As Brazil Expands Access to Higher Education, What Are the Impacts?


About a decade ago, the political party in power in Brazil launched a massive initiative to make high-quality, affordable university degrees accessible to students from low-income families. This past summer, the president of that party faced impeachment, and Brazil’s economy was on the brink of collapse.

A group of eight students on a Duke-sponsored research visit had front row seats as the drama played out. The students spent three weeks in the Baixada Fluminense, a low-income district on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, interviewing university students, their parents and faculty at the Multidisciplinary Institute of the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro. Their goal was 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 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 expected to generate a variety of projects.

Nearly 30 Duke students applied to the Bass Connections course that required students to be at least somewhat conversant in Portuguese and French. The intent was to select only five or six students, but upon seeing the skill sets and interest among the applicants— statistics, higher education, classics, learning a second language—French increased the number he had planned to accept.

“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.”

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. Duke senior and economics major John Victor Alencar, who is turning his Baixada experience into an independent study project, expected to gather more quantitative data. Instead, the emphasis was on qualitative material.

“It almost felt like we were exchange students,” Alencar said. “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 part of it.

French and Wesolowski taught their students the 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. 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.”

Since 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 Southeastern Council for Latin American Studies will meet in the Triangle in March 2017, 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.”

Originally published in GIST, the magazine of the Duke Social Science Research Institute.

Duke Brazil Initiative Opens Research Grants


Deadline: March 3, 2017

The Duke Brazil Initiative (DBI) is offering research grants for both individual and group projects focused on Brazil. We particularly encourage proposals that align with the DBI and Global Brazil Lab on-going activities or signature initiatives (social mobility and education, energy and environment, arts and curation) although new ideas from any discipline are welcomed. The competition is open to Duke graduate and professional students and Duke faculty and may include Brazilian collaborators. Undergraduates may be included as part of group project proposals.

Priority will be given to projects with potential for furthering collaboration with Brazilian institutions and scholars, and which could lead to student participation in vertically-integrated student research projects or the writing of senior theses, Master’s projects, or dissertations. Basic to intermediate Portuguese language is preferred. (If you do not speak Portuguese you will be required to show how your proposed research can still be conducted successfully.)

The grants are open to graduate and professional students across all schools and institutes as well as all fields of study. Applications are encouraged from all disciplines in Arts and Sciences as well as professional schools (Nicholas School of the Environment, Law, Fuqua School of Business, Medical School, Nursing, Pratt Engineering, Sanford Public Policy, Global Health Institute, etc.). Artists, performers, and digital humanities scholars are also encouraged to apply although an institutional nexus is required in all cases.

What is the award amount? When should the research take place?

The awards will range from $2,500 to $4,000 depending on the proposed activities (if there is a special case to be made, please be in touch). Recipients are expected to stay for a minimum of 12 days. The exchange should take place between April and November of 2017.

What is expected of a grant recipient?

Grant recipients will be expected to:

  • Keep records of expenses and turn in receipts within two weeks of returning to Duke.
  • Turn in a 4-5 page summary of research one month after field work.
  • Present and/or participate in the annual Brazil conference at Duke and assist in extending Duke’s visibility within Brazil and among Brazilian abroad.

What’s the first step and how will the decision be made?

Assistance can be provided to students who are developing proposals, which will be reviewed in an open and competitive process balanced across themes and schools. Decisions will be made by a faculty steering committee with administrative support provided by CLACS.

What needs to be included in the proposal?

  • rationale for the project and its participants; the narrative (no more than 800-1000 words) should detail the research or academic, pedagogical, or artistic project and why the Brazil grant is important to achieve these goals. A list of potential institutional partners and/or personal contacts in Brazil is highly encouraged with some discussion of how you intend to pursue this project once you return from Brazil
  • Duke participant(s) CVs or resumes
  • Letter/email of support from a faculty mentor.

Please send application materials to Antonio Arce, DBI co-director at or Campus Box 90254 (Center for Latin American & Caribbean Studies) or DBI c/o Antonio Arce, john Hope Franklin Center, 2204 Erwin Rd. Durham, NC 27705.

The Duke Brazil Initiative (DBI) is co-sponsored by the Office of Global Affairs and the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies.

Duke-Brazil Collaboration Explores the Cost of Opportunity in Higher Education

John French

Professor of History John French, Global Brazil Lab co-director and Bass Connections team leader, talks about the immersive experience of taking Duke students to the Baixada Fluminense on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro.

Duke undergraduates and graduate students were able to collaborate with Brazilian students as they tackled the issue of accessible college education for Brazil’s poorest populations.

In this video by Eric Barstow of the Franklin Humanities Institute, French is joined by Katya Wesolowski and Adair Necalli as they discuss their collaboration.

Read a related article in the Chronicle and learn more about this Bass Connections project team, The Cost of Opportunity? Higher Education in the Baixada Fluminense.

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)