#StudyAbroadBecause You Deserve To Know Who You Are

Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture

Beth Santos is founder and CEO of Wanderful, a global network for adventurous, independent women travelers. She is a recently transplant to Boston from Chicago and can be swayed to do pretty much anything if offered chocolate peanut butter ice cream.

Beth Santos: #StudyAbroadBecause You Deserve To Know Who You Are

What motivated your decision to go abroad? How/why did you choose where to go?
My decision to study abroad was very personal for me. I'm a second-generation Portuguese American and had been dying to get to know my roots better. My father grew up speaking Portuguese but was pressured to assimilate in the US at a young age, so I felt strangely disconnected from my heritage by not being able to speak the language. I had taken Portuguese classes at the local university during high school, but it wasn't enough. I really wanted to meet my family and learn the language of my ancestors.

It was an easy decision to go to Portugal, but at the time there were very few study abroad programs there, especially during the academic year. I was lucky to have found a study abroad program at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. It was literally the only one available, so the other Americans in my program were from all across the country, from Connecticut to Washington State. That being said, there were still only about 9 of us in the program at our busiest time, so you can see how much interest there was from Americans to study in Portugal.

The biggest challenge at first was convincing my college, Wellesley, to let me go. They needed me to write a number of essays about why I wanted to study abroad with this external program. I ended up writing these elaborate stories about my family and my interest in understanding my roots better. They ended up sending those papers back to me and saying, "great story, but what's the academic reason?" So I basically had to completely rewrite my essays, making up some story about how I wanted to study Portuguese art and architecture (being an art history major) even though it wasn't true it all. But the ends justified the means, because I was approved to go!

Beth Santos: #StudyAbroadBecause You Deserve To Know Who You Are
From my last day studying abroad in Coimbra with my friend Liv

What was your experience like? What is your favorite memory? What were some challenges you observed?
It's funny to look back on my experience now. I've traveled much more than when I first studied abroad, so I find Portugal to be a country that is very recognizable and even comfortable for me. But when I first arrived, that definitely wasn't the case. It was so different for me. I definitely had culture shock at first. I'd decided to spend a couple of months with my family in our hometown of Cortical before starting school. They didn't speak English and I didn't speak Portuguese, so I spent a lot of time reading. I remember one time I was sitting at dinner with my whole family around me, telling stories and laughing, and I began to cry because I so badly wanted to know what they were saying and simply didn't understand.

Cortical is a very rural area, so I remember one morning I woke up to the sound of a lawn mower. But when I looked outside it wasn't a lawn mower at all -- it was a bunch of cows who had made a temporary home in our driveway! I told my cousin, as I thought it was hilarious. And she said something along the lines of, "those pesky cows again!" and ran outside to shoo them away. I started to see that this was a very common event in Cortical.

When I moved to Coimbra, the city where I studied abroad, I had a lot more independence and some exposure to other foreigners. I enrolled in a program that was essentially called "Portuguese for Foreign Students," which was a comprehensive program that taught you about the history, art, geography, culture, and language of Portugal. We had intensive lab days where we would listen with headphones to Portuguese phrases and repeat them back. We would go on field trips. I ended up making some very close friends with students all around the world who wanted to learn Portuguese, and I cherish those friendships today.

I would definitely say my favorite memory was celebrating my 21st birthday while studying abroad. I had put together a big party at this venue called Salao Brazil, and I had dozens of friends come join to celebrate with a big, typical Portuguese feast. I even had three friends bring cakes, and one friend make a mix of his favorite Portuguese, Brazilian, and Luso-African tunes. Then at the end of the night, everyone sang to me and lifted me high up in a chair. I remember laughing so hard I could hardly breathe.

Despite these amazing memories, I did have a hard time being away for so long. It was the first time I'd ever been so far from home. I was supposed to study abroad for six months but extended my trip to a year because I couldn't bear to leave it. I started to understand how it felt to have two places that felt like home, but you could never be in both places at once. And when I returned to the States, I definitely suffered significant reverse culture shock. It was a very hard time for me, and I didn't know that re-entry was a real challenge that others faced too. It was a very lonely time.

What skills did you develop from your experience? Do you feel changed from your experience abroad? If so, how & why?
Though I don't get to practice my Portuguese too often anymore, I got to a point of fluency while I was abroad where Portuguese people thought that I was a local. I had mastered the accent, since I'd heard it so much growing up when I was little. I ended up using my Portuguese professionally quite often during and after college. I even had a brief stint at Voice of America broadcasting news about issues related to women and children in Portuguese to Africa, which was very neat.

I also learned a lot of soft skills when I traveled. I learned to be flexible and adaptable with change. I learned not to sweat the small stuff, and to take things in stride. I learned how to be street smart in a new country, and I really learned how much I loved to travel. 

Did I change? Absolutely. It's possible I couldn't have changed more from that experience. I became a real lover of travel, which ultimately led me to founding my company, Wanderful. I also felt inspired to see more of the world. I was less afraid of that initial discomfort that I'd felt in Portugal, and learned to actually enjoy feeling a little disoriented and having to figure things out in a new place. It became like a puzzle to me. 

Has your experience helped you get to where you are today? If so, how?
I recently read an article about how travel goes hand-in-hand with entrepreneurship. Travelers understand the need to "pivot," or make quick changes to things that aren't working. We're hyper-aware, quick to respond, and fast on our feet. At the same time, we enjoy uncertainty and even a little risk, and we like to rely on the kindness and skills of others. I think a lot of these things are relevant as an entrepreneur. Every day is different, but you can't let a lack of structure set you off course. You have to be willing to go with the flow, and can't get too stuck in your ways. I think travel helped me to hone these skills so that starting my own company was never too scary for me. I was ready to just dive right in.

Beth Santos: #StudyAbroadBecause You Deserve To Know Who You Are

What advice would you share with other students who are thinking of going abroad?
I would definitely say, give yourself lots of patience. There is always an adjustment period when you study abroad and you should be flexible with yourself. Don't feel like you need to dive in right away and make the most of every experience. If you enjoy writing, get yourself a journal so you can reflect. It'll help you work through some of your feelings and also be a great way to look back on your travels many years after they're over. Do the same for yourself when you return home. Reverse culture shock is real, and we all deal with re-entry in different ways. Just because you're experiencing something differently than your friends are doesn't mean that you're doing something wrong.

How has international education impacted or influenced your cultural identity?
I initially came to Portugal specifically because I wanted to explore my cultural identity. I really wanted to know my roots and I was excited to meet my family. What I found, though, was the weird paradox where you look like a local but are a foreigner. I had people coming up to me asking for directions and I hated that moment when I spoke -- at first hardly at all, then with an accent -- and watched their face come to the realization that I was a foreigner. I really liked to fit in. When people found out I was an American, I was always bombarded with political questions. "Why did you guys vote for this president?" they'd ask, or "why did you approve this war?" It was hard.

After a while though, I became much more at peace with who I was. I have a deeper understanding of my identity as a Portuguese American. When I visit Portugal, I feel proud, not ashamed, of myself. And when people in the  States ask if I speak Portuguese, I love being able to say that I do.

Beth Santos: #StudyAbroadBecause You Deserve To Know Who You Are
With my two cousins, Veronica and Marina (from left), having lunch in our family's home town of Cortical

Is there anything else you'd like to share with us?
There is no more special experience than studying abroad. I would do it over and over if I could! We are actually looking to build more resources for young women studying abroad at Wanderful, and would love to invite them to join our community at http://www.sheswanderful.com/join.

#StudyAbroadBecause You Deserve To Know Who You Are


All photos courtesy and copyright Beth Santos