Overcoming Personal Barriers to Become a PhD-student in Basel

From Southeast Brazil to Northwest Switzerland

Rio de Janeiro (CC0)

My name is Fabiana Rodrigues de Sousa-Mast, and I’m from Brazil. I was born in São Gonçalo, a municipality 20 km from Rio de Janeiro city. However, I belong to both cities. From the age of two months old, I traveled with my mother every single day to Rio de Janeiro and back, because she worked there as a housekeeper and nanny while I attended public nursery and pre-school. This long daily commute (about two hours each way) was necessary to provide me with more educational opportunities.

The neighborhood where we lived was surrounded by favelas (slums) and was abandoned by the local government. Our community faced many social challenges, such as poor transport and health care systems, garbage collection, or schools. My mother, a semi-illiterate woman, wanted to give me a better future and she believed that education was the key to that. Today, I am a PhD student at the University of Basel — so, I think it’s fair to say that she was right!

My daily commute from São Gonçalo to Rio de Janeiro and back as a child.

My journey to Basel

So how did I end up in Basel? After getting married in Brazil to my German husband Florian, we had to decide where we wanted to spend our lives and discussed the pros and cons of living in South America or Europe.

We decided to come to the South of Germany where my husband had applied for teacher training to become a high school teacher. The question was what I would be doing? My German vocabulary consisted of the words: “Danke,” “Hallo,” “Tschüss,” “Apfelschorle” and “Brezel”. The last two were crucial to safe me from starvation when I was by myself! Learning German was, of course, a priority, but I wanted to do more than just take language courses.

I finally decided to take up my academic studies again, which I had started back in Rio (Bachelor at the State University of Rio de Janeiro and Master at the Gama Filho University). And so I looked for a PhD opportunity at the University of Basel, a prestigious institution and close to Lörrach, the city where my husband intended to do his teacher training.

My start in Basel

Online I found a particularly interesting project in the field of Sports Science at the Department of Sport, Exercise, and Health (DSBG). The SSINC (Sport and Social Inclusion) project aims to understand the social impacts of sport. The project investigates, for example, how sports activities could contribute to the social integration of young migrants, the reasons for migrants to engage in sport, and the influence sport and physical education classes can have in the process of social integration of migrants.

The social impact of sport and sports events was exactly what I wanted to investigate; more specifically, the impact of mega sports events such as the Olympics on the living conditions of the local population.

I was hooked, and so I contacted Prof. Uwe Pühse, the head of the research group. In February 2010, we met, and I explained my intention to investigate the legacies of mega sports events in Brazil, as my home country would host the 2016 Olympic Games. Due to personal interest and because I knew what problems people in Rio faced — especially those with low income — concerning sport, physical activity, health, and education.

The bid book: nothing but empty promises?

When cities apply for the Olympic Games, they make required by the Olympic Committee to make commitments about legacies to be delivered to the local population in the so-called “bid book”. I wanted to investigate whether the promises made in this book are kept.

The focus of my research would be on the sports legacies promised by the Brazilian government and other stakeholders of the 2016 Olympic Games. Among other commitments, the government of Brazil pledged investments in sports infrastructure and sports programs, as well as the creation of 29 training facilities that would be located in communities and close to public schools. I intended to investigate how the socioeconomically disadvantaged population of Rio de Janeiro benefited from those promised legacies.

I highlighted the importance of studying how mega sports events might change the life of Rio de Janeiro inhabitants, how its population experiences environmental, economic and social transformations caused by the events and how such knowledge would be essential for the Brazilian society and government to better plan and manage the event legacies.

Becoming part of the team

In May 2010 Prof. Pühse invited me to become a part-time research assistant in his research group. I, therefore, had the opportunity to work at the university, while I was developing my project and raising funds for it. As a research assistant, I supported other researchers with data collection, organizing data and so on. It was a great experience, mainly because I had the opportunity to get to know all the research projects of our department, to develop my research skills, and to learn Swiss German.

Studying the impact of the Olympics on the population

It is important to highlight that the 2016 Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games were hosted in a developing country, and over a short period. The infrastructural changes that had to be made were extensive and largely financed by the Brazilian government. Both events were hosted in Rio de Janeiro — a city which faces many social problems.

Rio de Janeiro has 6.5 million inhabitants of which 1,443,773 people live in favelas*, where rates of crime, youth pregnancy, infant mortality, and gun death are very high.

The city has precarious public health, educational and transport problems. Based on Rio de Janeiro’s socioeconomic context and the huge amount of public money being invested in sports events, an investigation about how Rio de Janeiro residents — the so-called Cariocas — could benefit from the 2016 Olympic Games would be of great of value and hopefully useful to Brazilian policy makers.

The City of God

After six months of working on my research proposal, I decided to assess the impact of the 2016 Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games on the health and physical activity of women living in Cidade de Deus; the most populated low-income neighborhood close the Olympic Park (ca. 6 km).

Cidade de Deus was originally planned to be a working class neighborhood. But after a strong storm hit Rio de Janeiro in 1966 and left lots of people homeless, Cidade de Deus had to be opened before construction was finished, to house the homeless from different favelas.

The first residents of this neighborhood faced a lot of infrastructural problems, such as lack of public lights, garbage collection, basic sanitation, schools, public transportations and health care centers. Sadly, after 50 years some of these initial problems have still not been overcome.

Cidade de Deus neighbourhood (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Today, Cidade de Deus has the reputation of being one of the most dangerous favelas in South America. In part, it owes its questionable fame to the movie City of God released in 2002.

The residents of this community deal with a lot of socioeconomic problems on a daily basis. Most of them have a monthly income of less than USD 300, one-third of its working-age population is unemployed, and almost half of the adult population has not completed primary school education**.

Officially, Cidade de Deus has a population of 36,515 inhabitants with 53.5% being under 30 years of age, approximately 38 percent are adult females, and 63 percent of the households are lead by women**. In this population and social context, I decided that investigating how women from this community are impacted by and can benefit from the sports legacies of the 2016 Olympic Games would be of great value for the Brazilian society.

Doing fieldwork under the watch of drug lords

I first visited the community for research purposes in June 2012. I administered the International Physical Activity Questionnaire (IPAQ) to 140 women. Over a period of three weeks, I regularly visited the community and collected data in different settings inside the community (two public schools, a non-governmental organization, a church and the local public health care center).

During my visits, I was always accompanied for security reasons by Mr. José Carlos de Paula Lopes from the non-governmental organization “Centro de Estudos e Ações Culturais e de Cidadania” (Centre for Study and Action in Culture and Citizenship). To walk the streets alone as a non-local is not safe, due to the presence of drug dealers and frequent shootings between the different gangs trying to control the neighborhood.

In the favelas of Rio de Janeiro drug lords make the rules: the most important rule being that “outsiders” do not walk around freely.

The drug bosses are always worried about their enemies (police or other drug gangs). If they don’t know you, they might suspect you to be an enemy, which can get you killed. Therefore, to visit a favela in Rio, it is important to know someone from the community to accompany you.

Getting a grip on statistics

I bet you now think, that collecting data under these circumstances must have been the hardest part of my PhD studies. But, I have to admit, it was almost more challenging to get a grip on data analysis. To do so, I had to attend statistic classes — as if statistics weren’t hard enough, I had to do it all in German! But, after a lot of hard work, I managed and got the two papers of my thesis that involved quantitative methodology published in 2016.

For the second phase of my project, I visited Cidade de Deus three more times between 2013 and 2016, conducting interviews and checking for improvements in physical activity and sports facilities. My last visit was in September 2016, during the Paralympic Games. I was joined by my supervisor Prof. Phüse and three other European professors.

The final throes of a thesis

Now, I am finally in the last phase of my Phd and writing the last paper of my project. Parallel to the challenge of finishing this paper and defending my thesis by the end of the 2017 spring semester, I am busy taking care of my two little boys, Miguel (5 years old) and Paulo (2 years old), who were born during my PhD studies.

Despite the countless obstacles I had to overcome to become a graduate student in one of the most prestigious universities in Europe if given a chance, I would do it all again.

It was a unique opportunity. I learned about the different research methodologies and how to write scientific papers. I got to know international scholars from around the globe and became par of a supportive and professional research team. It was an incredible journey from Brazil to Switzerland and I would like to thank the University of Basel for these unforgettable moments as well as Prof. Pühse for believing in me and for making me part of his team.

From left: Prof. Pühse, me and Mr. Lopes and behind us a huge caricature of Mr. Lopes at the entrance of the favela Cidade de Deus.

* source: IBGE (Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistic) http://cidades.ibge.gov.br/xtras/perfil.php?lang=&codmun=330455&search=rio-de-janeiro|rio-de-janeiro

** source: 1) Instituto Brasileiro de Análises Sociais e Econômicas. (2009). Pesquisa: Levantamento socioeconômico na comunidade Cidade de Deus do Rio de Janeiro [Research: Socioeconomic survey in the Cidade de Deus community, Rio de Janeiro]. Rio de Janeiro: Ibase. Retrieved from http://www.observatoriodefavelas.org.br/userfiles/file/CidadedeDeus-PESQUISA-1.pdf; 2) Rede Mobilizadores (2010). Resumo da pesquisa: Levantamento socioeconômico na comunidade Cidade de Deus do Rio de Janeiro. [Research summary: Socioeconomic survey in the Cidade de Deus community in Rio de Janeiro.] Available from: http://www.mobilizadores.org.br/textos/resumo-da-pesquisa-levantamento-socioeconomico-na-comunidade-cidade-de-deus-do-rio-de-janeiro/?eixo=

** source: Riocomovamos (2017). Monitorando a qualidade de vida da cidade. [Monitoring the quality of life of the city]. Available from: http://riocomovamos.org.br/indicadores-regionalizados/regiao/cidade-de-deus/

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