Immersive Experience in Brazilian Government Informs History Dissertation


Travis Knoll, a Ph.D. student in History at Duke, received a Graduate Student Training Enhancement Grant to serve as an intern at the U.S. Embassy in Brasilia this summer. He focused on issues ranging from Brazil’s internal political scene to the key role the country’s foreign policy plays in the region and beyond. Now back on campus, he shared this update.

The internship itself was not dedicated to my area of research per se. As an unpaid intern, I was tasked with fulfilling many of the functions of a junior officer staff member during a staffing transition this summer. Drafting reports, preparing congressional reports, and note-taking in meetings with Brazilian officials made up the majority of my internship work. I worked on issues ranging from nuclear proliferation liability and biological weapons conventions to reporting on Brazil’s ongoing political transition. I did, however, write two reports dedicated to recent changes in Brazil’s affirmative action policies as well as two key Brazilian congressional reports on discrimination and violence against black youth.

Separately from my department work, I made important contacts in Brasilia’s black movement. Such contacts ranged from religious and cultural leaders to Chamber deputies and diplomats. I also encountered several journals at the University of Brasilia’s (UnB) archives dealing with Brazilian culture and debates around race in the 1970s.

My time in Brasilia helped me connect historical debates with public policy. Both writing policy reports on affirmative action and meeting important public figures has opened up the possibility for focusing less exclusively on the push for affirmative action in Rio de Janeiro state (both in universities and the public sector, approved in 2001). I might instead connect the 2001 initiatives more explicitly to legislation that Brazil’s National Congress would approve a decade later (2012 and 2014). Better knowledge of the legislative process and the legal underpinnings of the national affirmative action laws’ intersection with gender and labor legislation will allow me to elaborate on the connection between women’s, workers’ and racial struggles for equality. Social movement leaders’ denial of the Catholic Church’s role in supporting affirmative action policies, despite evidence they themselves cite to the contrary, has also focused my attention on the controversy (and thus opportunity) that such a link could pose both historiographically and politically.

Finally, with the time my internship allowed me in Brasilia, I presented a quantitative source critique of a black movement oral history project at Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies Research Institute (CEFOR) and talked to Brazilian government officials who benefited from affirmative action policies. Such encounters allow me to better connect my research period during the 1980s to continuing debates in Brazil itself.

This internal funding mechanism from the Office of the Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies encourages graduate students to step away from their core research and training to acquire additional skills, knowledge or co-curricular experiences that will give them new perspectives on their research agendas. Graduate Student Training Enhancement Grants are intended to deepen preparation for academic positions and other career trajectories.

Photo courtesy of Travis Knoll (at right, with other interns at an Embassy-sponsored party)