Student Voices — “I Was Nervous to Study Abroad in Rio de Janeiro”

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Kiah Zellner-Smith
March 22, 2016

In 2013, we sent our first group of students to study abroad in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Like many study abroad students, they were worried about what studying in Rio would be like. But with their bags they also packed up curiosity, bravery, and acceptance of the unknown, and embarked on their transformative semester in Brazil.

Three years later, we spoke with a few of these students about their initial apprehensions to studying abroad in Rio de Janeiro, how they overcame them, and what their thoughts were after living, learning, and falling in love with the cidade maravilhosa. Here’s what they had to say!

Denney C. 
University of California, Berkeley
Financial Analyst

“Rio favors open minds and open hearts. Come see how Rio will surpass your expectations.

The fear that most likely comes first for anyone considering studying abroad in Rio de Janeiro has to be the concern of safety. If you’re not afraid, then just come. 

Come feed off the energy of the people, their natural yet fast-paced leisure, and their passion for life. But if you’re like the rest of us, and you are concerned…consider this: safety goes beyond what most would think. Think of the safety bubble we have created for ourselves, our personal space, our personal opinions, our values, our goals. We all have developed that sense of safety, and it gets solidified the longer we accept complacency and traveling on its own doesn’t disrupt this. 

I came to Rio with a specific goal in mind. Rio is the home to my sport, and I was purely dedicated to that pursuit, almost creating a shell around me in an unconscious attempt to protect myself. Maybe it was protection against the fear of a new land, a new language, new friends, how you ride the bus, how you greet others, etc. 

I was happy with the small things, it was fun. But I missed the bigger picture. By being in that shell, I was constantly trying to figure out what Rio was trying to say as opposed to me actually listening. The night I made the decision to just let go and listen, I realized the beauty of my city. My relationships became deeper, my love of the culture exploded, and a major key was that my self-identity was crystalized.

When you’re in such a foreign land, you start to have epiphanies on what you love based on what you miss and what you don’t. What wasn’t important before became prioritized. What I held onto for dear life was easy to let go. It was transformative and that is why you should be worried. If you’re not ready to change in some capacity, then don’t come. If you are, then Rio is waiting.

How to overcome this fear is not to tell someone that danger doesn’t exist, because it does. But the same can be said for L.A., Chicago, and Miami. What I’m trying to give to others considering this journey is this: Rio isn’t a city where you get out what you put in. It just gives and gives and gives, and it’s up to the person to be open. Own the fear because you need it to see the significance of it all. The city…it’s vibrant. The people are incredibly passionate and wear their emotion on the sleeves of their soccer jerseys. At its heart, it is a city, within a jungle, surrounding a lagoon, surrounded by mountains, up against the most beautiful beaches, and, at its peak, it’s protected by the Crist de Redentor.

This is a special place. A place all my other destinations have been compared against time and time again; I’m thankful to have made the decision to go.  It’s just like a roller coaster ride, if you’re considering taking part, let go.”

Nikki V.
University of South Carolina
Division Financial Analyst, FLDP

“My biggest fear was moving to a city that many American's considered violent and unsafe. I can honestly say I was most terrified of coming face-to-face with the movie version of Brazilian life. I imagined violent protests between police and civilians and slums as far as the eye could see. I couldn't imagine how I, as a 5'4" female with little Portuguese knowledge, was supposed to survive in a place like Rio, let alone make it my home.

One thing I did to overcome this fear was educate myself on my surroundings. I tried my best to make sure I wasn't a tourist walking aimlessly; instead, I was like any other civilian getting to where I needed to go. I liked learning about the people around me and how Brazilians viewed things as opposed to my American ideological approach. By gaining an understanding of the Brazilian people, I began to recognize the emotion behind their civil unrest. I began to grasp the concept of the where, the why, and the how of the slums I was seeing. I became more aware of how petty theft operated around me and, in turn, was able to avoid it.

As I became more comfortable and educated on my surroundings, Rio didn't seem like such a big scary place anymore. One thing I realized was that violence and theft happened around me every day in America, but because I was comfortable with my surroundings, I didn't live every day in fear. Eventually the same level of comfort came in Rio de Janeiro. I think it is easy to be scared of what you don't understand, and it’s easy to want to change your environment and make it similar to what you are used to, but then what are you really learning? How are you really changing your global perspective?

My best advice for a student is to come to Rio with an open mind and a willingness to understand the environment around you, instead of only comparing it to what you know. After your preconceived perception of the city fades away, you will be able to see it for what it really is.”

Brandon M.
Penn State University
CPA-Associate, Accounting

“When you google ‘Rio de Janeiro’ and ‘safety’, Brazil comes up as one of the most violent countries in the world. It’s kind of seems like a no-go zone because of how dangerous it is, and that was really scary for me. Even our first week abroad we had a federal agent come in and talk about all these horror stories he’d witnessed. And my host mom told me all this stuff about how people should behave to be safe and what rules to follow—like staying with a group of friends, never venturing out by yourself—just a lot of stuff you would do normally, but in Rio you need a heightened sense of awareness. Everything happens so much faster in Rio and in Brazil. I think [needing street smarts] is true in any country you go to. It’s a risk you take, but as long you’re aware and know where you are, you’ll be fine. It’s just a matter of knowing the dangers and always being with people.

Rio is totally unlike anywhere else you could ever go in the world. The culture and the people are so different than the rest of the world, it’s something you just have to go and experience for yourself. Rio was very vibrant. Everyone there is so full life, they all have dreams they’re trying to achieve, and they’re all trying to be better people. Everywhere you go is teeming with life, with people, and with energy. It’s a vibe you don’t see anywhere else. That energy stayed with me more than anything else."

Kiah Z.S.
Macalester College
Marketing Assistant, IES Abroad

“Being part of the first group to study abroad with IES Abroad in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, meant there were no alumni, Ambassadors, or even advisors who could speak to questions that I had about the program or city. This meant using the Internet to learn about Brazil…which also meant that most of what I was reading were intimidating and frightening news stories, statistics, and warnings that painted a one-sided picture of this complicated, chaotic, and multi-faceted city.

Despite the inherent challenges of living in a densely populated, urban, South American, city—I know the struggles we faced necessitated our deep connection to the city and to one another other. Concerns of safety pushed us to experience study abroad in an almost ‘accelerated’ way. We had to learn the basics of Portuguese quickly to find our way around that winding mosaic of a city. As a small group we looked out for each other, and we became a family because of our constant awareness and concern for one another. It was not always easy—but growing never is. 

It took me months after studying in Rio to truly come to terms with everything I had seen and experienced there. I felt unsettled and perplexed by how one city could contain so many contrasting truths. These truths showcased both the beauty of humanity, and its tragic injustices. But when I finally stopped trying to fit Rio into a box, I felt a comforting sense of closure that I hadn’t before.

Rio is what it is, and it’s as simple and complicated as that. It’s a city that exists outside any normative framework, and that’s exactly what makes it so intoxicating. You don’t get to have the friendly, rhapsodic Rio without also coming face-to-face with its gritty underbelly. And as strange as it is to say, I’m telling you—you wouldn’t want it any other way.”

Michael T.
Carnegie Mellon University
Research Assistant, University of Pennsylvania

“I wasn’t really afraid of any particular thing about studying abroad in Rio. It was more of a fear of the unknown. There are so many things spinning through your head, an infinite number of experiences that could happen. Who am I going to meet? Am I going to like these people? Who am I going to live with? Who are my classmates going to be? There is really no point pretending you know what the experience is going to be like, because you don’t. All of the stereotypes in the world; what your parents and friends are saying…what the media says… ‘You’re going to Rio? Isn’t it dangerous there?’

It’s easy to become skeptical or afraid when so many people close to you are trying to sell their expectations of what they think your experience of a place they’ve never been to will be like. You have to just open yourself up to new opportunities and see for yourself. Can Rio be dangerous? Yes. Are metropolitan cities in the United States just as dangerous? I would argue yes. You have to keep your wits about you, just don’t put yourself in a position to be taken advantage of, and you will be fine.

So how did I overcome my fears and apprehensions? I trusted my intuition and relationships with the people I met in Rio de Janeiro, and I was lucky enough to be surrounded by a very genuine and unique group of individuals who really made my semester the best four months of my life.”

Zeleyka F.
University of Rochester
Doctoral Candidate, Clinical Psychology

“My biggest fear about studying abroad in Rio was security and safety. The decision to go to Rio is so different from the more popular study abroad destinations for undergraduate students, such as England, Spain, Italy, or France. All of these ‘more developed’ countries make people have a greater sense of security abroad in comparison to spending a semester or a year abroad in Third World countries.

As someone who has enjoyed traveling independently in the past, I was willing to take advantage of the opportunity to go somewhere a little bit different from my peers, and I thought the experience would be rewarding and unique. Of course, my family had mixed emotions about me living abroad in Rio, in someone else's home, for almost half a year, but I worked hard to convince them that it would be a safe and worthwhile experience, and most likely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Before going to Rio, I did my research in hopes of increasing my awareness and cultural competency. I also wanted to have some realistic expectations before going away for so long. I knew there were issues regarding violence and unrest within the favelas, and that it would be wise to practice ‘street smarts’ and take precaution regarding things like traveling alone—especially at night as a young woman and a foreigner with no Portuguese language experience.

As a study abroad student in any country, there are going to be a plethora of experiences that are wonderful, and there may also be some experiences that are uncomfortable or unexpected. All of those experiences combined are important in the overall adventure that students choose to embark on when they make the decision to study abroad. I think I overcame some of the fears that I had regarding safety issues by being honest and upfront about my feelings with myself, my cohort abroad, and with the directors of our program.

As the pilot group, we were the first ones to experience what IES Abroad Rio de Janeiro had to offer, and I think that the program gave us all a wonderful experience. I felt that they cared about our well- being, listened to our concerns, and were always working to accommodate our needs. From what I have heard, the program has added even more activities and different trips to add to the cultural experience of being in Rio. As long as it is safe for American students to travel to Brazil, I think the program offers something very unique to students; it is a truly unforgettable experience.“

Check out our student blogs for more advice, travel tips, and first-hand accounts of what's happening at our Centers around the world. Ready to take the leap and start the semester of a lifetime? Head to our program pages to learn more about our study abroad programs in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, or give us a call at 800.995.2300 to chat!

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Kiah Zellner-Smith

IES Abroad News

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