Growing up poor with a single mom and two siblings in Rio de Janeiro, Luciana Frazão realized early on that education was perhaps her only passport to a better life. But even that path seemed in peril after her first week in a rowdy high school. “Everybody was screaming, everybody was talking, not allowing the teacher to lead the class,” she says. “I was like, ‘I can’t stay here.’ ” So she concocted a plan: drop out, spend a year cramming and win entry to one of the city’s elite schools. Some in her family protested, but not her mom. Frazão aced the test.
Success brought entry into an affluent new world, one where her sister’s baggy hand-me-downs marked her as an outsider. But she excelled again, winning a full ride to one of Brazil’s top-ranked universities, Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, where she studied industrial design and embraced combat robotics. That combination of interests led her to Stanford in 2019. As a master’s student in mechanical engineering, she’s developing robotics that help prevent elderly people from falling—work inspired by her grandmother, who died shortly after Frazão came to Stanford.
‘Brazil is not a culture where it is easy to be poor, because if you’re poor, you’re almost not allowed to dream.’
The pandemic has loomed over her time on campus, but it has also brought opportunity. Frazão became a fellow with Meeting the Moment, a new outreach program created by the Office for Religious and Spiritual Life to help students find meaning in difficult times, which she credits with helping her clarify her life path. After she graduates in June, she’ll begin work as a global research manager at Z-Tech, an Anheuser-Busch InBev unit focused on enabling small and medium-size companies to grow and to improve their use of technology.
“From an early age, I just started to see that if I want to change my life and provide for my family, I have to study. That’s the only way for me to be someone.
“Robotics gave me the technical knowledge to go nuts and think bigger.
“I love to see a material going to an extreme. Is this battery pack going to explode? Is this battery pack going to support all the pressure and all the force that is being applied on it?
“I think [my mom’s lesbianism] made me a more empathetic person. I had this feeling that I can’t share [the truth] because people think it’s a terrible thing, but that made me realize, ‘Oh my gosh, how bad it must be for my mom.’ She would walk on the street and never hold her girlfriend’s hand. Not even a hug.
“Meeting the Moment was, for me, a space where I had time to put myself first and to think about my own self. My entire life I never stopped to do this kind of exercise. It helped me a lot to direct myself and see what I want to do and what I want to be when I finish here.
“My main dream is to go back to Brazil to work helping single mothers. It’s pretty common when the parents get a divorce, the father divorces from the children as well and just leaves the mother with a huge burden to take care of. My long-term goal is to use social entrepreneurship to help single mothers.”
Sam Scott is a senior writer at Stanford. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.