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New Wiess magisters embrace the unexpected

Apple Li/Thresher

By Tomás Russo     9/7/21 10:12pm

Wiess College Magister Flavio Cunha had a plane ticket to Chicago when he met a girl in Ipanema, the famous beach in Rio de Janeiro. Cunha, who had already made plans to leave his home country of Brazil to begin a Ph.D. in economics at the University of Chicago, had no interest in sparking a relationship with a girl in Brazil — but that was before he met his future wife Fabiana Alves dos Santos. 

“It was something quite coincidental; one night we were dragged to an event by separate people,” Cunha said. “I knew I was coming to the United States, [so it wasn’t] like I was trying to find a girlfriend in Rio de Janeiro.”

Looking back, Alves dos Santos said she is amazed at how fortunate their chance meeting really was.

“It was the serendipity,” Alves dos Santos said. “We thought the relationship would not go ahead but here we are 21 years after.”

Things weren’t easy at first, according to Alves dos Santos. The couple said they endured three years of a long-distance relationship, back in an era before the availability of video communication and inexpensive international calls. While Alves dos Santos continued working as an architect and urban planner in Rio de Janeiro, Cunha began his economics Ph.D. program in Chicago. Eventually, Alves dos Santos moved to the United States to be with Cunha and would commute back and forth to Brazil for work. The couple relocated to Pennsylvania when Cunha became a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

Cunha said that he and other University of Pennsylvania economics professors came to Rice seven years ago as part of an initiative to strengthen the economics program. At Rice, Cunha teaches courses and supervises research in economics, social policy and data science.

“My research is on human capital formation, how it relates to inequality in the labor market and how it promotes long run economic growth,” Cunha said. “Especially now in this time of climate change, economic growth is not only including people in higher living standards but also respecting the environment.”

Cunha said that after years of teaching, he wanted to more personally connect his research in human capital formation to students.

“From the time I’ve arrived at Rice I’ve always wanted to [be a magister],” Cunha said. “As an instructor I spend a lot of time teaching people academic stuff but don’t have the time to inspire them in other ways or help them figure out things they want to do.”

Yet for most of their time at Rice, the magister roles were not feasible, Alves dos Santos said. Cunha was traveling 150,000 to 200,000 miles a year for academic presentations while Alves dos Santos was regularly visiting Brazil to continue working as an architect and urban planner. She said her last big project was an accessibility redesign of subways for tourists, the blind and wheelchair users ahead of the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games.

Alves dos Santos said it was not until the rise of videoconferencing and other changes brought about by the pandemic that they realized they would be able to become magisters. 

“When we had this whole COVID thing starting and we were spending a lot more time at home, we figured out we could do this. I was very very attracted to the idea,” Alves dos Santos said. “We are looking forward to these next years.” 

Still, beginning their term during the pandemic has not been easy for them, according to Alves dos Santos.

“It’s challenging because things are changing constantly,” Alves dos Santos said. “We are trying to be flexible and adapt and make sure the students are safe. We are trying our best to make things work.”

Balancing what students want with the safety expectations of the university has been especially hard, according to Cunha.

“We understand that [the students] need leisure, as that’s an important part of the college experience, but we need to do so in a way that respects COVID-19 policies,” Cunha said. “We are in a situation of flux and the policies are changing everyday. Plans that have been made need to be readjusted. This is the part that is not easy; it’s stressful, actually.”

To manage that stress, Alves dos Santos likes to walk their dalmatian, Lolla Blue, and Cunha likes to play soccer and volleyball, they said. Cunha said he hopes to play more sports with Wiess students once the pandemic stabilizes, while Alves dos Santos said she is considering getting a sister for Lolla Blue.

Cunha and Alves dos Santos said their primary goal as magisters is to support Wiess students and the student-run college government.

“We are trying to have this very close relationship with the student government,” Alves dos Santos said. “We go for lunch and dinners most days [at Wiess] and sit at a table outside and some students come and sit with us and we hear their stories. I think the job is about being there and that’s what we’ve been trying to do.”

Cunha and Alves dos Santos, who went to college in Brazil, said they are fascinated by the United States’s university system and the diversity it fosters.

“I think that the only real university system in the world is the United States system,” Cunha said. “It’s the only one that really looks at much more than test scores on an entrance exam. In Brazil, they didn’t take into account anything else — our background, where we came from, who our parents were, our experiences and so forth.”

Cunha said he likes Rice’s implementation of the residential college system in particular because it best capitalizes on the uniqueness of U.S. universities.

“What I love about Rice is that students are randomly assigned to a college, which means that every college is representative of what university is,” Cunha said. “It’s going to be very difficult [for students] to find another situation where they will have so many interesting people from so many different backgrounds. This is an amazing opportunity.”

After looking at old pictures of Wiess college, the magisters said they want to respect Wiess’s long history.

”Wiess was here before we were born; Wiess is going to be here after we are dead,” Cunha said. “We are just one set of people that are going to be here for five years. We need to respect that college’s traditions and the college’s cultures and find ways to make that culture and tradition evolve in the ways the students believe they should.”

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