Brazilian Higher Education In A Time of Turmoil

Duke Students On the Ground During Brazil's Troubled Summer
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Dec 13, 2016

(A version of this story appeared earlier in GIST magazine, from the Social Science Research Institute.)

Eight students on a Duke-sponsored research visit had front row seats to Brazil’s political and economic drama this summer.

As the party that launched Brazil’s massive initiative to make high-quality, affordable university degrees accessible to students from low-income families faced the impeachment of its leader, our students spent three weeks in the Baixada Fluminense, a low-income district on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. They were there to interview university students, their parents and faculty at the Multidisciplinary Institute of the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro to learn more about the impact of higher education on communities where few people continue studying beyond high school.

Bass Connections and Duke’s Global Brazil Humanities Lab collaborated to make the open-ended research trip possible with additional support from the Duke Brazil Initiative. Led by Duke history professor John French, along with Katya Wesolowski, a visiting professor of cultural anthropology, the mix of undergraduate and graduate students gathered data through one-on-one interviews that are expected to generate a wide variety of research projects.

Nearly 30 Duke students applied to the Bass Connections course, which required students to be somewhat conversant in Portuguese and French. The intent was to select only five or six students, but when French saw the diverse skill sets and passionate interest among the applicants -- statistics, higher education, classics, learning a second language -- he increased the number he accepted.

“We’re really glad we did,” French said. “So many good people had applied, and it would be a shame not to try to do this trip in a more ambitious way.”

Bass Connections students and advisor John French (left) at Pedra Do Sal, the birthplace of samba music in Rio.
Bass Connections students and advisor John French (white shirt at left) at Pedra Do Sal, the birthplace of samba music in Rio.

The international study opportunity differed from traditional research excursions, in which students know their research framework before embarking, or study-abroad opportunities that allow time for visiting tourist attractions.

“It almost felt like we were exchange students,” said economics senior John Victor Alencar, who is turning his Baixada experience into an independent study project. He expected to gather more quantitative data, but came away with qualitative material.  “We were immersed in the local university politics and everything else going on in the country, which is at a pivotal moment in Brazil’s history. It was impactful to be there when there was so much change going on.”

​Before taking off for Brazil, the students in the group learned about the culture and history of Brazil’s higher education system. Brazil’s public universities are of much higher caliber than private schools, many of which are more akin to for-profit colleges in the U.S. Though public universities always have been tuition-free, historically only the financially well-off attend because public universities are located far from rural, low-income areas, and the public transportation system is not geared toward bringing people from the outskirts of town into the city center.

While the benefit of a high-quality university degree in the U.S. might be that it changes a student’s world view or opens more career doors, in Brazil the impact is more like a badge that elevates its holder from the rest of society. In Brazil, for instance, those with a college degree can’t be held in a common jail if arrested.

The Brazilian government initiative that began in 2006 included opening universities in rural areas and providing scholarships so that more students could step away from an income-earning role while they are students. Though the number of students enrolled in public universities has tripled in the past decade, still only about 3,500 of the 400,000 young people in the Baixada who have finished high school attend a public university.

“There’s a lot of debate about whether the initiative is worthwhile,” French said. “There are policy questions that are precisely what we wanted to talk about. Is it a waste of money on students who don’t complete the course because they have to work or they don’t have what it takes to be successful? In the context of the economic crisis and austerity measures, should the government lower investment in this initiative? Or would restricting opportunity be detrimental? Is there a cost to not offering opportunity? This is a debate that will go on for a long time.”

And Duke students will be a part of it.

French and Wesolowski taught their research students the fine art of conducting interviews and taking field notes, then set them loose to gather data. All told, the students conducted 27 interviews, plus another 10 hours of video interviews, including four Brazilian students with their parents.

Alencar, who was interested in the impact higher education would have in low-income communities and the different conceptions economists have on the best strategy for developing an education system, said the best part of the trip was the connections he made with the Brazilian students and the deeper understanding he gained about the challenges they must overcome to pursue a degree.

“They’re so inspiring,” he said. “They’re on the frontlines, fighting for their rights in this difficult moment in Brazil’s history. By their research and the fields they’ve chosen, they’re looking to give back to their community.”

“The trip ignited my passion for Brazil,” he continued. “It made me realize I want to either work in Brazil or work on issues that impact Brazil and Latin America.”

French said the bonds formed between the Brazilian and Duke students intrigued him.

“It was almost like a laboratory of how students of mostly different backgrounds came together and merged as a group. They became quite tight,” he said. “That doesn’t sound like a research finding, but it is. How do you do collaborative work across international boundaries and create something egalitarian, unmarked by boundaries of ‘us’ and ‘them’? That’s something researchers try to achieve, and we feel really good about it.”

Jessica LeeSince returning, each student has met individually with French to debrief and talk about next steps. Some students are working on short films about their experience that will be posted on the Global Brazil Lab website. Others are working up grant proposals. The Southeast Council for Latin American Studies will meet
in the Triangle this year, offering an opportunity for students to deliver academic papers on their experience.

A few students are working on an exhibit to be displayed in the Franklin Humanities Institute. One group is working on a 20-minute film about the experience that will debut in February when some of the Brazilian students and faculty come to Duke for a two-day conference to keep the collaboration alive, followed immediately by a wider conference on developments in Brazil.

Gray Kidd, who is French’s co-instructor of the Bass Connections course, said that the course deliverables -- in lieu of, say, a final paper -- reflect a project in which “everyone brings their personal strengths and interests to the table.”

Kidd said the Bass course and research trip met his goal of looking at different models for interdisciplinary study. “We wanted to put something together that generated a great deal of energy and was outside of the traditional course format,” he said. “We’ve been successful. Personalized pathways of research have emerged from this.”