In the fluorescent hallway I crossed my fingers and quelled my nervousness. It was the first day of my Portuguese post-grad course that would last a year and a half. I'd lived in Rio about 2 years but I found myself needing a semi-permanent visa and a challenge. Becoming a student neatly accomplished both. I was fairly certain that I could keep up in the accelerated courses, IF I paid attention and IF I managed to take notes in Portuguese fast enough not to get lost. And if I could gather up the courage to open that door.
Walking into the lecture hall, I was met with quizzical stares and plenty of friendly questions from classmates curious about why an American was studying business overseas. They laughed at my accent but accepted me warmly, but not academically. Week after week, I was the third wheel in study groups. No one trusted me to be their partner for homework and my shyness limited my comments in class, leading people to assume I was lost in the barrage of new Portuguese words.
When our first exam came around, I scored well, but I was in the minority. In the bathroom, I overheard two of my colleagues commenting that the teacher was "grading on participation, or something. Because Jenna did really well..." I bristled but caught myself. After all, I was eavesdropping.
But a few moments later, back in class, a seatmate queried,
"So, what was the answer to question B?"
And it was with pride, and a sense of real accomplishment, that I explained not only what the right answer was, but also why, in fluent Portuguese. And a few seconds later, I heard those first girls whispering again. "I guess maybe they're NOT grading on participation after all."
From that moment on, I was no longer "that gringa girl" but "the brainy one." And in May 2009, walked across a graduating stage for only the second time in my life...