BSMP: Five Lessons Learned in Scaling Up an International Scholarship Program Quickly

In July 2011, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff announced the creation of a new scholarship program known as Ciência sem Fronteiras, a multiyear initiative to send 75,000 fully funded Brazilian students abroad for training in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, with an additional 25,000 scholarships to be funded by the private sector. IIE partners with the Brazilian Ministry of Science and Technology’s National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) and the Ministry of Education’s Federal Agency for the Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education (CAPES) to administer the Brazil Scientific Mobility Program (BSMP) in the United States, which includes U.S. undergraduate, graduate, and intensive English programs.

During the program's first few years, the number of Brazilian scholarship students placed in the United States grew tremendously. The first cohort of 590 undergraduate students arrived in the United States in January 2012 for the spring 2012 semester. The program rapidly expanded (273 KB, PDF) to 1,782 students for the fall 2012 cohort, and it has continued to grow each semester. As of the beginning of the 2014-15 academic year, a total of 17,802 students have been placed at higher education institutions in the United States. Going forward, it is expected that a minimum of 6,000 Brazilian scholarship students will be in-program at U.S. institutions at any given time.

While there have been a number of unique keys to success of this program, we have learned five general lessons during its rapid growth that we hope can advise other programs seeking to scale up.

Lesson 1: Flexibility is critical

All stakeholders must be flexible: the sponsor, the implementing agency, host institutions, and program participants. There rarely is a “one size fits all” approach. The way things have always been done may not be the way they can be accomplished when scaling. People are going to be required to do things differently in order for them to be completed more quickly. Sometimes you have to allow for some controlled chaos to push toward the desired goal. One great benefit: this process can force much-needed change and result in new and stronger systems and staffing models.

Lesson 2: Partnership is key

Trust and mutual respect lead to a strong partnership. A strong partnership is critical to the success of scaling a program quickly. The sponsor, the implementing agency, host institutions, and program participants have to trust and respect each other or there will be a breakdown in confidence. Second-guessing decisions and pitting one entity against another simply cannot happen. A history of successful interactions helps to build a strong partnership. Shared experience and getting through a difficult challenge make the partnership even stronger and able to easily withstand the more stressful periods.

Lesson 3: Buy-in is instrumental

Getting buy-in from the highest levels is critical. Leadership of the implementing agency, sponsor, and host institutions must be supportive in order to scale a program quickly. Their backing ensures buy-in down the line in their respective organizations. They are positioned to push gently or to completely break through an obstacle when needed. Support from above is critical to success; lack of that support can almost guarantee failure.

Lesson 4: A strong foundation matters

Having processes and procedures in place, systems that can be utilized, and experienced people who have done the work successfully in the past allow scaling to be possible. You cannot start from scratch and expect to be able to ramp up quickly. A strong foundation is necessary before you can quickly strategize and focus your resources. Your procedures and systems will be tested while scaling, and you may learn some need to be tweaked or changed completely to accommodate the growth.

Lesson 5: Confidence and optimism are necessary

Once you have a talented team, strong partnerships, support from above, and the right systems in place, you can and must be confident that scaling a program quickly can be accomplished. Confidence and optimism are contagious. You only need a majority of people to be confident and optimistic to shift the energy in the right direction. There will be pessimists and doubters. Be calm and make sure they are in the minority.