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‘Involvement Made the Difference’

A Brazilian, shut out of med school, comes to the U.S., learns English, and then finds the key to an NYU scholarship: “Getting really, really active.”

Vitor Granja, a native of Brazil, earned scholarships at Westchester Community College that led to more scholarships as a transfer student to New York University studying.
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Vitor Granja
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Vitor Granja
Dec. 6, 2013, 5:33 a.m.

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 na­­ence 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.



Are you part of the demo­graph­ic that is the Next Amer­ica? Are you a cata­lyst who fosters change for the next gen­er­a­tion? Or do you know someone who is? The Next Amer­ica wel­comes first-per­son per­spect­ives from act­iv­ists, thought lead­ers and people rep­res­ent­at­ive of a di­verse na­tion. Email us. And please fol­low us on Twit­ter and Face­book.

Jody Brannon contributed to this article.
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