Hannah, Outbound to Brazil

When I first arrived to Brazil, I was automatically placed in “ensino medio” (high school) because Rotary Youth Exchange is intended for high school students. I was the equivalent of a junior and studied there for about five months.

I really liked this time because it gave me a chance to catch onto Portuguese (taking notes in class and listening to lectures helped so much!) and to learn some basic things I needed to know, like important presidents and events from history.

When the school told me they didn’t have room for me the following year, I saw this as an opportunity to try something new. Rather than switch to another high school, I asked if I could go to university. Things worked out, and I have now been studying at a university for a few weeks.

My school is called UniBH and it's private. Something I’ve found interesting is that here, public universities are like Ivy-League schools: only the “best and brightest” get in and attend because they have entirely free tuition. It’s kind of paradoxical in the sense that in order to get in, you need to invest thousands of reais (dollars) into a private middle and high school education. The people that can afford to do that usually don’t need to worry about paying for college. Here, you have to pay for private universities, although the amount is significantly less than that of the United States. (But when looking at Brazilian salaries, it’s absurd).

My school has three different units in Belo Horizonte. I study at the largest unit. In all, the school has about 22,000 students currently enrolled, although you wouldn’t know it by taking a course. My “sala” (class) has about 33 students (based on the group chat) but on any given day, I’d say there’s significantly less, about 25 or so (unless there’s a test).

I am enrolled in the “relações internacionais” (international relations) course (equivalent to a major) here. The classes I’m taking include: Social sciences and anthropology; communication, diversity, and critical thinking; negotiation and bargaining; the modern history of international relations; and languages and international relations. Yes, they are all taught entirely in Portuguese. It’s awesome.

To be honest, I’ve been pretty confused so far. I started the semester about two months late, so I’ve missed a lot of material. I also entered halfway through most of the chapters so I missed the vast majority of the instruction for each of my classes. The students are currently taking tests, so I figure that once the next portion of material begins I’ll be able to catch on. Some of the professors have been really nice about this. They’ve sent me emails with prior readings enclosed or will take a brief second to recap a concept they’ve already gone over. (I can’t say this is entirely for me, but the fact they look me in the eyes as they do the recap makes me feel it is.)

As is frequently the case with Brazilians, I had no trouble being accepted. Everyone has been really nice, offering to let me join their groups for group work or letting me look over their shoulder as they complete assignments I don’t do. (I don’t have access to the computers or textbooks since I’m not a legitimate, paying student, so everyone has been really helpful with this).

I’ve made one pretty good friend in the class named Italo. He’s honestly hilarious and I live for his stories about times he was robbed and his love for Mary Kay, which he sells to afford tuition. If I’m ever confused about a meeting place or class activity, I go to him.

Every day, I go to school at 7:40 and finish at 11:40. As my school days end so early, I’ve acquired two awesome internships for the rest of my time in Brazil.

Internship number one is at UniBH working in, well, whatever they want! I’m split between two “bosses”: Leticia and Janaina. I work with Leticia on Mondays and Wednesdays. I usually get to work from home since most of the work for her is online making presentations on topics from my life in the United States to my opinions on Brazil. We meet to discuss what I’ve been doing and so I can receive feedback. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I work in an office with a lovely group of people.

So far, I’ve been doing really random work. I’ve mostly been working on activities for students. They’re having a party for the World Cup and I was responsible for planning activities for each country playing. I chose things like crash courses for K-Pop for Korea and rock bands for England.

Last Tuesday, I was asked to give an interview to the school TV station. I’m sure a looked like a complete fool – the moment the camera turned on, my Portuguese stopped working. But it’s okay! It was a hilarious experience for me and everyone was really nice anyway.

This internship has turned out to be one of my favorite parts of my experience at UniBH! Especially the days in the office. I have my own desk and computer, which makes it feel serious. The ladies I work with are a ton of fun. Every day at about 4pm, the girl who sits across from me, Rafa, brings in pao de queijo, which always makes me smile. Everyone is always offering to make me coffee or tea or to get me water. This just goes back to the hospitality of Brazilians.

Last Saturday, one of my coworkers had a birthday party. I went and it was really great to get to know them in a non-work setting. I can assure you, it will not be the last time I go out with them.

For me, this is really exciting because it shows just how good my Portuguese has gotten. I can understand just about everything except for some “giria” (slang), which they have no problem clarifying for me. Most of the people I work with don’t speak English and I love this.

My second “internship” is less of an internship and more like sporadic volunteer work. I wrote before about Rita Rico, an American diplomat living in Belo Horizonte, and how I met with her to discuss her work. She put me in touch with a man named Leandro. Leandro works as an “educational consultant” at a company called Education USA.

Basically, Education USA is an institution that aims at promoting American culture and the English language. They have events at middle and high schools to talk about life in America. They have english classes. They also help Brazilian students navigate exchange years and the college application process in the United States.

Because part of the State Department’s goal is to promote and share American culture, Education USA has a partnership with the State Department. That’s the reason Rita is involved with them.

My work there mostly involves American culture. So far, I’ve gone into english classes and tried to engage students in conversation. Because I’m a native speaker, this is really valuable for them. Most of the students have never met an American or heard one speaking in real life. It warms my heart to see how excited they get when they can effectively communicate with me.

I also have been asked to give presentations on aspects of American culture. Leandro says I’m a gift from God because the week I reached out to him, he was told to speak about American high school, a topic he knows nothing about. I prepared and gave an hour long presentation about my high school in America, which is a topic I’m always eager to talk about. After I finished, I had three girls come up to me and ask about how to apply to school in the United States. It was a great feeling to see how excited my presentation had made them.

I think these “internships” are really great ways to spend my time. It’s a really good way to get to know people I’d never know otherwise. It’s also a really good way to give back. At first, I was worried that this would mean I never get to see my friends, but it just means my days are a little more rich (and a little more busy). I usually go to school, come home for lunch, go back for work, and then go straight from work to seeing my friends. It’s definitely a “correria” (rush) as Brazilians would say, but it’s pretty fun!

I have to say, Rotary was right. I am nine months into my exchange and only have 47 days until I’m back. I’m dreading it. I finally spend my time productively, have a good grasp on the language, have good friends (both Brazilian and other exchange students). I finally have a life I really love, where I would change nothing. I’m really content. I’m really happy. And as soon as I get used to this, I have to go back. It is not a good feeling. Regardless, I am blessed to have had such a wonderful opportunity, and I look forward to making the most of the next 47 days. It’s certainly flying by.

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