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Friday, September 19, 2014

Student Spotlight: Amanda White

Amanda White
by Ann Abbott

I have already featured Amanda White on this blog several times. However, the other day she sent an email about her Fulbright experience in Brazil that just blew me away. It touched on so many things that are important to me and many of you.
  • Her love of languages.
  • Her nostalgia for the countries in which she has lived and studied.
  • Her abilities and challenges as a student of the liberal arts.
  • Her ability to see how languages, countries and cultures all connect and influence each other.
I'll let her message speak for itself. 

Oi pessoal!!!

I've just caught up on rest after two weeks of traveling in Brazil and realized it's time for another update. This one will be a bit longer to share about my travels in São Paulo. To see photos from São Paulo click here. By next week (hopefully), I will send another email about my travels in Rio de Janeiro, Iguazu Falls, and Salvador.

The Fulbright midyear seminar in São Paulo last month was really great! I'm happy I got to visit São Paulo, the biggest city in the Americas with about 20 million people living in the metropolitan area and about 12 million in the city center. The city also boasts one of the largest immigrant communities in Brazil. I especially loved this and enjoyed the diversity particularly through food (Uberlândia lacks in this area, Brazilian/Mineiro cuisine 24/7 with the exception of one Mexican, one Thai restaurant, and lots of sushi).

For the first time in months, I enjoyed spicy Indian cuisine. My absolute favorite was finding a Spanish tapas bar and restaurant. The name of such a fine establishment? Sancho Bar y Tapas (as in my literary heroes Sancho Panza and Don Quijote de la Mancha!!). By far, one of the best meals I have ever had. The decor was spot on. As we walked in, I saw the bar lined with pinxos (pronounced pinchos) just like in Northern Spain. Bottles of wine were stacked along the brick walls and legs of jamón hung from the ceiling with care. The restaurant layout was long, stretching into the back, and narrow just like many European buildings.

Spanish was everywhere. Quotes from Spanish poets and writers were written on the brick walls with chalk. The menu had dry red wine (not very easy to find in Brazil. Brazilians tend to love sweeter things, including their wine). Bullfighting posters hung on the walls along with pictures and paintings capturing well-known moments from Don Quijote de la Mancha (DQ and Sancho were everywhere in this place). I especially loved the Spanish and Brazilian flags hanging side by side on the wall. I was in my element. I had the best of both worlds in a single place. 

The food was delicious and the waiters even spoke Spanish. We had such a good time. At one point during dinner, I turned to my friend Amber (my orientation roommate in Brasilia and ETA in Rio Grande do Sul aka, gaucho land), we grasped each other by the arm and within seconds of the other we sighed, "I think I'm going to cry." Cry from pure joy of course! Great ambiance, great food, great company.

We also enjoyed a few of the museums in São Paulo. My favorite was the Portuguese Language Museum. A museum about a language? Yes! It was super cool and interactive. It was fun to see the linguistic influences of Brazil's indigenous languages, African languages (due to the slave trade), French, English, Spanish, and Arabic in shaping Portuguese over the centuries. I particularly enjoyed reading on a giant, wall-sized timeline about the influence of Arabic on Portuguese. It shares similar history to Spain, in which the Moors occupied the Iberian Peninsula for several centuries. I tend to forget about Portugal as part of the Iberian Peninsula (oopsies). Then of course, the Americas were "discovered" and Arabic influenced Portuguese arrived to the new world. I find it so fascinating how languages are malleable and ever changing.  

Another really cool museum was the Soccer Museum, located in the same stadium where Pelé scored over 200 goals. Charles Miller, born to a Scottish father and Brazilian mother with English descent in the state of São Paulo, is credited as the father of soccer for Brazil. When he was young, his parents sent him to school in England where he was introduced to soccer. He later brought two soccer balls, cleats, and a rulebook back to Brazil. The rest is history. Inside the museum they also share World Cup history, information on Brazil's most influential footballers, and more. I have never missed playing soccer so much until living in Brazil.

The conference was very well done just like our orientation. It was really fun to see everyone again and swap stories. Many of us shared the same feelings about our overall experience despite our very different locations. It was comforting and validating, even encouraging. Besides lectures, we participated in group activities and attended workshops lead by fellow ETAs. We enjoyed company from the Argentina and Uruguay ETAs (their programs are much, much smaller than ours. I also mistakenly said Paraguay in the last email). It was interesting to hear about their experience as well. 

One of my favorite speakers was Tom Healy, the Chairman of the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board (le gasp!). He, his 11 fellow board members, and thousands of petitioners successfully fought hard to protect the Fulbright program from major federal budget cuts (I sent an email about this earlier in the year). For now, the program stays as is. I encourage you to read the history of the Fulbright Program here. 

Stemming from that discussion, Mr. Healy shared why he thought intercultural programs are so important even in this age and how we show its importance and success since we live in a quantitative era desiring specific measurements. So, what are we quantifying and testing for in programs like the Fulbright? How is it measured? Well, it's hard to measure because.... 

...basically, we as Fulbrighters, and by extension study abroad students and other cultural exchange participants, are US ambassadors working on the ground with everyday people in their everyday lives. Fulbright also welcomes exchange students from other countries to the US. Through these interactions, we build friendships, trust, and mutual understanding between cultures. This is the main focus instead of metrics and data. It may not seem like a big deal, but it truly is. When we make friends, we lose enemies and gain allies. Sounds peaceful, right? 

Mr. Healy is a poet and Liberal Arts and Science (LAS) guy to the core. A fellow ETA asked Mr. Healy if his present self could give his 22-year-old-self advice, what would it be? Mr. Healy responded, "I would say to worry less about defining yourself. Ease up on yourself, you'll be just fine." 

This really resonated with me, and I think many other ETAs felt the same way. Mr. Healy believes that LAS students and alumni (like me) in particular experience a great deal of pressure to be, to find something, or have a title if they are not entering a specialized profession. I've struggled with this and spoken to some friends and family members about the subject. I found Mr. Healy's words encouraging and validating. My path is unconventional and that's more than okay. One way I can ease up on myself is to stop using conventional norms to guide my unconventional journey.  

These were some of the highlights in São Paulo. Others included sharing specialized coffee at Coffee Lab in the bohemian neighborhood Vila Madalena, seeing amazing street art in Beco de Batman, walking in Ibirapuera Park, and visiting the Afro-Brazilian Museum within the park. It was fun to experience the local culture and enjoy the enormous city after our daily conference activities. 

I have about 9 more weeks in Brazil, which will be over in the blink of an eye. We ETAs spent months anticipating the midyear seminar in São Paulo. Once it was over, it was hard to say goodbye. Luckily, I will see some of my ETA friends in the States when we visit each other and keep in touch. It's amazing how despite not knowing each other very personally, we become very close when together. 

I think this is because we share a unique experience, which few outside of such an experience could fully understand and relate to like culture shock, language barriers, and expat lifestyles unless they've had similar circumstances elsewhere. I don't consider this bad. It's just a different way I relate with others in different relationships. I enjoyed witnessing this bring us together and feeling a sense of family when so far away from my own. I'm very grateful for it. 

Thank you for reading through this e-mail (as well as each one I've sent!). I know it was a bit lengthy, especially because I doubt I will write a blog post anytime soon. I'm doing my best to be present in each moment while away from the computer, and not to cut those enjoyable moments short. 

Stay tuned for Rio de Janeiro, Iguazu Falls, and Salvador. Hope everyone back home is well!

Um abração,

Amanda 

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