Manuel Fernández, “Lolo”, as everyone calls him, is a young man from Martorell who, like so many other Roma, stopped studying at a young age. He has nonetheless decided to change course and go back to school. He is now enrolled in a university access programme for people over the age of 25. He wants to study sociology and set an example for his family and other Roma in his town. In addition, Lolo is a driving force behind CampusRom, an activist network created to support Roma who aspire to make it to university.
Why did you decide to resume your studies?
The truth is that until recently I did not believe at all in the education system. But one day, and for the first time in my life, I was told I could make it to university, and that made me question myself and really think that I could achieve something like that. And after learning about the University Access Group (part of the Comprehensive Plan for the Roma People) I took the decision to start studying again.
What does your family think about you going back to school?
My family is thrilled over the idea of seeing me at university. Although they are somewhat sceptical, I am becoming a kind of standard-bearer for all of them. Not only is it the first time my daughters – aged twelve, ten and six – have heard the word “university” pronounced, it is also the first time for my cousins and friends.
What sacrifices will going back to school entail?
I realise that the atmosphere in which I was raised often collides with the path I have chosen. Reorganising my time and my life is problematic, as I am at once the father of four children, a husband, a son and a brother. Going to work while trying to create a study routine, finding the time to study and doing homework is not at all easy. And as an evangelical Christian, finding the time to take part in religious activities is also hard.
What does education mean to you?
It means having a future, possibilities and opportunities. Education is the thing that can provide the tools needed to get a good job, and the opportunity to make a positive contribution to society.
What’s your opinion of the educational system as it relates to Roma?
I think that considerable inequality exists. The statistics speak for themselves: only 7 of every 1,000 Roma ever make it to higher education, while the same figure for non-Roma is 400 out of every 1,000.
The difficulties start at an early age. In primary school, many Romani children do not get the same education as non-Romani kids. Because they are Roma, their curriculums are often adapted, and many teachers think “they’ll just end up at the market”.
The situation gets worse in high school. Stark disparities in scholastic achievement are a constant reality. Roma students tend to be placed in low-performing classrooms, which sometimes don’t even have books.
This scenario leads to Romani students either failing or dropping out. No child wants to be made fun of at school, or to have a level of studies so low that they can’t enter or be successful at higher levels. This largely explains the failure of Romani students at the secondary and higher education levels.
In addition, public schools in districts with large Romani populations are not the same as those in other districts. If the education that Roma in Sant Roc or La Mina get is of good quality, then why don’t the teachers at these schools send their own kids to them?
What can the Romani people and culture contribute to higher education?
It has been scientifically proven that poverty is much more expensive to society than success or social inclusion. I also believe that it’s a question of diversity, of each culture sharing its richness in order to enrich all cultures. Nor should we turn a blind eye to social justice, as Roma have suffered from the effects of racism, segregation and many other hardships just for being Roma. I think it’s time for us to get the rights that are due to us.
You helped launch a network of Romani students called CampusRom, of which you are currently one of its coordinators. What led you to the founding of this organisation?
The main reason CampusRom was created was simply to reverse the shameful statistic regarding the number of Roma in higher education. The network creates a space where Roma with similar lives and who experience similar difficulties can support each other to achieve a common goal. It’s a network in which Roma who have made it to university can help others by encouraging them and serving as examples. Romani youth are increasingly demanding equal access to employment and educational opportunities. In that regard, the moment for Romani youth has arrived.
How can one join this network?
It is currently made up of students who have taken the university entrance course for students over the age of 25 organised by the Comprehensive Plan for the Roma People. We are Roma who have decided to organise in order to help ourselves and to help others. CampusRom is designed to facilitate the path of Roma to university and provide them with guidance and support. It is our aim to provide assistance to all Romani students in Catalonia who are pursuing educational equality and success.
CampusRom is open to all Romani students who are trying to enter university or any other higher level training programme, and also to those who have already achieved this.
What are your goals?
Currently, to offer support, guidance and assistance to Romani students who are now or will soon embark on an educational journey, and especially to those who aspire to higher education. We also aim to encourage the participation and leadership of Romani students involved in some sort of educational process. Moreover, we offer advice and work with public and private organisations and institutions to foster the educational success of all Romani students.
We also want to contribute to overcoming stereotypes and prejudices towards Roma by bringing alternative profiles to public light, particularly those of young Roma actively pursuing higher education.
What would you say to other Roma who, like you, left school prematurely?
I would say that the educational system has for a long time made us believe that we’re no good at this, that studies are for gadje (non-Roma), but this is a lie! The fact that we’re told that we can’t doesn’t mean that we can’t, and I am – as are many others – the proof! They should give themselves another chance to learn that studying is worth it, not only because it opens doors to a better future, but because it makes us better people and gives us stronger values and an open mind to help us take the most important decisions of our lives.