As a Global Liberal Studies student, Christina Jang (GLS '13) spent time both studying abroad and thinking critically about global humanitarian issues. This translated into a position with community organizer New York Cares following graduation from NYU. In March, Christina left her job and life in New York City to move to Maceió, Brazil for a nine-month English Teaching Assistantship (ETA) program through the Fulbright U.S. Student Program. In her ETA role, Christina provides English language instruction through the local university, Universidade Federal de Alagoas, and also runs cross-cultural workshops for university students. Midway through her program, Christina reports on the experience so far.
What is Maceió like?
Maceió is the capital of Alagoas, the second to smallest state in Brazil, located in the Northeast. The Northeast is typically stereotyped as backwards and idle in comparison to the rest of Brazil. Although it is less developed in infrastructure and economy, this does not impede on its incredibly open and friendly culture, where one can find the most hard-working, inspiring individuals and tight-knit communities.
What has been your best experience in Brazil thus far?
It is difficult to pinpoint the best experience. One incredible day was when I gave an English Teaching workshop to public school teachers in Alagoas—the poorest state in Brazil and where many schools lack professional development opportunities. The teachers in my workshop had in common the obstacles of limited resources and a lack of respect and interest from their students. I helped these teachers develop new activities for teaching English, and most importantly, we discussed the difficulties of teaching English in a public school.
What has been the biggest challenge for you to overcome in Brazil?
The Northeast of Brazil lacks infrastructure, high quality education and social programs to alleviate poverty. Levels of crime and violence are higher in the Northeast, but I believe this is a prevalent issue throughout all of Brazil. Although it is difficult for me to give up some independence—such as avoiding doing activities alone, especially at night—I have learned a lot from this experience. It is important to expose oneself to different environments and already through my four months here, I have at least a basic understanding of Brazil's various societal and economic structures, huge inequality gap, and how crime affects culture.
Why did the Fulbright ETA program interest you?
I chose the Fulbright ETA grant over the more traditional Fulbright Research grant because my main goal was to learn Portuguese and integrate myself in Brazilian culture. As an ETA, I am immediately provided with a community, which includes my university staff and students. Apart from this, I receive a lot of guidance and support from my university coordinator. The research grant is an individual, independent project. As someone who has never been to Brazil or speaks Portuguese, I find the ETA program to be a perfect fit.
What skills from your GLS education have best prepared you for this experience?
Overall, as a student who lived and worked in New York City, I am more prepared for programs such as the Fulbright. Furthermore with GLS, I had a huge advantage over other Fulbrights who came to Brazil. I have only met a few ETAs who have lived outside the U.S. for more than six months, and even fewer who have work experience outside the U.S. I spent my entire junior year abroad in Madrid, plus some extra months. During that time I pursued an internship and worked at the NYU Madrid study abroad office. The combination of learning Spanish in Madrid, working in a Spanish-speaking office, and living abroad for over a year tremendously helped my transition to Brazil. Although Madrid and Maceió are strikingly different cities, my experiences with culture shock, learning a new language, traveling, and living with foreigners, have been similar in both Spain and Brazil.
Having studied abroad for all of your junior year, what is different about this experience?
Studying abroad and working abroad are two extremely different cases. In Madrid, with my classes and internship, I had a larger support network and did not have to be as independent. Here in Maceió—which is very underdeveloped—I have to go out of my way to find cultural opportunities and discover my "niche." Also, my current responsibilities of teaching classes every day, convincing my students to even show up for class, and collaborating with Brazilian professors are very different than pursuing a part-time internship in Madrid.
What do you hope to take away from this experience?
I hope to have a strong grasp of the daily opportunities and struggles that Brazilians face here. Brazil is culturally rich, and it will be difficult to understand its many facets in just nine months. Still, I am hoping to leave with an understanding of how Brazilians conduct their daily lives and what they hope to improve in their country. Working with my students and Brazilian colleagues has been the most enriching component of the Fulbright, and even though I do not think I will teach English for my entire career, it has been an incredible way to encounter a different culture.
What do you hope to do as a career?
I am interested in working with underserved communities in urban areas. Whether that translates to working with immigrant communities in NYC—which I did prior to moving to Brazil—or working abroad with low-income populations in metropolitan areas, my goal is to work in a multi-lingual office that promotes social programs.
What advice would you give to other Fulbright applicants?
Whether you choose the Fulbright ETA or Research program, you must be a very independent, driven, resourceful, and patient individual. These nine months are amazing but also very difficult. Navigating different cultural spaces in the workplace and social environments requires that you be prepared to rely on yourself and be very open to change. To pursue the Research program, you need to be prepared to work on your own. For those looking to learn a new language and encounter new cultures through teaching and living abroad, the ETA program is the ideal option. It provides Fulbrights with a base community and more structure via a teaching schedule. Overall, the Fulbright is an incredible opportunity, and no one should be discouraged from applying.