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February 24, 2011

Braving New Worlds: Why Career Women Are Moving Abroad

braving new worlds march 2011 article

Photo Credit: Andr Vieira

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Theresa Williamson, 35, founder of a non-profit organization
Hometown: Chevy Chase, Maryland

Why I wanted to live in Brazil: I grew up dreaming of seeing the world, probably because my mom is Brazilian and my dad is English. I came to Rio de Janeiro at 25 to do some fieldwork for my doctorate in city planning. When I visited Rio's favelas, or shanty-towns, I found people struggling to improve their lives, with zero support. I turned my dissertation into an active project, launching a non-profit called Catalytic Communities, which helps train people in low-income communities to make use of computer technologies, such as networking forums and social media, in order to strengthen commerce and communication. I've been here ever since.

Greatest challenge: Settling in and making friends. You're a total outsider until you prove yourself. You might as well be from Mars. In fact, in an international survey, Brazil is listed dead last when it comes to matters of "trust." I've made friends over the years by keeping promises, calling people, and always being there when needed.

Major mishap:Early in my career here, I was invited to speak at a school about my work. I kept my presentation short and sweet, priding myself on respective everyone's valuable time. So, after 10 minutes of speechifying, I opened up the floor to questions. No one said a single word, and I slunk out of the building, embarrassed and confused. I later learned that my presentation was considered rude because it was so brief — the audience assumed I thought my time was too valuable for them!

What I love about living here: Rio is the most beautiful city on earth: stunning mountains and beaches, tropical forests, amazing panoramas everywhere you look.

Biggest disappointment: Local politics. I'd like to see more efforts towards finding creative solutions for poverty.

What I miss about home: Christmas in the cold. Halloween and Thanksgiving. Fireplaces. Almond butter.

How the experience has changed me: There's a real lack of social norms in Rio — people pretty much do what they please. It's a very "live and let live" city. For instance, I never get a "poor thing" reaction when people find out I'm a divorced single mom. This has helped me feel free to live my life as I choose, without worrying about what anyone else thinks.

How you can get there: Volunteer with Catalytic Communities or come with another non-profit — you can find opportunities at idealist.org. Or look for job listings in the Rio Times online.

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