6 things to know before studying abroad in Brazil

Published on USA TODAY College http://college.usatoday.com/2015/08/20/6-things-to-know-before-studying-abroad-in-brazil/

Home to the 2014 World Cup, 2016 Olympics and countless tourist attractions, Brazil holds unforgettable experiences for students studying abroad. However — especially in big cities — the extent of culture shock and local norms aren’t known to everyone before arriving.

Here are a few things students should know before attending to make the most of their trip.


If not fluent in Portuguese, a basic hold on Spanish will still get you far, as the two have many cognates. Not all businesses have English speakers or translators, even in areas known to be frequently visited by tourists.

In my opinion, the most essential phrases are:

de novo: for when people speak too fast for you to understand and you need to hear again

onde esta (insert place here): to ask where a location is

quanto custa (insert item here): to ask how much an item costs

obrigada/o: to say ‘thank you.’

It can be helpful to bring a list of common phrases along in your pocket, just in case.

Traveling to Brazil with only knowledge of English could still make for a great experience, but the language barrier limits cultural immersion. Not to mention, some of the emotion and eloquent articulation often spoken in Brazilian Portuguese can be lost in translation.


Visiting Cristo Redentor and Sugarloaf mountain, travelers get breathtaking views of the city, but there are certain spots that only locals may know about. Meeting Brazilian students can get you insight on culture, the best places to go and great Portuguese practice.

Brazilian favelas, shantytowns, hold a large portion of the population. Less-fortunate students may live here and invite you to experience the lifestyle. Seeing favelas can be an enriching and eye-opening experience, but you will learn a lot more by visiting with a local rather than going through a large tour company. Residents tend to dislike having their homes and lives on display.

Local and family-owned restaurants trump chains by a long shot. Quilo restaurants allow you to pay for food by weight, giving choice of how much or little you’d like to eat.


Withdrawing a large amount at once in reais will save you money in the long-run. International fees add up quickly, and many places don’t accept credit or debit cards as payment. Always carry at least R$50 on you, in case of emergency and because the street markets always catch your attention.

With an currency more than 3 times the amount of Brazilian reais, your U.S. money will get you far. If something costs more than what you would pay in the states, you’re getting the foreigner price. To ensure that you get a great deal, buy at places with prices listed already rather than where you have to ask “quanto custa?”

Set aside funds for specifically for water, since it isn’t free in Brazil and drinking from the tap can be questionable. In addition, most public restrooms cost money. If you’re anything like most tourists, the local foods will catch your attention too, so an acai and salgado budget may be in your best interest.


Taking public transportation is typically much cheaper than a cab. A standard metro ride costs R$3.60 — about $1 in U.S. currency — no matter how far you ride, whereas cab price in Brazilian traffic is unpredictable.

Buses can run a little higher, up to R$15 per ride, and hold less personal space. Still, it may be preferable to a cab depending on the destination, as many go directly to popular attractions and airports.

If the cab is preferable, gather a group to go. As like anywhere else, the more in the cab the cheaper each person has to pay. Only take cabs that have a company sign and phone number on the side, those without are unofficial and can easily scam or put you in danger with no one to call and hold accountable.


Street crime is prevalant in Brazil, especially in big cities like Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo. Avoid taking out technology in public if possible, especially in areas where locals don’t have theirs out. Tourists are easily identified through speaking English and specific styles of dressing, so attempting to blend in by speaking Portuguese whenever possible and dressing like the locals can keep you from being a target. Unless attending a formal event, avoid flashy jewelry and accessories.

Whatever bag you choose to carry, keep it in sight at all times. That means purses, wallets and backpacks should be on your side or front at all times. Even at restaurants, hold your bag in your lap, if small enough. All it takes is for you to look away from your belongings for one second for someone to swipe it. If going to one of the many famous beaches, don’t leave items unattended or trust strangers to watch it.

For female students, traveling alone isn’t recommended unless you know the area well. Catcalling and street harassment are rampant, but responding as some would in the U.S. isn’t advised. The retorts aren’t worth the trouble, as it could escalate into an unwanted and dangerous altercation


“You put the toilet paper in a trash can?”

Yes, toilets in Brazil aren’t built to hold the paper without clogging, but bins are changed regularly for sanitary reasons.

Local businesses and informal events tend to run on a laid-back schedule. Things may not open or start at the specified time, don’t think too much about it or you’ll be disappointed often.

When greeting someone, people say “tudo bem,” (pronounced too-doo behn), which means “all is well.” As a response, people generally say in affirmation, “tudo bem.” People also may greet by giving a small kiss on the cheek, as the culture is typically very affectionate.

These are just a start to the vast and diverse culture of Brazil, but expecting to deal with them will save a lot of trouble. Studying abroad can be a life-changing experience and, should you choose Brazil, these tips will enhance what will already be a wonderful trip.


University of Texas students hitchhike for charity, return in time for finals

Published on USA TODAY College http://college.usatoday.com/2015/05/24/university-of-texas-students-hitchhike-for-charity-return-in-time-for-finals/

The week before finals typically holds sleepless nights, copious amounts of coffee and sporadic Netflix breaks. University of Texas freshman Jessica Zeng and Kelly Ngo decided to also throw in a cross-country adventure nicknamed “Jailbreak.”

“The Jailbreak is an organized contest amongst Oxford students where they travel in teams as far as possible in 36 hours without using any of their own money for transportation to raise money for charity,” Zeng says. “ I decided it would be cool to do this and raise money for my favorite global non-profit and ended up recruiting Kelly to come along with me.”

The girls stood on the highway with a plain sign that read, “Hitchhiking for Charity,” in bold, black letters at the passing motorists. After raising $318 in donations, befriending six drivers and crossing 1,400 miles, freshmen Ngo and Zeng dipped their toes in the Pacific Ocean and celebrated a job well done.

Packing lightly, they brought only the bare necessities, notebooks for journaling and “a copy of On the Road by Jack Kerouac for any hitchhiking inspiration,”

Among the many run-ins with kind strangers and new territory, one of the most friendly experiences occurred with Joaquin, a trucker who drove them from Balmorhea, Texas to Tucson, Ariz.

“Joaquin took us to his home where his family provided us with a movie and home-cooked Cuban meal — we also showered, slept and went grocery shopping with them,” Ngo says. “I consider him my uncle. He still calls me up and asks how I’m doing.”

George, the very last driver, happened to drop them off in the neighborhood of Ngo’s dad, where they nervously greeted him as neither of their parents were aware of the journey.

“He freaked out and made us take a plane back,” Ngo says. “ I feel as if he was upset, but also secretly amazed that we hitchhiked there…but probably mostly upset.”

The duo aimed to raise money and awareness for the charity World Vision, which Zeng has contributed to since her middle school years. They received $318 from donors following the trip on social media, or who heard from word of mouth. They plan to keep the donation page open until the end of May.

“85% [of World Vision’s funding] goes directly to local programs that care for children and build communities in third world countries or are invested in global systems where the value of the money is actually stretched,” Zeng says. “They do a ton of things from providing vaccines to building schools and providing education to building wells to provide clean water to teaching agricultural sustainability to villages to providing disaster relief.”

To others who want to participate in their own jailbreak, the girls say to bring a self defense weapon such as pepper spray, use intuition to judge the character of those offering a ride and most of all — stay optimistic.

They say their experiences, memories and connections made on the trip put into perspective how privileged they are — in addition to reaching a new level of faith in humanity.

“I’d say this journey was spiritual,” Zeng says. “It was like a bunch of life truths spread across a 1,400-mile trek halfway across America.”

Jazmyn Griffin is a student at the University of Texas at Austin and a member of the USA TODAY College contributor network.

University group carries on 9/11 tradition to change American views on Islam

Hundreds of miniature American flags waved on UT’s main mall to commemorate the 14th anniversary of 9/11. Students, faculty and visitors walked by, snapping photos throughout the day. On the East side of campus, a colorful blood donation truck parked, waving a different flag with the phrase “Muslims for Life.”


The seven-member UT branch of Ahmadiyya Muslim Student Organization held its 4th annual 9/11 Muslims For Life memorial blood drive from Sept. 1-11. The event is held at campuses, city halls and churches nationwide for those who meet blood donation criteria to give in memory of the 2,977 total victims. According to freshman AMSO officer Hashir Ayubi, the club reached its goal of 180 pints or 540 saved lives.


Over the past four years the national organization collected over 40,000 pints of blood, essentially saving 120,000 lives according to Usama Malik, ex-AMSO president and UT faculty member.


The group says many Muslims feel obligated to denounce terrorism to prove patriotism, but this event is done rather as affirmation of their peaceful beliefs. The mantra of the event and community is to promote unity — a fundamental part of their spiritual teachings.


“On 9/11, 17 extremists used Islam as a scapegoat — they corrupted the teachings, philosophy and image of Islam for their own gain,” Malik said.


The group’s’ previous events, including an all-female panel on Women in Islam and “Stop the crISIS,” are open to people of all faiths, backgrounds and ideologies. The group says they aim to create healthy dialogue and an environment where everyone can cooperate for the greater good.


“We are proud of our faith and of being Americans,” said AMSO President Mutahir Ahmad. “We want to spread the peaceful message of Islam. The best part is that people simply see the opportunity to help out in any way and jump on it.”


The UT chapter said they plan to have more events eliminating the misconception of Islam, and invite others to be apart of the conversation — participating in the Ahmadiyya communities’ events and asking the tough questions to reach full understanding.


“Islam at its heart has no violence,” Malik said. “We want to show that Muslims can contribute good to this nation. Here we’re shedding blood, not in a violent jihad as portrayed in the media, but to save our fellow Americans.”


Holi festival brings the color to Austinites of all backgrounds

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My face froze as I felt a soft hand rub my cheek from the side. As I glanced, I saw the warm smile of a woman, covered in gulal powder and determined to shower me in it as well.

As a first time Holi-goer at Radha Madhav Dham temple in Austin, this unapologetic paint throwing combined with words of kindness and celebration puzzled me at first. Nicknamed the festival of colors, Holi day celebrates the “triumph of evil over good,” according to holifestival.org.


“Happy Holi!” she yelled!


At exactly 7 p.m., as the sun began to set, a hue of pink began to fill the air, then blue, purple, green, orange and every shade in between followed – the celebration had started. Cheerful sounds of traditional music and laughter rang in the ears of everyone in the temple’s outdoor holy space, while the bright powder signified the colors brought by spring.


“This isn’t our first Holi, we do it a lot back home(India),” said attendee Prahlad Patel, who is named after the honored religious figure.


As the first part of the celebration and dancing died down, a fire lit up – revealing the colorful powder paint in the air. In Hindu culture, the significance behind the ceremonial lighting of the fire stems from the story of Prahlad who worshipped Lord Naarayana rather than the demon king Hiranyakashyap and his sister, Holika, who were his father and paternal aunt. The king tried to kill his son by having Holika hold him in her arms in a blazing fire.


“Holika took Prahlad in her arms and sat on a fire,” Patel said. “Because he worshipped [Lord Naarayana], God saved him from death – and Holika burned.”


For many, this was a traditional experience felt since childhood. For those outside the religion, the festival was about learning from a drastically different culture, one they may have never explored until now.


“We didn’t do stuff like Holi in our small town, the basic religions we had were Catholic and Baptist,” first time attendee Alexis Crutchfield said.  “Even non-denominational Christian was rare, so I’d never seen a Hindu temple.”


The event was advertised as being open to everyone, regardless of religion or other different characteristics. This gave individuals like Crutchfield an “eye-opening experience.”


“It was very bright, colorful and exciting, you don’t get that with a lot of other religions. I was raised Southern Baptist and we didn’t have as much fun,” Crutchfield said. Everyone was so kind and welcoming, plus they were all encompassing and open to non-Hindu people.”


As the festivities prepared to come to a close, friends, family and kind strangers hugged and kissed one another on the cheeks. When I prepared to leave, a group of children stared suspiciously at me while standing in a circle. A second after putting my head down I was met with a face full of orange and red paint.


“Happy Holi!” they shouted, bidding farewell until colors fill the air again next year.