Vitor Granja, son of a Brazilian English professor, came with his twin brother Vinicius to the U.S. when they were 18, not knowing how to speak any English. Now 24, Vitor is a junior transfer student at New York University, a global public-health/applied psychology major with his eye on a medical degree and maybe a master’s in public-health management and policy. (Vinicius is an economics major, also at NYU.)
At Westchester Community College in Valhalla, N.Y., Granja completed the English as a Second Language program in his first two years, then last spring secured his associate’s liberal arts degree in math and science. The key to his NYU scholarship, he says, was becoming active on campus and figuring out how to succeed in a higher-education system vastly different from Brazil’s.
WCC is also headquarters for the Community College Consortium for Immigrant Education. In Granja’s time there, he received many awards. He took a five-week forensic-research course at Binghamton University, traveled to Switzerland, and attended a summer program at Cambridge University. All those experiences galvanized his desire to pursue a career in medicine with a focus on public health.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
When I came to the U.S. [Pound Ridge, N.Y.], I just wanted to learn English and live for two years with my mother, Ariadne, who I have not seen for 10 years. In Brazil, I was trying to get through the standard entrance exams in medicine. It’s fierce to get into a public medical school there because there are no community colleges. Most tests are like 40,000 students trying for 360 slots, plus there’s a mandatory curriculum. I failed the exams twice, so I came here.
When I came here, it was hard for me to understand how the educational system worked. One thing that allowed my brother and me to better understand it and achieve our awards and scholarships was the club environment. In Brazil there are no clubs. There are almost no student activities or opportunities to develop leadership and soft skills.
I remember we got a letter inviting us to an international honors society, Phi Theta Kappa, which we’d never heard of. At first, we thought it was a scam, but we registered for it and showed up. We came to the first meeting, and the next week we came in for elections. I ran for president and my brother for vice president. It was my brother and me, and two other people in the club.
If I hadn’t become involved, I wouldn’t have been able to take advantage of all my campus resources, such as its honors program. Plus, that’s when we really started to make friends and get even more involved. It was easier to get to know people in activities. I became a New York regional officer for Phi Theta Kappa, as well as secretary of my campus Student Government Association.
Actually, all that involvement made the difference — getting active on campus. Getting really, really active. When it came to leadership skills or proving that you accomplished things for the community, made a big diffThe Next America welcomes first-person perspectives from activists, thought leaders and people representative of a diverse nation.erence in my academic success. In the community college, If you study hard and push yourself, you get payback. In Brazil, only a few exceptional cases get paybacks.
People come to the U.S. not knowing anything about this country’s educational system and opportunities. They don’t know about financial aid because in most South America universities there is no financial aid.
Our club had 10 active students. The gender split was about even. There were three first-generation students — three Americans — and the rest where immigrants, like us from South America, Africa, Middle East, and Asia.
Besides my college advisers, professors, and a very few scholarship donors, it is not so easy to find people who recognize how much immigrants can give back to the country that has given them so much opportunities. When I came to the East Coast, I thought I’d see a lot of Americans instead of immigrants. But at WCC most students were immigrants. We thought we’d have more American friends, but we had more immigrant friends.
We worked in the summer to pay for our first year of college. My parents are caretakers of a property, so we worked on landscaping, cleaning windows, and babysitting. When we applied for financial aid, we found out we were eligible. We also started to apply for scholarships on my campus, and got at least one every year.
At first, my biggest barrier was speaking in public. As the president of my chapter and regional officer, I had to speak in public. It is already hard to speak in public in your first language, so just imagine speaking with your secondary language. I had to memorize, rehearse over and over, and sometimes I just had to get up in front of a crowd and speak. I remember when I was running my first blood drive and I had to approach people and convince them to donate blood. It was really uncomfortable in the beginning, but I started liking it, and it paid off in the end. Our campus earned the Pacesetter Award, given to the college campus that collected the most blood pints in two days.
My brother and I created a great network at Westchester. We made ourselves known to people who work there — talking to people in the other departments, just being friendly. That really helped us academically. One example was Robin Graft, our campus transfer counselor and adviser of our campus Phi Theta Kappa. She not only guided and motivated me through it, but also looked at everything I need [for advancing to a four-year college]. She’s very connected to many universities in New York. She would bring in directors of transfer admissions to talk to our campus members of PTK.
Basically what I want to accomplish is to work in preventive medicine in or outside the United States. I’m basically open to going anywhere to improve health care systems. I might work with governments or private companies. I think jobs are becoming globally competitive, so professionals are starting to look for a job far from their hometowns or even home countries.
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