From Catholic School to Catholic School

When I accepted Georgetown’s offer of admission three years ago, its Catholic identity was not a determining factor for me. Instead, Georgetown’s location in Washington, D.C., its academic rigor, and prestige led me to my decision. Now, as a junior, I am studying at another private, Catholic, and prestigious university a continent away, in Brazil. Like my decision to attend Georgetown, my decision to study abroad at Pontifícia Universidade Católica de São Paulo was not influenced by its Catholic identity; rather, I liked what the particular study abroad program had to offer. In the few weeks that I have been in class, I have been mentally comparing both PUC and the Hilltop.

Pronounced “pooky,” the Jesuit university was founded in 1946 and is located in the rich neighborhood of Perdizes. In spite of its Catholic background, atheists and students of several faith backgrounds study at PUC, attracted to the school’s well-rounded education. Unlike Georgetown, there is not a cross in every classroom or fathers who teach classes; both have been noticeably absent from my classroom experiences. Perhaps the fact that there is a chapel on campus and a large cross in the center of the courtyard makes up for this—physical reminders that students attend a Catholic institution.

As a university, PUC played a critical role in resisting the military dictatorship that lasted from 1964 to 1985 and is proud of this fact. During that time, leftist PUC students and professors often attended protests and wrote against their government, developing a nationwide reputation for challenging the political order. Consequently, those who opposed the regime were arrested, tortured, killed, or simply “disappeared,” never to be heard from again. As an act of defiance, campus administration hired professors who had been fired from public universities due to their politics. In an effort to weed out certain professors, the regime hired spies to pose as students, so that if a professor said anything anti-regime or used progressive rhetoric, he or she would be blacklisted. However, PUC’s public critique of the government continued, and in 1977 police raided campus on a day when students met to discuss resistance activities. That day, they killed one student and injured 900 others, and from that point on, the director of the university prohibited police from stepping foot on campus again. PUC’s successful model of resistance and defense of marginalized groups is a lesson that Georgetown, a fellow Jesuit university, could learn from.

Despite marijuana's status as an illegal substance in Brazil, smoking marijuana on campus is an everyday activity due to the police ban. There is no one to arrest users, so students go about their business without concern. There are several spots to smoke around campus, made clear by smoke and smell. No one goes as far as smoking in classrooms, though. I was shocked the first time I saw students smoking so out in the open, with no one blinking an eye, an attitude I had never seen at a university before. At PUC, smoking pot is something that students everywhere on the political spectrum do, not solely a pastime of the left. Ironically, there is anti-cigarette smoking campaign the university has launched but not an anti-marijuana one.

Unsurprisingly, PUC’s image today is that of a progressive institution heavily involved in activism, as many students participate in social movements. It is a place in which alternative physical aesthetics are popular. If PUC’s image can be compared at all to an American one, then UC Berkeley seems fitting. One can easily find anarchist symbols all over campus, as well as feminist, gay, and pro-Black artwork on the walls and ground. In light of President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment last year (what many on the left consider to be a coup characterized by rampant sexism), and conservative President Michel Temer’s rise, there are many messages that read “resist fascism.” Because of Brazilians’ widespread discontent with Temer, there are protests in the city streets on a weekly basis, calling for the president to step down from power. Brazilian society is currently undergoing a “very delicate moment,” as observers say. Last Wednesday, for example, bus drivers and metro conductors went on strike to protest a potential government reform that would raise citizens’ age of retirement and access to pension benefits. Since the city relies on these workers’ services, millions of Paulistas had no way to get around the city, and PUC’s evening classes were cancelled. Of course, several PUC classmates went to the protest to show support for the cause.

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