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From itinerant worker to university professor

Former sugarcane cutter overcomes obstacles and goes beyond a doctorate at USP

096_carreiras_208-1Daniel Bueno “I swam upstream and had to overcome many obstacles,” says Professor José Agnaldo Gomes, 43, of the Social Psychology Department at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo (PUC-SP). Born in Maracaí, 463 kilometers from the São Paulo State capital, Gomes began working at the age of 13 as a sugarcane cutter. He did not go to school for the following 7 years, but instead woke up early, worked hard, and then collapsed from fatigue at night. That was until he decided to attend GED preparation classes to complete junior high and high school. “Even cutting cane, I always harbored the dream of being a psychologist,” he says. After 10 years as an itinerant worker, he obtained a position in the plant’s office, but decided to leave his mother, siblings and job to go to São Paulo, where he worked at Casas Bahia, a department store. Then he began attending the São Judas Tadeu University, majoring in psychology, but could not afford the tuition. Through friends, he met Bishop Luciano Mendes de Almeida, who obtained a full scholarship for him.

Since he wanted to teach, he enrolled in a master’s degree program in social psychology at PUC, also on a scholarship, focusing on the homeless. In 2003, he applied to study for a PhD in occupational psychology at the University of São Paulo (USP). His entrance was blocked by his lack of proficiency in German, so he traveled to Germany to study the language and remained there for six months as a volunteer with an association that looks after the homeless. Upon his return, he was accepted into the doctoral program at USP. “For my topic, I went to Cosmópolis, where I studied the living conditions of sugarcane cutters,” he says. During his doctoral dissertation defense, the committee suggested that the thesis be turned into a book. It was published in 2012 under the title Do trabalho penoso à dignidade no trabalho (From drudgery to dignity at work).