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In Brazil, a Liberal-Arts Experiment Brings Diversity to One Campus


Lalo de Almeida for The Chronicle
Caroline Mello, Conrado Moraes, and Raryane Valeria thought they’d never pass the entrance exam to study at the U. of Campinas, known as Unicamp. They are now enrolled there in a program designed to prepare them for that test.

The entrance examination at the State University of Campinas is one of the toughest in Brazil, and opportunities here are so coveted that some programs have more applicants per place than Harvard.

Raryane Valeria was so sure she wouldn’t pass that she never even tried. Caroline Mello tried and failed.

And yet today they, and more than 200 other graduates of this city’s troubled public high schools, are sitting down to class at the university, known as Unicamp. They are enrolled in the Interdisciplinary Higher Education Program, or ProFIS, a two-year liberal-arts program that prepares them for a university education.

ProFIS is barely a year old, and both students and professors admit that it faces some problems, not least of which is the ability of many students to cope with a workload that is more demanding than anything they have come across before.

But the project, run by Dean of Undergraduate Programs Marcelo Knobel as a way to give poor but talented students a broader education and a back door into college, is daring enough to have captured the imagination of international experts.

“It is a new model and a new way of thinking about making access fairer,” says Liz Reisberg, a research associate at the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, who studies higher-education reform in Latin America and has followed the development of ProFIS. “Marcelo has brought together kids with talent and removed the major barrier of entry—the vestibular,” or entrance exam, she says. “He has a strategy for identifying potential talent and has created a program that considers different cultural and social needs. It is very well thought through.”

The idea of a liberal-arts program is still a rarity here in Brazil, the largest country in South America and the world’s sixth biggest economy. Most academic programs—whether vocational, undergraduate, or graduate—are tightly focused on a specialized subject.

Although ProFIS offers many facets of a liberal-arts education—the curriculum includes language, mathematics and statistics, humanities and the arts, the natural sci­ences, and the biological and health sciences—it does not lead to a degree. (The university is discussing whether to introduce a liberal-arts degree next year.)

Mr. Knobel and other Unicamp administrators decided a liberal-arts curriculum was most appropriate for this experiment because many universities abroad are adopting an American-style liberal-arts model. They also felt that disadvantaged students needed to learn more about abstract reasoning, the natural world, quantitative and qualitative research, and other subjects they would otherwise never encounter.

“These kids haven’t seen great films, they haven’t read great literature, they don’t speak foreign languages,” Mr. Knobel says. “I think it will open doors and broaden horizons.”

Bridging the Divide

But ProFIS’s greatest benefit may be the social inclusion it offers.

Brazil is one of the most inequitable societies in the world, particu­larly when it comes to education. Some 85 percent of those who finish high school in São Paulo state, Brazil’s richest and most populous, go to private schools—even though the vast majority of students attend state-run schools.

More than half the public high schools in the Campinas region do not manage to send even one student to Unicamp. And although about half of Brazilians consider themselves black or dark-skinned, just 14 percent of students at Unicamp are of mixed race.

Some universities use quotas to enroll black, poor, or public-school students and some, including Unicamp, have a point system that gives a leg up to disadvantaged students taking the entrance exam.

Leaders of ProFIS, however, take a different tack: They go to the 96 public schools in Campinas, a city of one million people that is one of Brazil’s most developed, and invite the top students to enroll in the liberal-arts program. If they make it through in two years, they are offered a place at the university.

The profile of ProFIS students is very different from that of the regu­lar Unicamp student body. Some 86 percent of those in the program are the first person in their family to attend a univer­sity. Some 40 percent are black or dark-skinned. And 80 percent of those who qualify come from families that earn less than the minimum wage.

About 50 Unicamp professors participate in the project and have designed courses for it. The university has hired an additional eight professors to help share the load.

Most of them have been delighted by the first group of students.

“Students in all my classes pay attention, but the ProFIS students are enthusiastic about what they are learning,” says Paulo Franchetti, a literature professor. “The other students take a lot of this for granted; the ProFIS students are seeing something revelatory. When I finished my last class at 6 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, everyone was still there and the class ap­plauded. Many of them came up to me to say I had opened a whole new perspective for them. A lot of them had never read books for pleasure, and they were seeing that reading can be pleasurable.”

ProFIS students realize they are different, and some said the university’s more-privileged students looked down on them at first.

But most also said that wariness passed as their confidence and self-esteem built. As the school year goes on, their biggest worry is meeting the academic challenges.

“The most difficult thing is adapting to the pace, to the demands, being in class all day long,” says Ms. Valeria, recalling her first year. “At school we studied five hours a day. We are here from 10 to 6. There’s a lot of reading and a lot to take in.”

Natalia Gomes, a new student in the program, says she is worried she won’t be able to keep up. “At high school I essentially had no math teacher for three years—he rarely turned up—so I am already behind,” she says. “And I had just one year of physics and just one year of chemistry because it was so disorganized.”

Mr. Knobel says he realized how challenging the program is for some students when he heard the results of a beginner’s math class.

“The math students were asked if 3x equals 15, what is x?” he recalls. “Only 30 percent got it right. And those are the best students.”

11 Hours a Day

One of the university’s math professors also directs ProFIS. Francisco Gomes works at least 11 hours a day, and often on weekends, sometimes giving private classes to struggling students. None of them will pass unless they understand the basics, he stresses, but he is confident they will manage because of their dedication.

“We have had some frustrating results, but that’s math,” Mr. Gomes admits. “Doing seven years in one is often asking too much. But you can see the progress. And I have never doubted that it’s worth it.”

The jury is still out on whether ProFIS can fill students’ gaps in basic knowledge. Researchers are compiling data about the first group of 120 high-school graduates, who began in February 2011, and initial reports are mixed.

At least half of the first group has little or no chance of graduating from the program in the planned two-year period, and will be allowed to continue for another year. Twenty did not return for the second year: Six of them were able to pass the Unicamp entrance exam after the first year, while others are studying part-time while working. Overall the dropout rate is no greater than that of the university as a whole.

Statistics like those, says Mr. Knobel, prove both the size of the task and the willingness of students and faculty to overcome the challenges. Programs like ProFIS must succeed, experts say, if Brazil is to adapt to a rapidly changing economy that increasingly values a broad base of knowledge.

The failure of Brazilian universities to provide students with a multi-disciplinary foundation is a “serious defect” in the system, says Naomar Almeida-Filho, former president of the Federal University of Bahia, and a leading proponent of liberal-arts programs in Brazil. “The way we produce professionals right now is being substituted very quickly with a general and broader education that companies later customize for their own needs. That is more flexible, more multipurpose, and better than the current model.”

Andrew Downie. Article shared with me by Cláudia Hilsdorf Rocha who was in charge of designing the language course and the main idea, from the start. The idea was to fight social/educational inequality, to help students overcome the hindering concept that they cannot learn properly within a formal educational context and to offer them the opportunity to engage in critical English for academic purposes teaching and learning process, focused on the development of planetary citizenship and multiple literacies. The didactic transposition of such ideas and the development of proper teaching material, under critical theoretical guidelines, have been the object of her present postdoctoral research, carried out at the State University of São Paulo, under the supervision of Dra Walkyria Monte Mór.

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