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Andrezza, Affirmative Action Beneficiary and Education Advocate from Rio’s Maré Favelas [PROFILE]

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A resident of the Maré favela complex and graduate in Advertising from the Federal Fluminense University (UFF), at 23, Andrezza Francisco Paulo has already had a number of intense life experiences. In this profile we’ll learn a bit about her background and the role that education has played in her life.

When Andrezza was six years old, her father died of cancer. That same year, she moved to Maré with her mother and sister. “That’s when I realized the world wasn’t all roses,” she recalls. Andrezza’s mother, Ana Maria, supported the family by doing whatever work she could, not having anyone to fall back on for help. “She cried a lot,” says Andrezza. Andrezza began to wonder how she could help her mother, and finally realized that her only option was to get an education.

When she finished middle school, Andrezza took the entrance exams for three technical schools, passed all three, and enrolled in the Advanced Education Nucleus (NAVE) high school program in Tijuca. “That was the first success of my life,” she says, proudly. In order to pay the tuition fee of R$80 (US$20), Ana Maria had to renegotiate her monthly rent. Never having owned a computer or cell phone, Andrezza enrolled in high school at the age of fifteen.

The next three years were marked by hard work along with bullying at school, which mainly served children from private school backgrounds. Andrezza had to study harder than the others. “I didn’t have an adolescence,” she says. As one of the only black people at the school, she experienced racism. She recounts something that a student once said to her at school that she will never forget: “Pick up your feet so the chains don’t drag on the floor.”

Andrezza was her mother’s great hope, but, she says, “it was a heavy burden to bear.” Ana Maria’s dream came true when her daughter started college in 2014, enrolling under Brazil’s Law of Social Quotas, for which she qualifies because she is black. Studying advertising at the Federal Fluminense University (UFF) without financial aid, Andrezza moved to São Gonçalo, along with her mother, to be closer to school and spend less on bus fare. Recalling her time at UFF, she smiles broadly: “The professors have more faith in you than you do.” One of Andrezza’s professors offered her a job, which covered her transportation costs. She also introduced Andrezza to other professors, helping her win a scholarship.

Andrezza focused her academic work on a critique of mainstream media and its portrayal of favela residents. “I realized that this was my role,” she says, as someone who knows life in the favela firsthand. “I had more obstacles, but I made it.” Even so, she emphasizes that she does not believe in meritocracy: “That word is unfair and it’s terribly cruel,” she explains. “People say that if I made it, anyone can make it—but they forget that I was also very lucky.”

As time passed, however, her classes became more difficult, and in September 2015, Andrezza discovered she was pregnant. She panicked. “I thought, what am I going to do with my life? People had always told me I wouldn’t go anywhere.” But her professors believed in her and gave her strength. She returned to Maré with her husband to be closer to her mother-in-law. Andrezza didn’t take any time off and studied at home. When her daughter was born, she formed a mothers’ collective at UFF. On one occasion, Andrezza had a test to take but didn’t know what to do with her six-month-old baby. A professor offered to babysit for her for four hours. “I love the UFF professors,” she says.

Despite the help, she eventually realized she would have to choose between being a mother and a college student due to her family’s financial situation. “We started spending money on things for the house and I was buying less food in order to buy books for college.” Again, professors and students at the university stepped in to help. For six months, each of the thirty students in her cohort paid R$20 (US$5) per month to help her finish her studies. “I had already decided to quit, but I wound up finishing, thanks to them. There are wonderful people in this world.” Andrezza realized that trying to make it alone doesn’t always suffice; it’s necessary to get help from others.

Andrezza’s experience gave her the idea for an initiative. Her plan is to open study centers in the favela so that others can have the same opportunities that she had. “I think we need to show favela [residents] that college is for them, too.” Andrezza objects to the fact that at universities, nearly all of the authors studied come from the asphalt [formal city], even though there are excellent authors from favelas too. Furthermore, Andrezza notes, there are very few students from disadvantaged backgrounds at public universities. “I’m all for quotas, but I was the only black student in my cohort. What kind of quota is that?”

For Andrezza, the fight is far from over. In fact, it has just begun.