I was recently watching the Brazil segment of Professor Gates' recent PBS series Black in Latin America, Brazil: A Racial Paradise?.
The comments made in the video about the lack of AfroBrazilians in higher education institutions reminded me of a conversation I had on one of my trips to Brazil. I chatted with a determined and hardworking post-doctoral researcher at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), Roberta Froes. I was curious to learn more about her educational experiences as an AfroBrazilian.
The following video shares excerpts from our conversation, which was conducted in English since my Portuguese is still pretty rudimentary. Her parents did not have the opportunity to receive higher education, but they vowed that “our child will be what we could not be.”
I learned that she was one of only 2 or 3 AfroBrazilians out of 40 in her technical high school, and that she was the only one of them to finish out the course.
While she passed the exams to attend the university, her parents could not afford to pay her incidental expenses (food, transportation, etc.). Roberta was told that she would not be able to complete the course in 4 years if she had to work, but she was determined to prove the experts wrong. By studying during the day and working nights teaching high school chemistry, she was able to finish her work in four years.
She took time off for a break, but a year later decided to go on for a master’s degree in analytical chemistry. Due to a frustrating year-long lack of equipment in the labs, Roberta was forced to complete her master’s degree in 6 months, and went on to enter the doctoral program a month later. She finished her doctorate, on contamination in beverages, in 3 years.
When I asked her for advice to give other black Brazilian young people about going into the sciences, she shared how much it means to her personally to now know scientists who are people like her: in Salvador in Bahia, in Belo Horizonte, and other places.
“I have relationships with people.” Before then, she only saw white people, or Asian people. She proudly announced “I’m not alone.” There are now some, though still only a few, people like her. She lamented that AfroBrazilians think they can’t continue their education and tend to say things like “No, I need to work.” “I need a car first, so I have to work . . .” She ends the interview by explaining that a lot of black people think they will end up with the worst jobs and there’s no need to study, they’ll never get ahead. She, however, affirms: “No, if I want to be in that place, I will be in that place!”
We celebrate Dr. Roberta Froes' successes and hope that as her career advances she will find ways to link up, too, with the worldwide community of African scientists and engineers.