04/23/2014 08:49 am ET Updated Jun 23, 2014

The World Cup and American Students

Five years ago when I started writing about Brazil, it was nearly impossible to find 20-something research assistants fluent, or even proficient, in Portuguese. Spanish yes, but not Portuguese. Brazil's boom of 2003-2010 produced a new wave of American student interest, and universities quickly organized to send students to study or teach English in Curitiba, Porto Alegre, Manaus, Salvador, Recife, and of course Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. A similar dynamic took place in the 1950s and 1960s, but tapered off when the military took over.

The current generation of students has now returned to the United States. They read, speak and write Portuguese. They have worked as interns in favelas and human rights offices, toiled in energy consultancies and commodities brokerage firms, studied in BRICS labs, participated in protests and blogged about police brutality. They don't display the bitterness of dashed expectations for Brazil that is so prevalent on Wall Street, or even among their own professors, these days. Perhaps because their expectations of their own country are equally circumspect, they are more naturally forgiving of the flaws, contradictions, and disappointments of another country, of Brazil.

But they also grasp the undeniably less favorable story line unfolding in Brazil. By the time the World Cup has come and gone, and whether or not Brazil overcomes its 1950 humiliation to Uruguay: spending billions of reais on public stadiums for the World Cup and the Olympics flies in the face of Brazil's own narrative--and actual success--of investing public funds in social inclusion to bring the poor and semi-poor into a viable middle class. That was the message of the 2013 protests and that is the story that every major print and television outlet has been reporting since last year. And it doesn't take a college degree to see the jeopardy of this dual ambition.

Compounding this collision course are the practical challenges that the spike in homicides and general rise in crime and insecurity may pose. Of course the victims of most of this new tide of violence are Brazilians. But I know of at least one prominent American university that, because of security concerns related to protests surrounding Cup, has decided to cancel its usual program of sending students throughout Brazil for the American summer internship ritual. Perhaps that decision was driven by excessively cautious lawyers and skittish insurance companies. I'd hate for more universities to make a similar decision. Their students would miss out on the entire cornucopia of activities that go along with the those socially-insulting stadiums: the sport and parties inside, the protests outside, the effervescent social media blitz of Brazil's fabulously creative digital savvy youth, the cyberattacks that may accompany them, the emotion of the finish, and the chance to witness, even participate in, a major moment in Brazilian history.

This article was originally published in Portuguese in Folha de São Paulo. It is originally available here.