Antonio Oliveira, 24, was born into a poor, mixed race family in the state of Maranhao in north-east Brazil.
As a teenager he had to balance his time between school and helping his parents harvest vegetables to sell at a farmer’s market, and doing other small jobs to scrape by.
Until recently, he says the only prospects for those growing up in his city, Colinas, were to work with crops or to get a post at the city hall – “a mediocre job that people think is heaven,” as he puts it.
But Antonio has just finished his first term studying Economic Sciences at Rio de Janeiro’s prestigious Federal University (UFRJ), a dream he had nurtured since his days at a rural public school.
His placement represents a radical change in the Brazilian university system.
Competition for places
A new law approved a year ago reserves 50 percent of slots in Brazil’s federal universities for students coming from public schools, low-income families and who are of African or indigenous descent.
The number of posts reserved for black, mixed race and indigenous students will vary according to the racial makeup of each Brazilian state.
Ten years ago, state and federally funded Brazilian universities began to gradually adopt affirmative action, in an attempt to give underprivileged Brazilians better chances of getting free higher education – and thus access to better jobs.
Half of Brazil’s population is of African descent, but the country’s public universities tend to reflect the Brazilian upper classes – who are mostly white.
Although these universities are free, those who traditionally made it in usually came from expensive private schools. Students from public education – the majority of whom are black or mixed race – were less likely to secure one of the highly competitive places.
Now the “quotas” are mandatory in all of Brazil’s 59 federal universities, which have until 2016 to reserve half of their positions for affirmative action.
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