Embracing Awkwardness and the Unknown: How Brazil Changed Me

“Yeah, abroad, like, changes you. I’m just, like, more sophisticated now… I just feel, like, I’m, like, supposed to be from abroad.” She stumbles through the rest of her monologue which lists the reasons she feels transformed. Those include getting a boyfriend, seeing tourist sites, and drinking. Speaking of drinking, she is saying all this while holding a glass of wine in one hand and twirling her hair with the other. Doesn’t sound too convincing, right? Prior to going abroad – to Brazil – several Facebook friends tagged me in this comedy sketch that heightened the often annoying and all-knowing way people talk about their study abroad experience. I never thought I would be that person. Yet, abroad really did, like, change me. Not, because I got a Brazilian boyfriend (that did not happen) or saw two wonders of the world (this did happen), but because the people I spoke to, the stories I heard, and the sights I saw truly transformed how I approach life now.

Long before going to abroad to Sao Paulo, Brazil, I embarked on another journey: one of self-improvement, or rather, self-empowerment. I sought to better understand myself so I could be my best self. For this, I was constantly reflecting on career paths, creative interests, social relationships, financial needs, and mental and physical health. But after being in Brazil I realized where I had been failing in that journey. I was retreating inward to find those answers and was not allowing anyone else (not family or friends) in. I figured all that reflecting should be done in private, yet, as a naturally extroverted person I was cutting myself short in doing that. If you are physically lost and without phone service, you ask people for directions. It makes no sense to try to find your way alone. Being in a new environment made me realize that. I both figuratively and literally (I had no international data) cut myself off from the comfort and talked to people to find my way to where I am now. Here is what I learned.

I was often really overwhelmed by the question, “What do you want to do after school?” I am a rising senior and while finding a job has never been a point of anxiety for me, finding a job that I truly love has. All my life I thought I wanted to go into the political field, specifically, run for office or work on a public officer’s team. I have had three political internships and although I enjoyed myself, made friends, and learned a lot, the most important thing I learned is that I was not inspired to do this for the rest of my life. What does inspire me is affecting and seeing change on the ground. I learned this after working six summers at a community-based health center. Again, while I loved the team and am grateful for the invaluable skills I gained there, after six summers I felt burnt out and empty. Especially, because the nonprofit sector requires people to wear so many hats at once, which while rewarding can be exhausting.

In my semester abroad, through interactions, observation, and theory, I have gained a better sense of what I want to do or just more generally, how to approach my career path. First, what immediately struck me, visually, about Brazilian professionals as I walked down Avenida Paulista (their Fifth Ave) is the amount of leeway afforded to them regarding identity. The stiff, stuck-up, snobby professional culture that is so prevalent in DC and most of the US was absent. Young professionals were much more fashion forward. It was not uncommon to see them tatted up or with a dozen piercings. I don’t necessarily want that for me (all the tattoos and piercings), but I did generally vibe well with the openness, particularly as a gay man. I want a workspace like that. One where I can take more creative liberties with style. That kind of expectation definitely informs career paths. You are hard-pressed to find a lawyer or public official who has those liberties. Yet, in the public relations (PR) field there is much more self-expression because while there are rules to the profession, it is a creative and communicative one. Expressive people are at its heart. So, at least, I know I have that right.

In terms of where I want my PR degree to take me in May, I want it to take me into the sector I always said I refused to join: the private sector. For my Poverty & Inequality course, I wrote a paper about philanthropy in Brazil. In writing that paper, I learned so much about the ways in which the non-profit sector, which I always saw as honest and sacred, does wrong. In so many non-profits, little to no money actually reaches the communities it needs to reach. Additionally, because of government bureaucracy, so many non-profit initiatives cannot gain traction. Since the government generally, but especially depending on who is in power, does so little to reach underserved communities, but promotes the business/private sector so much, I have figured, why don’t I go into that sector and make my change there? Because there is less bureaucracy, decisions are made faster and projects move faster – and many of those decisions and projects can help stimulate development and growth. Change does not only come out of political movements but out of business. Creative businesses are especially crucial as they support the distribution of messages and resources that affect change.

While I have become ambivalent towards identity politics, I do believe that the more queer, Latino, and first-generation people (who are truly down with the cause) we can get into all sectors (including private) the better off the world will be. A diversity of experiences allows us to truly work as a better, more cohesive team. The diversity of experiences are not just limited to identity, but previous career paths too. I learned while abroad that I want to work somewhere where I can work with and learn from a variety of causes, not just one. I learned this, again, through my essay for Poverty & Inequality, where I learned about several nonprofits and businesses that were joining resources into coalitions with the common goal to combat poverty, but each focused on different communities. For that reason, a coalition or something like a firm (with different community-based clients) would be ideal for me.

That diversity of experience is also achieved by simply working somewhere else. Prior to study abroad, I never considered working somewhere outside of the United States, but now it feels like much more of a possibility. From a young age, the United States has been forced down my throat as the only land of opportunity by other Americans, but also by my own parents who immigrated from the Dominican Republic. But after being in Brazil and seeing how similar (and at times better) the work can be, my mind has been changed and expanded. My roommate, Joao, told me that at his internship he gets a monthly salary, a lunch card, a commute card, dental insurance benefits, and half of his gym membership paid. That is not just his internship. That is a standard. I can barely find internships that pay, let alone ones that offer all that. So, working abroad, particularly where the cost of living can be so much lower than in the United States, as is the case in Brazil, is a new possibility.

Being abroad afforded me an amount of emotional maturity and social competence I thought I already had but was clearly lacking. As bad as political matters may be in the US, in my day-to-day, I am comfortable. I know how to navigate different settings and structures at home well. I adapt easily. Culture shock? I don’t know her. That is how I approached going abroad. But I met culture shock. A lot. Especially because I arrived knowing no Portuguese, I was thrown into uncomfortable and messy situations all the time. So, I was forced out of my comfort zone and into the awkwardness I so often fear.

No longer could I just go about my day inside my head and protecting myself from the outside world via my headphones. I had to put my music away so that I could be really attentive. There were so many new stimuli to soak up which I would have missed had I hid behind my headphones. New stimuli include new people. By taking off my headphones, I became so much more approachable to people and had really impactful conversations. So many people were looking for the same cultural exchange I was. As a foreigner, I was just as interesting to them as they were to me and I learned it was only fair to open myself up to them as reciprocity for being allowed into their space – and Brazilians really do let you in I learned. On my first day, my Uber driver called his daughter for me because he spoke no English but she did. She offered me advice on where to eat, where to go out, and what to sight-see.

I felt much more emboldened to do things for myself. I took those tips I received on the first day and went out, taking myself on “mini-dates”, many times. I did make really great friends with other students, but I knew that if I hung around them all the time I would not grow, because they represented a piece of home and were comfortable. One pretty bold thing I did was plan a long-distance trip completely alone. I chose to go to Iguazu Falls, which I had wanted to go to my entire life, but finances and scheduling did not work for many of my friends. Rather than sit on the plan like I might usually do, I went anyway. While I traveled alone and was disconnected from the Internet, I was not truly alone. I talked to many other tourists while there and even became really great friends with my Airbnb host. We still talk to this day. The trip was a truly immersive, reflective experience. I learned you can’t wait on life and sometimes you just have to pack up your things, set out, and explore.

This all is not to say you can never learn from what is comfortable. One of the most worthwhile things that came out of the trip was my friendship with three other Dominican girls. Those roots, my Dominican roots, I realized have often been missing from my college experience. So, being with three other Dominicans brought them right out in me. I learned so much about what is currently happening in Dominican pop culture, how to incorporate self-care routines and fitness activities better suited to me with this background, and stopped code-switching how I speak to appease hegemonic white culture all the time. Being around the girls also made me realize how much more I should be appreciating my family and so, I called my mom basically every day, instead of waiting the week or two weeks I would normally because I was “too busy”.

Missing my family, and other things from home which seemed small, such as my bike or a favorite restaurant, was hard at first. The first few weeks I rode a definite high because everything was brand new and Carnaval was happening, which is the best distraction, but after that, I hit a big low. A lot of my friends in the program hit that low and that solidarity – that shared feeling – was very conducive to my growth. I realized it is OK and normal to not be OK 100 percent of the time. My friends in the program were very emotionally honest and forward about their feelings. This pushed me to be that way as well. I learned that communicating how you feel, even if awkward and uncomfortable, helps you avoid misunderstandings with people you care about in the long run.

I learned so much more about myself than I expected during my time abroad. What I most looked forward to when applying to the Brazil program was learning about the country and culture. Besides my PR major, I am working towards a Sociology minor and the subject matter of the program fit my interests really well. We discuss matters of poverty, politics, inequality, and society basically every day be it in class, with roommates, or through interactions with NGOs or even strangers. All this intellectual and emotional stimulus has pushed me to use the same tools we have been using to analyze those topics on myself. I have basically left my own body and have been watching myself – how I relate to Brazilian culture, to other Americans, to other Dominicans. I have had so much time to analyze myself and I am so unbelievably appreciative for this opportunity. I feel like I will leave a much better version of myself that can go out into the world better equipped to now enact that change I am always longing for and aiding people to feel more comfortable in their own skin as well.

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