When I told people that I was going to Rio de Janeiro for my year abroad, I received a variety of reactions. Some were surprised, others were worried, and some were excited on my behalf. Overall it wasn’t a positive. I was presented with scare stories and countless ‘but what if’s, which is not the most encouraging thing to be met with as you prepare for your year abroad. I was so worried by the comments that I briefly debated whether to change my mind. However I realised I had the support of my parents and the support of both Warwick, as my home university, and Fundação Getulio Vargas (FGV), as my host university. I was confident that neither of these would leave me in a situation where I was in danger and so I decided to go ahead with my original plan, and I am so glad that I did.
The phrase ‘life changing experience’ can at times be overused but I truly feel like there is no other way to describe the time that I spent, studying, in Brazil. One thing that really augmented my experience was my involvement in extra-curricular activities alongside my studies. Doing this not only immersed me more fully in Carioca culture it developed skills that will be valuable in the future. I briefly explore some of the activities I got involved in whilst studying in Rio to encourage you to make the most of your time abroad!
At Warwick, I had been a member of the Black Women’s Project, a community that promotes the holistic wellbeing of Black women in higher education. I am passionate about supporting Black women and this was something that I knew that I wanted to continue whilst abroad. I would really encourage anyone who is going to study abroad to follow their interests. If there’s something that you’ve either done at Warwick, or wanted to try but not been able to, make the most of any opportunities during your year abroad. It’s a great opportunity to gain a different perspective or approach to something that you think you know. I volunteered as a conversation class leader with ‘A Ponte Para Pretxs’, an organisation that support the upskilling and professional development of Afro-Brazilians in Rio. This became the highlight of my week and gave me the chance to learn more about the Black/Afro-Brazillian experience and share my own experience as a Black British woman. I organised my time to ensure that I could plan lessons and check ‘homework’ but this was also a learning experience for me as we explored a wide range of topics which helped me learn about Rio and Brazil. I built strong connections with the women in my group, which I know will last for a long time.
Another activity where I made some incredible friends was dance. I was part of ‘Amigos da Onca’, a bloco de carnaval. This is a street band that parades during Carnival, performing to crowds and carnival goers. Before going abroad, I had set myself a few challenges. One of those was ‘committing’. I had a bad habit of starting things; a sport, an instrument, a language, pursuing it for a while and then stopping, usually for no good reason. This was something that I wanted to change and so when I started dance I challenged myself to be 100% committed, this meant attending all the training sessions, rehearsals, shows and obviously the final performance at Botafogo bay during Carnaval.
At times I was dancing at least 6 hours a week but I’m very proud to say I that I stuck with my goal, and I know that I’m better for that experience. I showed myself how determined I can be and the rewards of seeing something through to the end. Learning dances in a language that I initially didn’t understand made the experience even more interesting, but I’d encourage everyone to not be put off due to language skills (or the lack of them). Going to dance actually helped my Portuguese as I was away from the international bubble that I had at uni. This has made me more confident in situations that I am unfamiliar with or where I may feel like I’m at a disadvantage. I’ve learnt how to think on my feet, learn as I go and make myself comfortable in new circumstances.
I am certain that my experience studying abroad would have been incredible regardless of where I went, but I’m so happy that I went to Rio. Branching out and seeking activities to do alongside studying enhanced my experience. I have learnt to put myself outside of my comfort zone and enjoy it. Working, dancing, and volunteering were all experiences that helped me learn more about the place that I was in, alongside my formal university education. Although the examples that I gave were outside of university, I know that FGV (and I’m sure other host universities) have great extra-curricular programmes to help you meet new people and widen the breath of your experiences whilst studying abroad. Studying abroad is such a great opportunity to challenge yourself and to learn to trust yourself. Often, I think about how scared I was before I left and how close I was to changing my mind. Now I feel more confident and more capable in my ability to make decisions and take calculated risks, this is something that I have brought back home with me and know I will take with me all my life.
by Victoria Okafor