Ester Toledo and Education During Times of COVID-19 (Mentoriza)

Article by Nicole Edwards

Shortly after the semester ended, I had a conversation with Ester Toledo ‘23 about how she is impacting the educational system in Brazil with her venture Mentoriza, which aims to give students proper education during times of COVID-19. In our discussion, I learned about the current situation in Brazil, how Ester started her project, what inspired her to make a change in her country, and what her next steps are to address the problems that have arisen from the pandemic.

Brazil, like most Latin-American countries, is facing serious challenges during COVID-19. Living in Guatemala, I know firsthand that local businesses in Latin America are crumbling and that people are losing their jobs. But the worst part is that most people live on daily income sources that are now obsolete because everyone has been forced to quarantine. Poverty and consequently hunger are affecting the Latin-American population today more than ever. Nevertheless, an issue that is being overlooked is the lack of education arising from staying at home—which can lead to more impoverishment in the future.

To give you more context on Brazil’s situation, at the end of every year, the country requires graduating students to take the National Exam to be able to attend college. During this pandemic, however, millions of students have not been able to get a proper education, since a large part of Brazil’s population lives in impoverished areas that do not have access to the internet or an online school system. Only private schools have had the privilege to continue their education from home (even though it still does not compare to an in-person learning experience). Because of this, it is only natural that most of the country’s students are staying behind with the school-year curriculum—in fact, some kids don’t even have a notebook at home. What makes sense is to push the exam back a couple months so students can get back on track with their classes. But the Education Minister of Brazil had announced that he would not postpone the National Exams, making it hard for students to be able to pass this test—especially the students coming from low-income families. This created controversy in the country, because it exposed Brazil to a larger socioeconomic inequality as the students more likely to succeed at this exam are the ones that have had access to online education. And with a great inequality in opportunities, the poverty cycle is likely to repeat itself. Luckily, the Minister of Education recently stated that the exams will be taking place about a month or two later—but the gap in education will still exist.

The impact of the pandemic on kids’ and teenagers’ education is an issue Ester is primarily concerned about, which is why she and her team from Mentoriza are determined to help students get a proper education during COVID-19. But Ester’s efforts towards improving her country’s education system initiated way before this pandemic. Ester and her team started in 2017 by organizing a nation-wide virtual youth conference (Conferência Virtual de Protagonismo Juvenil), in which they talked about topics such as Politics, Entrepreneurship, Human Rights, Mental Health, the Environment, among others. The purpose is to inform students and democratize access to important subjects they usually do not learn about in school. In 2018, the three-day event took place for the first time. “We expected to have 50 students attend the conference,” said Ester, “but we ended up hosting more than 450 people! We were beyond excited to know that we had created an impact in the lives of so many students.” In the following years, Ester and her team organized two more of these conferences, totalling more than 3500 attendees since their first event.

The Virtual Conference of Youth Leadership was such a hit, that the team decided to target even more people, so they started Eductus. Through the Eductus online platform, students will be able to learn socioemotional competencies and other 21st century abilities through a project-based approach while following UNESCO’s “4 Pillars of Education: learn to know, learn to be, learn to live together and learn to do.” This learning system goes beyond just memorizing facts. Basically, “we teach students abilities that are usually not taught in school… for example, self-knowledge, motivation and communication skills,” Ester explained, “we aim to provide a hybrid service between online and physical environments. This way, we can create a more human approach that has a longer lasting impact.”

But with the unexpected Coronavirus outbreak, the team expanded their original Eductus project, and decided to address the current situation. That is when Mentoriza was born. This venture follows Eductus’ mission of empowering students and giving them opportunities to grow academically and personally—but it has a relevant context to what most students are going through right now. In this project, every student is paired with a mentor that supports them with their studies, useful skills, and even mental health. “We want students to know that we are there for them,” Ester says. Similarly, lots of people have been there for Ester’s team, too: “It is amazing how many people have been volunteering to help us! Teachers and university students have reached out to us to become mentors. We’ve even received funding from the U.S. Embassy. With all this support, our goal is to reach more than 1000 people.”

Ester’s compelling idea of helping her country didn’t come out of the blue. What inspired her to start these projects was an eye-opening opportunity she had a few years back. Ester was chosen to participate in a governmental event that hosted students from every state in Brazil to live “a day in the life of a congress-representative.” There, they discussed relevant societal topics—just like the ones Ester teaches nowadays. She was fascinated by how these subjects could spark debate, and how different everyone’s opinions and perspectives were. “The experience was life-changing,” she admitted. It made her think, “what if more students in Brazil had access to all this information and these resources?” That is when she built a team that said “let’s create something!”

The story of Ester is a perfect example of how with a vision, hard work and a strong team, one is able to impact the lives of thousands of people—and even improve the system in one’s country. Now more than ever, it is important for everyone to take a moment to think about what can be done to help the people that need it the most. And like Ester, think about changing the way things work—be it in a pandemic or not.