I am a scientist in formation: skepticism is a feature of our kind and to question everything is our nature. The first thing I learned when I got here was that the knowledge I used to have about science and life in general was too small compared to everything I still had to find out. The greatest thing about being a scientist is that you don’t have an answer for everything, and sometimes, it is ok to admit you still don’t know something.
Maybe I knew (I thought I knew) a lot of things about the bubble I used to live in in Brazil, but when I stepped out of my comfort zone, I had to get over myself and admit that I still had a lot more to discover and needed to deepen my knowledge. Indeed, the more I study and the more I discuss ideas, the more I am convinced that Socrates was completely right when he said, “To know, is to know that you know nothing. That is the meaning of true knowledge.”
However, getting to this conclusion is not easy and has its price. It is really hard to detach from established concepts, especially when they are linked to your cultural beliefs and the way you were raised. Studying abroad pushes you into that, in every single sphere of your life: professional and personal. Out of your comfort zone and facing a cultural shock, everything you had as an absolute truth is questioned. For the first time, you have to practice your ability to justify things you never really thought about before - you were just taught that they have always been like this. Well, not for everyone in the world.
Curiosity, critical thinking, and courage are some of the features I try to enhance daily as a scientist. Imagine how those characteristics were sharpened when I was exposed to the foreign environment of an exchange program. I started to question the world around me, the human’s habits, the professor’s explanation – I started to question myself, and to require even more refined explanations for everything.
This is the hardest and most challenging part of studying abroad: how do you use this experience to re-shape your identity and convictions? Which old principles should you carry on along the road, which ones should you let go of, and which new ones should you acquire? Well, this is a discovery you will have to find out for yourself. After nine months, I am still “under construction," and I think the impact that studying abroad had in me will last longer than the duration of my program.
When I was in Brazil I was full of uncertainties about my professional career – because practicing science in Brazil is so bureaucratic and costly. At the same time, I was sufficiently secure about my personal plans for life, my values, and the things I considered important. Today I can say it’s completely the opposite.
Studying at BU and having access to the hot-spot of science in Boston gave me hope and opened my eyes to the wide palette of opportunities that are within the reach of our efforts. Beyond book pages and accomplished assignments, now I have a more complete (but not yet full) understanding of what means to be involved in research, and its potential to be translated in positive outcomes for the community. I was inundated with a sense of responsibility towards the world I live in and my role in the scientific community.
In contrast, today I give things a different weight in life. I gave up so many things for this opportunity, but also gained so many others in exchange. I reviewed my own values, and challenged myself to live with diversity and within adversity. I became more detached from pre-established concepts and more attached to myself. I opened myself to the new and faced the challenges that changes can bring.
Is it easy? No.
Worth it? Absolutely.