Faculty Perspectives: John French

John French

John French, Professor of History

Bass Connections Project Team: The Cost of Opportunity? Higher Education in the Baixada Fluminense

Since 2016, the Cost of Opportunity project team has explored the relationship between access to higher education and social mobility in Brazil. Concentrating their work on the Baixada Fluminense, a region on the outskirts of Rio with one of the highest concentrations of young people in the country, the team developed deep local partnerships, including with faculty and students at the Multidisciplinary Institute of the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro, and conducted extensive fieldwork.

Their research has led to participation in and spearheading of international conferences, collaboration on a documentary film and a growing understanding of the many obstacles young people in the Baixada Fluminense face when they pursue social and economic mobility through higher education.

Below are excerpts from French’s remarks at a Bass Connections information session for faculty.

Leveraging Resources and Setting Goals

The Cost of Opportunity team originated through support from the Franklin Humanities Institute and the Duke Brazil Initiative, scaled up with support from Bass Connections’ Education & Human Development theme.

Since 2016, we have sent students and staff to work in Baixada. Their new university campus was a source of hope in a country where higher education access has historically been very limited. Our team was designed to conduct research directed towards two large goals: fostering social mobility in the region and encouraging the mandatory teaching of African and Afro-Brazilian history in high schools.

The whole idea of our team was based on a vision of truly collaborative research. Ten of us visited and lived there for three weeks in 2016 and interviewed 50 students and faculty members at the Federal Rural University of Rio. We also filmed 10 hours of interviews and produced a 27-minute video designed to be watched by students, teachers and people in the community. The emphasis for the film was on the cost of pursuing opportunities on the part of these kids and their parents. This is the part of education that no one pays attention to, and it is an aspect of the project that Brazilian students have taken and turned into a movement in support of greater higher education access.

Our time in the field was marked a robust back-and-forth with the community and university stakeholders in Brazil, and the energetic Brazilian project collaborators we recruited in 2016 carried out student surveys, data gathering and data analysis over the following six months. In March 2017, we held an international research conference at Duke bringing 17 people from the Baixada for eight days to the United States, including six faculty covered by the counterpart university.

In August 2017, we traveled back to Brazil for two weeks with a group of eight students, including four returning team members, and focused on the high school experience with teacher focus groups and visits to high schools and vocational institutes and the sharing of the film with university, K-12 and community audiences.

Student Engagement

One of the things that has been the most exciting has been student engagement. This is especially true on the part of the three graduate students who have impacted our research direction. These students have begun dissertation projects oriented around our research; we’ve had an undergraduate writing an honors thesis directly related to our team’s work; and a few members of our team have received small grants to continue their research.

We have also seen involvement from additional departments at Duke, including Romance Studies, which is now focusing work on Baixada. Overall, this project has been a wonderful experience.

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