Interview with Brazilian Graduate Djuena Tikuna

This month, Esther Benjamin, Laureate’s Senior Vice President Global Public Affairs and Chief Benefit Officer, had the pleasure of speaking with UniNorte alumna Djuena Tikuna. Djuena is a successful recording artist and the first person from the remote Amazonian village of Umariaçu to graduate with a degree in journalism. Djuena’s story is an extraordinary example of dedication and of an institution that is committed to expanding access to higher education for all.

Esther Benjamin: First of all, let me congratulate you on your recent graduation! It would be great to know what was going through your mind during the graduation ceremony?

Djuena Tikuna: Throughout the ceremony, a movie played in my head reminding me of my struggle over four years. The difficulties I faced and the prejudice that we indigenous people overcome every day. It was as if I was dreaming. I was there in there in the middle of everyone, representing indigenous peoples. Even more so in journalism, which is not an easy course because it requires a lot of reading and Portuguese is not my language. This was one of my greatest difficulties, but I was able to overcome this. Emotion took hold. I was really moved. I was satisfied that I fulfilled one of the dreams of my parents who believed in me. Being the first indigenous journalist from the Amazon is a big responsibility because I carry 518 years of social exclusion on our shoulders.

EB: You moved from the Amazonian village of Umariaçu to the city of Manaus when you were just seven. How did your life in the Amazon contrast with this first experience of a large city?

DT: I was born in the Umariaçu village, on the border between Brazil, Peru, and Colombia. I am a daughter of the Amazon. When I came to Manaus I was 9 years old and did not speak Portuguese. It was difficult for my family; we faced prejudice, but my parents never stopped struggling to fulfill their dream of sending their children to university. Many young people leave their villages and come to the city to study, but face difficulties to finish their studies. Indigenous peoples have long been denied the right to higher education. It was only after the 1988 Constitution that this right was guaranteed after a great struggle by our leaders. When one of us is able to go to the university, we are there because of the struggle of our ancestors; the triumph of graduation does not belong to just us, but to all indigenous peoples.

EB: You are an accomplished recording artist and promoter of the Tikuna language and culture. Why did you decide to pursue a degree in journalism?

DT: Music and journalism are means of communication and they go hand in hand to tell people about the reality in our country. The course can offer alternatives and I chose this one because I intend to practice journalism with a commitment to indigenous peoples as the mainstream media does not always reflect our truth. I have been recording indigenous music and working with great names in Brazilian music for over ten years. However, my greatest commitment will always be to raise awareness for the indigenous cause, whether as an artist or journalist.

EB: What will you remember the most about your experience as a student at UniNorte?

DT: I spent four years in the institution and a lot of good things happened, such as the reports I wrote during the course, and the topics addressed with a focus on workers. In some way, I left an important message that we indigenous people are also capable. I passed on my culture to the class and to the teachers.

EB: For graduation, you decided to wear a traditional Tikuna headdress. How do you plan to continue being a positive role model for your community and an active promoter of your language and culture?

DT: The headdress is our identity, our strength and I believe very much in the influence of our ancestors. Today, I live in the city, but I keep our culture alive, whether through singing, language, dance or other arts. We are examples for future generations.

EB: Do you think your experience will encourage more people from the indigenous community to pursue higher education at UniNorte?

DT: Yes, both at UniNorte and in public institutions for those who cannot pay. We need to add color to the universities to strengthen our people. There are several indigenous students at UniNorte and I hope the institution recognizes and values these students because everyone brings very enriching experiences and can contribute in a very special way to the institution.

EB: What is your message to the over one million students in the Laureate network who will hear and be inspired by your story?

DT: We can be what everyone is, and still be who we are.

EB: What would your advice be for others who are “firsts” – first in their family, first from their community, and so on, about pursuing higher education?

DT: First of all, strength – because they will need it. Afterwards, be persistent and never give up, even if you don’t speak Portuguese well [or another primary language of the country], you have to face reality. I know it’s not easy, but you can do it.