‘The environment was very hostile’, remembers first black student to graduate from medical program at federal university in Bahia

caro - UFBA - capa

Note from BW of Brazil: When I first came across this guy’s story and photo, I thought, ‘this guy seems familiar’. And for good reason. I first featured a little of Ícaro Luis Vidal’s story back in 2014 in a feature about why affirmative action quota policies have worked out so well in Brazil. It was the sort of piece meant to respond to and silence critics and naysayers who had invented numerous reasons excuses as to why affirmative action wasn’t a good idea.

In the years since affirmative action policies began to be implemented across Brazil in major colleges and universities, we’ve started to see black Brazilians in places and occupying positions that they have never had the opportunities for in any large numbers as recently as just a few decades ago. As so many areas of Brazilian society have, for all intents and purposes, been off limits to Afro-Brazilians for so long, this is still the reality even with the success of affirmative action. 

Ícaro Luis Vidal remembers what it was like to be a black student in the medical program at the Federal University of Bahia when the quota system was just starting. He heard all of the jokes and disparaging remarks that passed the message on to him that studying medicine at a federal university was not the place for him. This in a state like Bahia where Afro-Brazilians have such a large presence. 

This type of experience again lays to rest the idea that Brazilians see themselves as not being racist or that they see themselves as ”all equal”. ‘But this reaction was only because he entered the university through an unfair quota policy’, one might argue. Well, number one, access to universities in Brazil has NEVER been fair, which is why they were so white for so long. And two, even without entering universities under the quota system, black students are still met with behavior that signals discomfort with their presence in institutions of higher learning, particularly when they are students of elitist, very prestigious courses such as medicine. This in a general sentiment throughout Brazilian society when blacks are found in areas where they are deemed ”out of place”

Ícaro’s story is simply another example of this. 

ÍCARO - first black cotista of Medicine in UFBA
ÍCARO – first black quota student of Medicine in UFBA

‘The environment was very hostile’, reports 1st black student to graduate from medicine program at UFBA

15 years after the quotas were implemented, Ícaro Luis Vidal discusses his experience and life after graduation

On the day of his graduation, in January 2012, a movie played in the head of the doctor Ícaro Luis Vidal, now 32 years old. By the way, a movie with not such nice scenes. The first student to enter through the quota system at the Federal University of Bahia (Ufba) Medical School has both a critical and exciting account of his career.

Ícaro started the course in 2005, when Ufba implemented the quota system. If current quota students report a tranquil co-existence with non-quota students, it seems that this was quite different once the quotas were implemented. According to Ícaro, 15 years ago “the environment was quite hostile. For a moment I thought about giving up.”

“The students always said that their better qualified colleagues with higher scores had been left out because of the quotas. Professors, in turn, said that the quality of the course would plummet with the entry of students of “low intellectual level”,” he says, 15 years after the system was first implemented.

Below is the full report

After graduation, Ícaro went to work at a a Family Health Post and did his residency in the area. “The patients said that it was the first time they saw a ‘favela doctor.'” Since last year, Ícaro has gone back to school and moved to La Laguna University on the island of Tenerife, Spain. In 2015, the University of La Laguna was included in the ranking of the 500 best universities in the world.

Federal University of Bahia: Still just a dream of tens of thousands of black students

“I joined the first group of affirmative action students of UFBA. At the beginning of the course, the environment was quite hostile. The changes generated discomfort for those in their comfort zone. The provocations from both non-quota students and professors were not nominative. They were impersonalized speeches. “The students always said that their better qualified colleagues with higher scores had been left out because of the quotas. The professors, in turn, said that the quality of the course would plummet with the entry of ‘low intellectual level’ students.

The structure of the course was not welcoming either, the full shifts with classes in different locations made the course even more expensive. For a moment I thought of giving up, lacking representation.

At every moment the structure was in charge of showing that that environment didn’t suit me, it was very strange. As a result of fate, I had to miss a semester for work reasons and that renewed my breath.

The class I rejoined was less hostile to quota policies, so I was able to take the course better. Although the environment was less hostile, I constantly heard ‘jokes’ about my black power-style hair (afro) and in practical activities I was never considered the doctor, I was always mistaken with the cleaning professional to the nursing assistant, which was the maximum level that patients and local human resources considered being possible for someone black. Even with the quotas, I saw few blacks in college. When I left, the panorama was already more diverse, more colorful.

Graduation was very exciting, a movie of everything that I went through played out. The whole family was in tears, it took time for me to contain myself. I looked at that graduation ring, I looked at the university walls, and the feeling of being completed was liberating.

After graduation, I went to work in a family health unit within the health district where I grew up. To the patients it was surprising, they said that for the first time they saw a ‘favela doctor’ and they felt more comfortable. Some greeted me with a “Hey, (he’s) my color!” (see note one) I worked with them to break down the imaginary barrier that exists between health professionals and patients.

We are people who only have different knowledge, no one is better or worse than anyone. I worked for six years in this health unit, where I did my residency in Family and Community Medicine and a specialization as a preceptor in Medical Residency at SUS (national health care program). I coordinated this work with the shifts at Samu Camaçari and the Unifacs Family Medicine Practice Tutorial.

In 2018, I took a break from my assistance activities and went back to school, this time I dug up the opportunity at the Universidad de La Laguna in Spain, so I combined love with the plan to build my career as a future university professor. Today, I am in the second year of the master’s degree in Research, Management and Quality in Health Care and acting as an emergency physician at SCS, the equivalent to SUS in Brazil.

Infomation from Correio 24 Horas


  1. Seeing black people in positions where they aren’t expected to be found is still a very common occurence, as we see from the reports of numerous Afro-Brazilians who have experienced this reaction. See here.

About Marques Travae 3476 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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