Education Changing the World – One Student at a Time

When you first meet Joao Fernandes, you may quickly notice his infectious smile. It’s been known to light up every room he’s in.

But what you can’t see behind those bright eyes and wide grin is an individual who has had to overcome many obstacles in life. Born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Fernandes spent his childhood years in Rocinha, one of the largest and most dangerous favelas (shanty towns) in Latin America. Some of his earliest memories include war and unrest right in his backyard.

“I remember I was at home with my grandmother and my aunt one day,” recalling a story from his time as a young boy. “I was watching a movie and all the lights of our community went out. We heard gunshots and explosions, I believe from grenades. My grandmother grabbed me quickly and hid me under my aunt’s bed. I was terrified but I remember my grandmother saying, ‘the sadness can last for a night, but happiness will come in the morning.’”

When tensions escalated in the favela, his grandmother knew they would have to move to ensure their safety. At age 8, Fernandes left the only home he’d ever known. However, in Itanhanga, in the west zone of Rio, a much safer home meant Joao could focus on something more important: education.

“My grandmother was a teacher and always stressed the importance of learning,” he said. Fortunately for her, school was something Joao had enjoyed since he could remember. “I’ve always loved to study. Even as a child, I loved going to school and be surrounded by other children to learn and play.”

Having had much success in grade school and high school, Joao’s next roadblock would come.

Joao Fernandes participating in Laureate’s Q2 Employee Town Hall on June 14, 2019

“I looked to the people around me and saw how they couldn’t achieve things because of their limited education,” Fernandes recalled. “What motivated me was the dream to become a professional and have a career.”

But his dream schools were costly dreams. He didn’t want to go to a public institution because of the constant protests and political unrest that hinder student’s academic progress at these institutions.

“Sometimes the protests could get so big, a university would shut down for many semesters. I looked for private institutions because I would be able to continue my studies at regular pace.”  

Unexpectedly, he would soon discover the perfect fit.

“It wasn’t until I overheard two ladies talking, at the gym, about studying at IBMR.”

When Joao was 17, Centro Universitário IBMR, had only recently joined the Laureate International Universities network.

“I went for a campus visit and saw the International Office and I knew immediately I was in the right place.”

The monthly tuition was still considerable for Joao’s family but much more affordable than other private institutions in Brazil.

“I remember my grandmother asking me ‘is this what you really want?’ When I replied ‘yes,’ she said, ‘then we’ll figure out a way to pay for it.’”

Joao’s grandmother, mother, and aunt would split his tuition three-ways over the next four semesters until he got an opportunity at the place that had inspired his higher-education pursuit.

“I was selected as an intern at the IBMR International Office and it came with a scholarship.”

In this capacity, it didn’t take long for Joao to get his first experience abroad. He went to Kendall College, at the time a Laureate network institution based in Chicago, to attend a short summer program. In 2017, he was then invited to attend the same program, this time as a guest coordinator.

“This was invaluable because it was important to get experience traveling to a place that was different than my own. The very reason I’m interested in international affairs is my desire to be able to connect people from all over the world and have meaningful cultural exchange.”

Joao Fernandes

Joao finished his undergraduate degree in 2017 and his MBA at IBMR in early 2019. He is currently completing a one-year fellowship at the Laureate International Universities headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland, through Atlas Corp – a U.S. based non-profit giving young leaders the opportunity to live, learn and work in the United States before taking a vast network of inspiring peers, and a range of new skills and experiences back to their home country. In this role, Joao is offering valuable student feedback and support to the global communications team.

“Laureate was founded on the belief that creating access to quality higher education changes lives; Joao is a perfect example of this belief. As a direct result of his time studying at IBMR, he is now following his dream of working internationally and making a contribution on a scale larger than what he and his family thought was possible.”

Adam Smith, Vice President of Communications and Public Affairs for Laureate.

Joao is also spearheading the #100LaureateStudents campaign, interviewing extraordinary students all across the network and highlighting their successes and accomplishments via the company’s social media channels.

“I see this as a way for Laureate, which has given me many experiences, to gain access to student insight and perspective. The more students attending meetings and sharing their vision with our leadership, the better Laureate can give students even more spaces to learn, grow and create.”

Even with two degrees, Joao says he won’t stop there. He hopes to continue his education by obtaining another masters degree, this time in international business communications.

“The future looks bright for Joao, and we remain committed to giving him, and hundreds of thousands of other students across our network, the tools and experiences they need to thrive,” said Adam Smith.