Many teens wouldn't consider taking a year to go abroad, especially during high school. Maybe they're scared of starting in a new school and being the "new student." Maybe they're terrified of leaving all their friends and family. Or just maybe they're scared of being in a completely different country with a different language.
Yes, it all does sound scary; however, it's all these new experiences that make it so amazing.
Last year as a sophomore, I decided to live for a year with my dad in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I continued my studies at the American School of Rio de Janeiro, which is almost the same as Palo Alto High School. During my time there, I also volunteered to teach English to underprivileged kids in Rocinha, which is the largest slum in Brazil.
I am currently a junior at Paly, but I was born in São Paulo, Brazil, and so was my entire family. When I was 6, my mother decided to attend Stanford Law School for her master's degree. My parents, my brother and I all came to the United States with the thought of living here for just the time that my mom would be studying.
Ten years later, we have settled into one of the most prestigious cities in the world, with little chance of going back to Brazil. I, however, have always been extremely committed to my Brazilian roots, and I have a love for that country that words cannot describe.
Despite living in this amazing area, I am always curious to step out of my comfort zone, try new things and live in a different country. It is unquestionably nerve-racking to leave everything you know and enter a world that you don't know. The idea of leaving my lifelong friends and my family was heartbreaking. I was scared of being forgotten. I also knew that being the "new girl" at school wasn't going to be a piece of cake. A year -- 365 days -- isn't that short of a time. I was also terrified of losing school credits and complicating my schedule.
Thankfully, at the American School of Rio de Janeiro all my classes were in English. Also, all my friends here were completely supportive of my decision. Overall, there were no setbacks for me not to go, so why not?
My year in Rio de Janeiro was eventful and unforgettable. I made so many friends from different countries through my international school. It was a bit strange to practice my Portuguese wherever I went, but I improved a whole lot. The city was so new to me, but it was beautiful. It felt like summer year-round; I lost count of how many times I went to the beach.
Living inside the Brazilian culture was incredible, as the music, food, people, parties and the way of life in general stood out from America. The culture in Brazil is like no other: The people are relaxed, carefree and just happy. Only in Brazil will you find people on the beach on a Monday afternoon getting some sun and drinking coconut water.
Brazilian people are loud and spontaneous, and can make any situation fun and exciting. People aren't stressed about anything, and instead of worrying about small details, they understand the big picture of life, just enjoying those moments with the people they love most. And that's exactly what I admire.
By the time I got there, I had realized that I wanted to make a difference. So I took the initiative to start a community service project in the largest slum in Brazil, Rocinha. I began teaching English to children from ages 5 to 12 in a small school called Oficina do Sucesso, or in English, "Workshop of Success." I really wanted to support Brazilian children's learning opportunities. I wanted to help change their lives and give back to the community some of what I was fortunate to receive over the years. I had a passion to help them find their way into the future, and English offers these kids a door to opportunity.
Rocinha is a part of Brazil that not many people know of apart from the violence and drug trade occurring there that the media shows. But during those seven months, I met some of the most warm-hearted people. I established an unconditional connection with each and every one of those kids. However, I knew that teaching English wasn't going to be easy, or that safe. It was a huge commitment. I risked a lot going up to the slums every week. I planned all the lessons in advance, and that would sometimes take hours.
It was a different world, and I was scared to face the reality of other people's lives. It shocked me to see their actual day-to-day lives; I had never seen such poverty. It changed my perspective of the world forever. There were 5-year-old kids going to the brick, windowless houses asking for food and money. Every corner you turned you saw trash on the streets, and sewage water ran down the roads. There were children without shoes building the brick houses instead of going to school.
"Poverty" was a somewhat unspoken word before my journey in Brazil. This volunteer work caused my view of the world to shift. I came back to Palo Alto a changed person, as I am more grateful for what I have and the opportunities before me.
My year in Brazil was a gain in my life, and there is not a single part I regret. I left as myself and came back as a better version of that. I encourage other high school students to spend some time abroad to gain endless memories and unforgettable experiences. It's worth it.
Chantal Teixeira is a Palo Alto High School junior. On Dec. 5, she won the school's President's Volunteer Service Award for her work in Rocinha. She can be reached at email@example.com.