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By Lisa Jasinski, Ph.D. Student, Program in Higher Education Leadership

As a mid-career professional beginning my second year of doctoral study, I no longer think of my summers as “vacations.” For nearly a decade, I have worked year-round as an academic administrator. Gone are the days of part-time jobs, a steady uniform of tank tops, and getting lost in paperbacks at the beach. After I turned in my final papers this spring, I felt a sense of anxious anticipation. What would my first summer as a doctoral student be like?

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COE students Coreen Davis, Genevieve Countryman, Lisa Jasinski, and Dr. Pat Somers travel to Brazil.

As I looked at my calendar, my first realization came quickly—the academic year never really ends. My summer brimmed with courses, international field research, conference presentations, lots of writing and just enough rest to rejuvenate me for the year to come. In May, I traveled with my academic advisor, Dr. Pat Somers, and other UT students to present original research at the Latin American Studies Association Conference in Puerto Rico. This was my first international presentation as a UT student, and it was especially gratifying to engage with colleagues from all over the world. As I find my footing as a researcher, this was a valuable reminder that scholarly work has real implications.

Then, in June, I took an intensive course about comparative international higher education. We examined case studies from Mexico, India, China, Finland, Germany, South Korea and Brazil. The class allowed me to rethink my assumptions about the roles that universities play in society, weigh strategies of reducing the cost of attendance while maintaining educational quality, and see how other countries have increased college attendance and graduation among students from historically underrepresented groups.

The highlight of this summer was two weeks of field research in Porto Alegre, a coastal city of more than a million people in southern Brazil. I traveled with Dr. Somers and two other College of Education graduate students, Cory Davis and Genevieve Countryman. Upon arrival, we were greeted with the warm gaucho hospitality for which the region is famous. Everyone we met was so eager to talk to us, shower us in presents and introduce us to new foods, phrases and customs. They even gave us an affectionate nickname, the “doctorinas,” which in turn inspired the social media hashtag we used to post updates from the trip (check us out at #somersdoctorinas).

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“Hook’em” selfie with high school students in Viamao, Brazil.

To the higher education scholar, Brazil presents a fascinating case study. As one of the most diverse countries in the world, it is the ideal place to consider the impact of a decade-old national affirmative action policy to expand college access for black, mixed-race, indigenous and low-income students. Faculty at Brazilian universities are under pressure to adopt new technologies, think across disciplinary boundaries and prepare a new generation of students to live, work and thrive in an increasingly interconnected world.

We learned that there is a burnt orange pipeline that runs between Austin and Porto Alegre. Several of our local hosts studied at UT-Austin under many auspices. We met former fellows of the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies (LLILAS), exchange students, Fulbright scholars and past short-term visiting researchers.

One of the most powerful lessons I have learned while traveling is that no matter how big it may seem, the world is actually a very small place. On my second day in Porto Alegre, I found myself engrossed in a dual-language conversation with our hosts over café zinho—Brazil’s deliciously strong black coffee (and one of the few things I can order confidently in Portuguese). Within minutes, we discovered a shared interest in using “design thinking” to reform higher education. Several years ago, I first encountered design thinking methodology from the field of product engineering when I visited the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University. Ever since then, I’ve been smitten—using strategies like radical collaboration, empathic listening and the continual tweaking of iterative “prototypes” to bring about creative and innovative solutions in my work with faculty at Trinity University.

I was truly honored when my new colleagues at the Pontificia Universidade Catolica do Rio Grande do Sul (PUCRS) invited me to present my experiences and research about using design thinking to foster campus change. A patient Brazilian graduate student helped translate my PowerPoint slides into Portuguese, and I shared some lessons learned (in English). Almost immediately, it was as if all cultural, linguistic and national borders melted away—I had found a community of practice, and maybe even stumbled into a dissertation topic! Business cards were exchanged, and ideas are already percolating for future collaborative presentations and partnerships.

One of the highlights of my time in Brazil was visiting with high school students in the nearby town of Viamão. The students were just as eager to practice their English as we were to improve our fledgling Portuguese. Dressed in traditional dresses and headscarves, the students performed local dances and taught us a few moves. Just before leaving the school, we taught them a little about our culture, and soon all of the students were doing the “hook’em horns” sign and mugging for the camera. I know that I’m likely to remember my new Brazilian friends and first summer as a doctoral student for a long time to come.

Lisa Jasinski is a second-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Educational Administration’s Program in Higher Education Leadership (PHEL). She currently works at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX. Contact her at ljasinski@utexas.edu.

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