A Glimpse into Brazil

Connie takes a moment to pose with a Brazilian man in front of a historic structure.
Connie (left) receives a warm welcome from a musician in Brazil.
As an undergraduate student with cerebral palsy, Connie Rivera knew that traveling to the developing world might present accessibility barriers and accepted the challenge - and a Gilman scholarship - with gusto.

MIUSA: Why did you choose to study abroad in Brazil?

Connie Rivera: As a Political Economy major [at the University of California Berkeley], I am interested in how people influence politics as well as the effects of globalization. As a country that is in the forefront of globalization and the developing world, Brazil was a perfect choice. I thought it could help me gain firsthand experiences in my studies.

M: How did you fund your studies?

CR: I received a scholarship from the Gilman Scholarship Program. Although I already received some financial aid, the Gilman Scholarship covered the expenses that financial aid did not, such as note takers, housing accommodations in Brazil and my plane tickets.

M: Did you receive any disability-related accommodations while in Brazil?

CR: Yes, I received note takers and extra time on tests for school. My housing was close to the school, and I had some extra help with light cooking and cleaning at home. To start the process of requesting these accommodations, I brought a letter of accommodation from UC Berkeley’s Disabled Students Program specifying my needs.

M: What were some challenges you encountered while in Brazil?

CR: It was difficult transitioning from a university like UC Berkeley, which is so accommodating of students with disabilities, to the university in Brazil, where accommodations like notetakers are not typically offered. I usually had to explain every accommodation I used to the program directors and professors there. In addition, the directors pushed me to move into housing with 24-hour care, but after a few weeks they saw that I was fine with only a little extra help.

I know my disability better than anyone, so I trusted my gut for pushing for services I needed and declining those I did not.

M: Do you feel that you made an impact on your host community?

CR: I think I made an impact on the host university, because it was the first time that they encountered a student with a disability studying abroad. At the end of my semester, my advisors told me that I came to teach them, referring to my ability to succeed academically while disproving stereotypes.

M: Do you have a favorite memory from Brazil that you'd like to share?

CR: My favorite memory of my time abroad is traveling to Salvador, Brazil, and my taxi driver turned around and said "First African-American President Obama! I love him!" We proceeded to talk about U.S. politics while exploring the city.

M: Why would you encourage more students, including students with disabilities, to study abroad?

CR: Exploring other countries and seeing how other cultures live through adversity gave me the courage to express myself and understand that going beyond my own boundaries is possible. It’s an educational and life experience that students have the privilege of taking, and there is support to do it.

The Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program offers grants for U.S. citizen undergraduate students of limited financial means to pursue academic studies or credit-bearing, career-oriented internships abroad.