The University of Arizona

UA Alumnus Leads One of Brazil's Largest Cities

By Alexis Blue, University Communications | May 29, 2013

Roberto Cláudio, who has master's and doctorate degrees from the UA, was elected mayor of Fortaleza in 2012.

UA alumnus Roberto Claudio was elected mayor of Fortaleza in 2012.
UA alumnus Roberto Claudio was elected mayor of Fortaleza in 2012.

When University of Arizona students earn their degrees and leave the classroom behind, many go on to achieve big things. One such individual is Dr. Roberto Cláudio Frota Bezerra Neto, who in 2012 was elected mayor of Fortaleza, the fifth-largest city in Brazil, at just 37 years old.

A native of the impoverished Northeastern Brazil, Roberto Cláudio was trained in Brazil as a medical doctor. Upon graduation, he came to the U.S., where he earned a Master's in Public Health from the UA in 2002, followed by a doctorate in epidemiology, with a minor in public administration, in 2006. He largely credits his professional training at the UA, along with his exposure to diverse cultures and experiences on campus, for his success on the global stage.

Fortaleza – the state capital of Ceará, located in Northeastern Brazil – has a population of more than 2.7 million people and has been selected as one of the host cities for the FIFA World Cup in 2014. The UA is well-known in Fortaleza thanks to ongoing collaboration among faculty and students at the UA, the University of Georgia and the Federal University of Ceará through an initiative known as Project Ceará. The project stemmed from an earlier student and faculty exchange program, initiated in the early 1960s, between the UA and the Federal University of Ceará.

A Wildcat for life, Roberto Cláudio recently shared with UANews how his experience at the UA helped prepare him for a career in politics. He also gave a nod to some of his most influential professors, among them Robin Harris, epidemiology; Burris Duncan, public health; Myra Muramoto, family and community medicine; Alison Hughes, rural health; Brint Milward, government and public policy; Art Silvers, public administration; Keith Provan, public administration; and Dr. Andy Nichols, a professor of community medicine who has since passed away.

His comments, below, were translated from Portuguese to English by UA research anthropologist Tim Finan, who is working with the Fortaleza mayor and researchers at the UA and the University of Georgia on a project designed to help increase access to public services by low-income Fortaleza residents.

Q: How did your experience attending the UA influence your decision to go into politics and shape who you are today?

A: Let me say first of all that the opportunity to study at the University of Arizona was uniquely beneficial both from an academic and a personal standpoint. It was an experience that opened my eyes. I purposively selected the University of Arizona as my choice of a graduate program because of its institutional commitment to public health. I knew that the UA had widely renowned reputation and expertise in the area of public health and, as a doctor, I felt that the models of public health delivery, especially rural health, were relevant to our context here in Ceará. My decision to enter public service as an elected official was also based on this desire to improve the public health system, and this has been my public message and priority ever since. 

I was uniquely fortunate to have a grand mentor at the University of Arizona, Dr. Andy Nichols, a professor of community medicine, director of the Rural Health Office, and a state legislator who championed public health causes. I worked as an intern in the Rural Health Office soon after arriving in Tucson, and I became closely attached to Dr. Nichols and saw the impacts on people's health care that could be achieved through public office. I learned from him that public health policy could effectively address the urgent challenges of public health – infant and maternal mortality, rates of gastro-intestinal infection, child nutrition – so important here in Ceará, especially among the lower-income and underserved populations in our state.

In sum, what I learned in terms of public health, epidemiology and public administration has formed the basis of my strategies as a public servant dedicated to improving the health of our citizens. I learned that public office, now as mayor, is a highly effective vantage point for fomenting change and addressing the structural problems of poverty and social exclusion. But also at the University of Arizona, I came into contact with hundreds of other students and professors from so many different nations, ethnic groups and walks of life. I learned how to be tolerant and to listen, skills that serve me well as a political leader in my city.

Q: What do you hope to achieve as mayor of Fortaleza? What are your primary goals?

A: Fortaleza is now the fifth-largest city in Brazil, and it has more than 2.7 million inhabitants. Brazilian law gives an enormous amount of control over planning and the management of resources to the Mayor's Office. Fortaleza's population is spread out over a large geographical space, and we face equally enormous difficulties. For example, Fortaleza is the second most inequitable city in Brazil in terms of income, and we are committed to investments in education, health, jobs growth and culture that will work to reduce this dramatic inequity that we have in the city. We need to address the low indicators in health, education and high rates of crime in low-income neighborhoods.

Q: Looking back at your experience at the UA, what advice do you have for students with respect to taking maximum advantage of their time in school? 

A: My immediate response is this: Take full advantage of every second, every minute that you are in the University. You will never have another opportunity such as this one, in which you can dedicate yourself full-time to learning. After you leave the University and enter your professional life, you will seldom find the time and opportunity to pursue knowledge and learning with such intensity as you did during your university years. Take advantage of your teachers, your library resources, your colleagues and friends, for this experience will stay with you for the rest of your lives. This experience gives you a different life, a level playing field regardless of your ethnicity, nationality, or socio-economic background. Take advantage of every second.