressed in academic memorabilia from our favourite schools and universities, to ensure our clients feel both at home and inspired when they are here.

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Who are your students? Who is more likely to benefit from your services, and how do you assess your candidates?

Initially, most of our students were from the international schools in Brazil, Brazilians or anglo-brazilians with strong use of the English language. We are seeing growing interest also of students of local Brazilian schools, who have solid language proficiency and, even though their previous educational experience hasn’t been international, are looking to study abroad. Alma Mater takes on a limited amount of clients per year, to ensure that we can maintain the family feel of the company and the intensive personalised service of consultancy to our clients. Any family, child or young adult interested in studying abroad will benefit from our consultancy.

Why did you choose to become an education consultant?

Fernanda Mariani, Partner: “Having had an international education myself and ensuring that I was able to offer that experience to my own children, I wanted to extend the knowledge to other families too. I enjoy the close contact with different families, getting involved with different types of students, and knowing that we are helping guide youths to their futures and through what is such a complicated and emotional phase of deciding one’s further education. It is great to know that we are using our own personal experience to relieve pressure from other Brazilians, that we are opening doors and minds to create true global citizens, and indirectly making a difference for the future of Brazil.

Typically, where are your students looking to attend college?

There are many different options but, among Brazilians, the most desirable ones are the American colleges Columbia, Harvard University and NYU, and the British universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Part of our work is also managing expectations of families and clients, who associate international universities with names which rarely the students have the academic profiles for. There are other very strong institutions that we encourage our clients to consider, such as King’s College London, London School of Economics, University of Bath, and University of the Arts in the United Kingdom; and Bard College, Ponoma College, Wesleyan University and University of Virginia in the United States.

What’s the Alma Mater methodology?

We advise each university client on around 15 different applications per year. We also advise on test preparation strategies for proficiency and standardised tests, keeping track of their records on each and ensuring their test results are compatible with their academic records, and that their college lists have a spread of institutions which are also compatible to that student profile. The Alma Mater methodology involves keeping a very close and personalised relationship with students, working closely with their families, helping them in their choices of location, area of study and much more.

Many of the parents we deal with haven’t studied abroad themselves, and the Brazilian higher education entry process is very different (much simpler), so part of our work is carefully explaining and hand-holding families through the process. Not all family members speak English, so reviewing the application instructions with them is also important. Every member of the Alma Mater team has studied both in Brazil and abroad, in selective institutions in the US, UK and Switzerland, we all have international experience so we can speak first hand of the benefits and opportunities that it brings.

What differentiates Alma Mater from other education consultancies in Brazil?

We are not interested in educational tourism, ‘study’ opportunities as an excuse to visit other countries, which various educational agencies offer. We believe in giving customised, first-hand advice to students who see studying abroad as opportunities to open their minds, experiences and careers. We actually have experienced international education ourselves, which is something not all others have done.

What do you think the biggest roadblock is for Brazilian students seeking higher education?

Brazilian students tend to focus on the schools with recognisable names, and the degrees which are most common in Brazil – business, economics, communications. But there are huge opportunities in other areas of undergraduate study that Brazilians aren’t as aware of, such as the liberal arts and sciences education offered in many universities. In general, the term refers to degree programs that aim to provide a broader spectrum of knowledge and skills.

Liberal Arts and Sciences teaches what today’s employers say they value most: how to communicate your ideas; find and analyse information and data; adapt to new technology and professional trends; work with others to solve problems; and make confident, knowledgeable decisions. Brazilian families also tend to associate international education with the USA immediately, when many times that is the most costly option. We work hard to show families that there are excellent educational opportunities in European countries such as Switzerland, Italy, Germany, Holland and France, in Canada, Australia, the UK and many more.

Alma Mater has been operating for five years now – has the higher education landscape changed since you first began?

We live in an ever-changing world and most of the global trends affect higher education in one way or another. BREXIT in the UK, and a more conservative government in the US are two examples of political developments which immediately come to mind for our Brazilian students.

In Brazil, too, the socio-political environment has a huge impact on higher education opportunities, with the economic recession and political crisis the country has been going through for the past years.

What are the biggest higher education trends you see happening in Brazil?

In Brazil, public universities are typically considered the strongest, such as USP (São Paulo) and Federal universities in each state. Recent spending caps have limited public spending increases even more. Many of these are on strike or closed down at the moment due to economic difficulties, so many students enrolled in them are transferring abroad or to other universities.

In parallel, Brazilians with second passports (Portuguese, Italian or other nationalities) are opening their horizons to venturing internationally. So families with the financial capacity to send their children abroad are doing so more than they did in the past.

How many of the students with Alma Mater are looking at studying within Brazil?

None, but many apply to Brazilian university and then attend international ones, so that they keep their doors open at home in case they need or decide to return.

This year’s Times Higher Education Latin America University ranked State University of Campinas and University of São Paulo as their top two universities in Latin America. Why do you think Brazil colleges are dominating?

This is a historic trend but which is potentially changing, as other public universities in Chile, Columbia and Mexico are climbing up the rankings too. Brazilian universities have historically benefitted from strong partnerships with international institutions such as Kings College London, in the UK, and others, which raises their academic profiles and attracts stronger students.

Are there any special issues to consider for a Brazilian student looking to study in the U.S or U.K?

Two points come to mind. On one hand, students are looking to study in places which give them the widest work experience opportunities post-university, such as Canada or Europe (with European passports). On the other hand, a lot of Brazilians don’t understand the level of competition in college application, so part of our work is explaining how each student will be seen in the context of his competitors too.

Any resources to recommend for further reading on Brazilian higher education?

Exame magazine, UOL Educação, Ensino Superior magazine and Valor Econômico are good vehicles.

What’s next for Alma Mater?

We are venturing into other states of Brazil where customised education counselling isn’t as easy to find, such as Curitiba, Bahia, Ribeirão Preto, Manaus, Minas Gerais and others. Our European operation, based in Paris, is also growing to support the EU market.

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