I sat in the UW Intellectual House in the Spring of 2015 at the Resilience Lab’s “Fail Forward” Panel, when two feelings grew inside me: inspiration and frustration. The panel consisted of five distinctly successful professors sharing their journeys to where they are now, specifically focusing on the bumps, failures, and mishaps. I was inspired and refreshed: it’s not everyday that the same people who mark your paper with red pen or who ask you for the answer in the exact moment you weren’t listening share that their paths too, were not perfect trajectories. Yet, I also had feelings of frustration and skepticism. Of course, I thought, it’s easy for these professors to share their vulnerabilities as they can back up their bumps in the road with the millions of dollars in grants they’ve acquired for their research, or their breakthrough scientific discoveries. (I most definitely thought wrong. Professor Rachel Chapman taught me being vulnerable is never easy.) I, a mere student in the audience, realized how much more powerful this event could be from students’ perspectives if they could see a bit of themselves up on stage.
During that same time, I committed to a job as an Au Pair in Sao Paulo, Brazil for 4 months in lieu of attending UW for my senior Fall quarter. An email from the family disclosed their safety precautions and I was immediately nervous that I would feel isolated living in Sao Paulo: “We have a 15-foot concrete wall surrounding our property with 1 meter of prison grade electric fencing […] Where there is no electric fencing there is razor wire […] Both our cars are class C armored cars. They have the entire passenger compartment shielded by [bullet] proof glass and armor sheeting.” Although I learned that this type of security is the norm in big metropolitan areas of Brazil I still referred to the house as ‘the fortress’. Before I departed, the family requested that I bring pickles and 6 block of cheese, American treats that “just aren’t the same” in Brazil. So, with 12 pounds of frozen Costco cheddar cheese, two bubble-wrapped pickle jars and an intuitive feeling that these next few months might be a mistake*, I embarked on my grand adventure.
My free time was only during the kid’s school from 8am to 3pm, so I had my eyes on a Portuguese class at the University of Sao Paulo in order to make friends. I didn’t care what country anyone was from or how much English they spoke, I was going to befriend the heck out of them, knowing that my class was the only consistent social outlet I would have for the next 4 months. I had the ‘first day of school’ gleam sporting my freshly Sharpie-labeled “Intro to Portuguese” notebook as I moseyed my way to the registration office to retrieve my course materials. I was in Brazil for an exciting and worldly experience and that was supposed to be the day that life outside the fortress was going to start. However, instead of giving me the class workbook, the admissions counselor gave me news that the class had been cancelled due to a lack of registrants. It could have been the cultural barrier or her general lack of enthusiasm, but her suggestion that I take it next semester felt more like a slap in the face rather than encouragement, as I would be long gone by then. I strolled out of the office flirting with the fine line between defeat and optimism and plopped myself on the least bird-poop covered bench I could find. Fittingly, I turned past the “Intro to Portuguese” cover to expose the first lined page to write my go-to mantra when things aren’t going my way:
“Some luck lies in not getting what you thought you wanted but in getting what you have, for once you have got it you may be smart enough to see is what you would have wanted, had you known.” Garrison Keillor
That day was a foreshadowing of all the other times I would do my best to embody this phrase over the next 4 months.
I brainstormed how I could make friends from inside the fortress without night and weekend availability and quickly realized I had one very stark and theoretically effective option: the internet. I utilized MeetUp.com and Tinder as best I could, explaining I was looking friendship and nothing more. After a few horribly awkward friend-dates, the final straw was Bruno whose only topic of interest was his own physique. Over beers he attempted to swoon me with his perfectly waxed arms and his rationale for doing so: when he lifts weights his bicep veins more noticeably bulge from his hairless skin. The cherry on top was that he always brings his sister to the waxing salon to hold his hand. I struggled to hold back eye rolls and thought ‘you can’t make this stuff up’. I started to agree with Harry from When Harry Met Sally that men and women can never just be friends.
I needed to widen my expectations for whom my friends would be if I wanted any at all. I had heard about a group of expatriate moms who taught English in a favela (slum) on the other side of the city. I got looped in on their email thread and started teaching with them. Thus began the point in my life where my main circle of friends was European middle-aged women with kids. On Tuesday and Thursday morning I used to trek to UW’s Health Sciences Building, but now I was slapping together PB&Js, waiting for my carpool and anticipating the bi-weekly mom gossip.
During one particular week, the parents planned to be out of town. Coincidentally, this was the week of the spaying appointment for the family dog. After the dog was delivered back to the house, the bi-lingual driver handed me the leash and a “goodie bag” from the vet’s office. I’m not sure if the vet or the driver first used the phrase “goodie bag” but it was a sick joke. I dug into it to find a spare doggy diaper, 3 bottles of medication, a tube of ointment, and a plastic syringe. Unsure of how to care for a newly-spayed dog with Brazilian medication and Portuguese instructions, I sent an SOS text to the driver for an English translation. Following it explicitly, three times a day for a full week I squirted a syringe of liquid antibiotic into her mouth and then put two pills far enough down the inside of her cheek that she couldn’t not swallow them. I also had to un-velcro her doggy diaper to apply ointment to her scar. There was nothing more disgusting to me than wiping doggy-Neosporin along ten lumpy stitches when I barely even eat meat. This dog had her ovaries and uterus removed to avoid any risque behavior, meanwhile I could hardly get out of the fortress to make friends and the most male interaction I had was with the mailman and arm-waxer Bruno.
As the end of October approached, I got roped into running a station at the kids’ school’s Halloween carnival. I had been assigned to “Bobbing for Spiders” where each kid got to plunge their arms into a trashcan full of Jell-O to retrieve a plastic spider. I was armed with a paper towel roll to my left and a “complimentary” water bottle to my right, but I still was unprepared and unenthused for what was about to ensue. As the bell rang, packs of children scampered towards my pre-school sized chair on which only the medial side of each my cheeks even fit. I looked down into the jiggling trashcan and saw a reflection of myself looking less-than-ecstatic with this precise moment of my life. Kids reached into my Jell-O trashcan and upon retrieving a spider would shake the excess off like a wet dog, splattering me each and every time. As the sun continued to beat down throughout the school day, I was left with snotty and sugar high kids reaching into melted Jell-O goop which now just resembled cellulite. Sticky, tired and a bit sunburned I thought to myself that I absolutely, positively, most definitely did not sign up for this. In that epiphanous moment, I decided that I needed to travel somewhere - anywhere - alone, before returning home. I needed to have the adventure that I so longed for during my time in Brazil, which instead had turned out the polar opposite.
People asked me if living in Brazil was the “time of my life”. If life is sometimes fun, sometimes lonely, sometimes regretful, and oftentimes full of lessons then yes it was the time of my life. It was by no means straight fun for months on end. I spent most of my time with the four children of the family. The highlights of my weeks used to be getting a good grade on a midterm or going to a concert on a Tuesday. Now it was getting in and out of the grocery store navigating the Portuguese food labels in less than 45 minutes, or the kids falling asleep without needing three stories read to them, but just two.
I’m usually a very upbeat person, but I feel like I lost that part of me while in Brazil. I was initially okay with that loss of self, as I assured myself that these strange feelings would be temporary. I assumed that upon returning to my old stomping grounds, The University District where I had my friends and roommates, Seattle where I knew the lay of the land, and the US where I felt at home, things would instantaneously snap back into place. I told myself that these feelings of loneliness, confusion and frustration were because I was in a situation in which I didn’t feel like I was thriving. I wouldn’t know until later that getting back to my old self would not align instantly at the moment the wheels hit the ground at LAX, but rather it would be a process.
Caring yet pestering weekly phone calls from my parents reminded me that I had a huge decision to make: accept or decline my offer to become a 2016 corps member of Teach For America (TFA). Having been accepted in March of 2015, I pushed off thinking about my decision since deadline day in October seemed like months away. Originally, committing to Brazil meant pursuing a partial 5th year of undergrad, so the choice of sticking with that plan or joining TFA, moving to Philadelphia, and pursuing an MSEd at the University of Pennsylvania was weighing immensely on me. For a variety of reasons and an intuitive feeling that “there’s more to pursue in Seattle before rushing onto the next adventure” I declined. For months after that, I swung between the regret that I should’ve accepted the offer and the confidence that I had made the right choice. The main thing I knew was that I was not ready to move across the country; I had to get back to Seattle to get back to my old self.
Feeling utterly unsure about most things in my life, I spent three weeks and most of the money I earned in Brazil backpacking across Europe, the one goal I had set that came to fruition. With my overstuffed traveler’s backpack, I boarded my cross-Atlantic flight feeling like a pinball bumping every elbow and seatback side to side as I walked the aisle to seat 37F. Upon hearing that I was looking for couches and connections in Europe, an old friend of mine invited me to her Thanksgiving dinner in Barcelona. From the airport, I forged into the city with shoddy directions, no Spanish skills, and no cell service to navigate to her address in suburban Barcelona. Sweating and hoping I was actually at the right house, I was relieved to hear a familiar voice yell “Be right there!” from inside the house.
Over the next few hours, we caught up. We had been UW Resident Advisers together but we hadn’t talked in years. She had been a Neurobiology student and last thing I knew she had just taken the MCAT. Although none of that was in my plan or path, I had always admired her intelligence, grace and leadership on our team. So, when she confided in me that her first few months after graduating were frustrating, lonely and confusing, I was stunned. She told me the reason she was in Spain was because she had put her medical school applications on hold. This role model of mine had bumps along the way and feelings that seemed to mirror mine of the past four months. She wasn’t a professor with major professional successes that helped her feel confident about sharing these. She was a regular twenty-something, figuring it out day by day and month by month. I was inspired. Up until then no one had been so open about their undergraduate experiences. On that day in Barcelona, the idea came to me to build a collection of student stories and vulnerabilities. What if we all shared the stories that are otherwise not told? Why can’t we all be more honest and save everyone the trouble? So, seven countries and five months later, I was back in Seattle in January of 2016 switching around my academic schedule to pursue 5 credits of independent study which would eventually become this project. Researching university stories that are ‘otherwise not told’, thus began The Vulnerability Collective.
*I ignored my instinct because the regret of not going to Brazil would have been worse. I couldn’t have predicted how my experience in South America would be until I actually experienced it. I also know that myself as a 40 or 50 year old would regret not taking the opportunity when I had the chance. If you’re wondering if I regretted it? I didn’t. There’s no such thing as a waste of an experience.