Back home in the states, higher education in communities of color is the hallmark for success. College is an end goal that students of color are pushed to reach, finding out later that higher education is only the beginning. Yet, even before attending college, conditions are set in the family, community, neighborhood, and even in oneself, that put someone able to only do so much. I wanted to figure out how students in Brazil get to be students at the university level, specifically at PUC-Rio, a private university; and even more precisely, students of low-income communities. For instance, what programs are offered to them? Do students of color – particularly brown and black people – find difficulty in the process? How’s life at the university and what are some student activities? How are their studies, and are students able to find a job quickly after graduation?
Higher education in Brazil (as in any other country) is of paramount importance to closing the financial and social inequality gap that permeates Brazilian society. It is a ladder to success. Here at PUC-Rio, the same can be said. There are students from all social and racial classes, though the disparities among low-income students and wealthy students is striking. There exists a very extreme but subtle inequality, one you can feel but not see. For instance, Brazilians are famous for not resembling a face, per se, representable of Brazilians, given that there are White, Brown (mixed-race), Black, Asian, Brazilians. In short, Brazil represents a multiracial powerhouse among worldwide societies. But walk around campus and speak with students, and there is minimal to no interaction between that of a wealthy student and an underprivileged one.
Brazilian high school students typically go to college after having taken the ENEM exam, or ‘Exame do Ensino Medio,’ (High School Examination) an SAT-like standardized national exam, that began operating throughout Brazil in 2009 as an entrance admission exam to hundreds of public and private universities in the country. Though not all universities – for example, PUC-Rio – accept the ENEM score as its only admission exam to the school, it is a major factor for Brazilian students to expand their pool of options in several higher education institutions. ENEM works on a determinant system whereby the students’ score on the exam directly affects their school options in a mechanism called Sisu, or ‘Sistema de Seleção Unificada’ (Unified Selection System). Sisi in fact only allows students to see which top three universities they can apply based on their ENEM score. PUC-Rio, like some universities, however, also offers its own entrance exam.
Once accepted, students graduate within four to five years. Importantly, some of these students enter universities in part through affirmative action policies. The system was implemented during former President Lula’s administration and requires public universities to reserve 50% of their yearly enrollment to low-income, black, brown, indigenous, and disabled students – the other 50% is open to any other applicant. These quota policies were implemented to curb the inequality within Brazil and give an opportunity to deprived Brazilians, an action still highly contentious to this day. The students who entered the university through these affirmative action policies live a different life than that of the student whose parents are wealthy and provide for their financial stability. They pay their education through available financial assistance from the government and university, and are dependent on working outside school to make ends meet, such as paying for rent and food. A very similar reality of life in the states to first-generation college students, but one that is more severe and evident. For instance, where buses and the metro are the predominant vehicles to arrive and leave campus, it is very common knowledge wealthy students prefer to call an Uber, citing other means of transportation as dangerous.
On campus, student life is different than that of the states. Life on campus is minimal to none existent, other than for going to classes and the in-between time students use to chat before their next class begins. For instance, here at PUC-Rio, there aren’t any residence halls where students live and share their experience, nor does there exist a big campus sports culture, even when soccer here dominates everyday life. Brazilian students tell me it’s more apparent in public universities, making PUC-Rio, a private university, an exception. One peculiar fact I learned is a hazing game called ‘trote’ Brazilian students perform on first-year students wherein they have to do something at the behest of another student to ultimately organize a ‘chopada,’ a beer party, to celebrate the new students’ arrival; a dangerous welcoming that every year results in the deaths of Brazilian students. It is well known, and very popular among students, and although the government and university officials have denounced it, it is not illegal. Though these are more dominant at public schools, the experience at PUC-Rio is minor. Here at PUC-Rio, and in other schools as well, efforts have been made to change the trote into a well-intended tradition by organizing food collection through the new students or performing undemanding games.
In terms of their studies, students obtain a bachelor’s degree between four to six years. In the case of ‘pre-med’ and ‘pre-law students,’ as students intending to become doctors or lawyers are called in the states, Brazil follows a somewhat European model curriculum where its students begin on track to become doctors and attorneys all in one school without requiring them to obtain a bachelor’s degree first. After their six years, for medical students, and five years, for law students, they are full-fledged doctors and lawyers; though Law students must take an exam like the bar exam to be able to practice law; the exam is called ‘Brazilian Law Order Exam.’ Medical students are not required to complete residency but can do so for a specialization. Students pursuing a bachelor’s degree in psychology, or engineering, for example, graduate within five to six years and receive their diploma without having to take an exam like law students, much as it is for countless other majors.
After graduation, finding a job is easier said than done. Most students with previous experience in internships end up working with the same organization or company, though others struggle to find a well-paid job to accommodate their needs. Law and engineering students find it easier to find an internship, most of which are paid, though others have complications and further minimize their chances at a good paying job. Students too may pursue a master’s degree after undergraduate studies, and unlike the US, they must first obtain a master’s degree to apply for a Ph.D. program. Notwithstanding, Master and Ph.D. programs are fairly like those at home, with universities having their own applications and method of choosing candidates based on their academic, professional, and research experience.
Lastly, the most notable fact I found about education in Brazil is that low-income students predominantly attend public schools throughout their K-12 education, yet, switch to private ones in higher education. They do so because public universities are impacted with wealthy students with a robust K-12 education they received from private schools; the K-12 educational system is considered inadequate and thus most wealthy students are sent to prestigious private schools with a higher level of value compared to public ones. The value of education thus flips, though there are some exceptions, such as here in PUC-Rio, where the private university is the same, if not better, than other public universities. This fact too is highly contentious, as underprivileged students struggle to compete with wealthy, better-educated students, in entrance exams for universities across the country and abroad.