Embracing Discomfort: How A School Program to Brazil Changed This Twenty-Something’s Perspective On Life

Life Outside of Her Comfort Zone

How a Monthlong Trip to Brazil with Vanderbilt University Changed Virginia Bentley’s Views on Life and Herself

Photos embedded in this post from this point forward are courtesy of Virginia Bentley.

An Interview by Lauren King Savage

When Virginia Bentley had to fill a science credit to graduate from Vanderbilt University, the then twenty-two-year old decided to apply for the school’s off-campus Maymester programs.

“I was never able to formally study abroad in college,” she explains. “I have always loved traveling and it has always been something that I wanted to do.”

Also noteworthy: Virginia has childhood memories of hearing about her grandmother going on unique trips, one that even included a brief expedition to Antarctica, where Virginia’s grandmother had the opportunity to step foot on the world’s southernmost continent. Recounting her grandmother’s experiences, Virginia remarks, “Ever since then, it has been my goal to set foot on every continent. That is what drives me to want to travel.”

Virginia applied to three of Vanderbilt’s Maymester programs before settling on a monthlong adventure in Brazil.


Virginia enjoying Brazil’s natural beauty.


Her decision to go to Brazil, however, revolved around more than a desire to explore the world or simply fulfill a school credit; for Virginia, the decision was primarily made in the pursuit of self-growth. As she talks about her decision to go to Brazil, Virginia mentions that she wasn’t sure when the opportunity to go to a place like Brazil would present itself again. But she also says something that indicates a deeper desire in her decision to pursue this experience:

“This was all going on during a time in which I was facing unexpected challenges, that, for the entire semester, had really pushed me outside of my comfort zone. I had really been challenged to embrace independence instead of being scared of the unknown…which I had previously struggled with. Personally, I wanted to go to Brazil because I knew that it was going to be something that pushed me outside of my comfort zone more, and something that would help me deal with my anxiety surrounding traveling alone to unknown places, without family or friends. Especially places where English is not the native language.”

While she does acknowledge the emotional and logistical safety net of being amongst professors and peers on an official school program, she looks back on certain challenging situations that presented themselves during her time in Brazil fondly. On the topic, she pridefully remarks, “There were huge things that happened that really, really pushed me outside of my comfort zone. At the end of the day, the fact that I even went and I did it and succeeded is something that gives me inspiration in the mundane things that I do all of the time.”



Three Particularly Impactful Situations

1) A chaotic situation with a connecting flight teaches Virginia that she can survive unplanned travel situations and undesirable tasks.

Virginia and her peers had to take a connecting flight from São Paulo to their first destination, Florianópolis. After landing in São Paulo, Virginia quickly realized that her connecting flight was not the same as anyone else’s. She felt stressed and anxious: she had to find the correct terminal quickly, but the information on her plane ticket was not the same as the information on the airport departures display list.

When she finally made her way to the terminal, she found out that the plane had been changed– leaving nearly a dozen people without seats. Fearful of being stuck at an airport alone without much knowledge of the language, currency or culture, Virginia began to panic.

After shedding a few tears, she pulled it together and explained the situation to a concerned bystander. The bystander reassured her, and before she knew it, Virginia had a seat at the front of the plane. Virginia remembers, “People were really helpful in a way that you might not naturally expect when you are freaking out.”

This situation pushed Virginia out of her comfort zone before she even arrived at the program. While she acknowledges the stress that she felt while the situation was unfolding, ultimately, she reflects positively on this experience. Today, it gives here a sense of confidence when she thinks about other adventures that she’d like to have in the future.

She says, smiling, “I think that this situation will give me strength when traveling again internationally. It will be good for me, in the future, to know that I have navigated an international airport by myself.”

Curious, I ask her if she ever thinks back to this situation now, and she responds quickly with a yes. “There are certain times where I just feel so helpless,” says Virginia. “If I hadn’t made that flight, for instance, I would have been forced to figure something out. There are certain times, for me, where there is nowhere that I can draw strength from because I just don’t have the time. I have to keep moving and get it done. It doesn’t matter how you’re feeling in that moment– you can express how you are feeling in that moment– but you can’t let it keep you from getting done what you need to get done. There are times now where there are things that I need to do, small things even, where I don’t want to do that right that second, but I don’t have a choice. I might not always– or might not ever– want to do something, but I have to put that aside just to get it done. This situation helped teach me how to handle those times within myself.”



2. Losing her pants leads Virginia to overcome some of her biggest fears and broaden her definition of communication.

Because the program that Virginia attended involved hiking around everyday in remote places, there were limited opportunities to do laundry.

One day, Virginia dropped off her clothes at a local laundromat.

Describing the experience, she says, “I recorded all of the clothes that I dropped off, and went to pick them up the next day. But I was missing a pair of pants, and I had only brought two pairs of pants so I really needed them.”

“I asked the professor to come with me to help communicate the problem, and he told me to go by myself. Language barriers– I hate them– they cause me a lot of anxiety because I can’t communicate. I ended up crying and feeling like I needed someone to go with me, but no one would, so I had to go by myself.”

“I looked up some phrases on Google Translate, and went for it. At the moment that it all was happening I had the thought: this challenge is being presented to me because I have such an issue with anxiety surrounding this kind of situation.

She describes a self-imposed ultimatum of sorts, saying she faced herself with the question, “Are you going to confront this weakness that you have, or are you going to give into it again?”

Thinking about this, she adds, “My hope, and what I think I did well, was that for the most part I would answer myself, ‘No, I am going to overcome this.’ And I always ended up okay.”

“I did not get the pants back, which was a bummer, and it would have been better if I spoke Portuguese…but at the same time, I did it, and the bare root of my message was communicated. It was an instance in which I was presented with a challenge that I normally 100% would have backed away from and I literally couldn’t; there wasn’t another option. This really encompasses the whole reason that I went on the trip.”

Virginia continues telling the story, asserting that in addition to her confidence growing, her definition of communication expanded as well.

She explains, “Prior to this, I was underestimating the value of hand gestures and hand motions in communication, but those can play a really important role. Not foolproof by any means, but still accomplishes something. Communication is essential to human nature, but so is being uncomfortable. It’s funny to me that in this case, those two themes go hand-in-hand. Inability to communicate makes me uncomfortable, but the amount of resources available to help with communication was more than I expected. Even Google Translate is so helpful. There are ways to figure it out. When you need to get a message across, it can be done.”



 3. A vertical jungle wall teaches Virginia that it is okay to pause, process, and regroup…as long as you remember that you eventually have to– and will– keep moving forward.

Telling me the story of her jungle hike, Virginia remarks, “This is the one that affects me every single day. We went hiking everyday and I was always the slowest, always out of breathe. Sometimes, it was kind of embarrassing, but, you know, I did it, and there is always going to be somebody in the back.”

“Near the end of the trip, we were hiking through the jungle, but the sun was setting, and we had to get back to our accommodations before then.”

The route that the group had taken into the jungle was going to take too long to follow going back, so the group had to take a shortcut.

The abbreviated route presented physical and emotional challenges for Virginia. She describes the terrain as “basically completely vertical, like, maybe 85 degrees straight on.”

Further describing the scene, she says, “You had to climb with your hand and feet, running up as quick as you could, grabbing on to roots and branches. But we’re in the middle of the literal jungle, and everything is wet, mossy, and very slippery. I was the second person in line to go, and I really don’t like heights. I knew that if I messed up and fell, I would slide into all twenty people below me and they would go down with me.”

Mid-climb, the situation took hold of her at once, and she managed to move to the side in an attempt to collect herself.

Almost immediately, one of the teaching assistants (TAs) approached Virginia, and began guiding Virginia through some breathing techniques to help her anxiety.

After several minutes, Virginia began to climb again. Because of the way that her backpack was situated on her waist, Virginia was unable to climb up and see at the same time. In a welcome surprise, her fellow hikers offered to help carry her load. On her peers helping her, Virginia exclaims, “It was a cool moment of everybody pitching in!”

As she reminisces, Virginia reflects on how this particular situation changed her perspective on life.

She says, “I think about this everyday. It totally changed the way that I go through life. It really helped me in being okay with conquering my fears. It helped me realize that it’s okay to process what is going on and be okay with that and then move on. It’s okay to be where you are, but you have to know how long you can be there, and you have to know when it is time to move on.”

“Now, I look back on this experience and say to myself, ‘I did this thing, and I succeeded at it, and I felt so good afterwards, and now I know that I can do the next thing.'”


Takeaways Applicable to All of Us

What I love about Virginia’s story is that it exemplifies how, when you put yourself out there like she did, the experience at hand does not many anything more or anything less based on how gracefully you carry yourself through it.

When you are trying something new, it is not that you only grow if you do it perfectly. Most of the time, it is actually the exact opposite. Overcoming the fumbles, the worries, and the fears propels us towards growth.

Virginia did struggle. She did cry. The challenges that she faced were legitimately distressing for her. But at the end of the day, regardless of how hard the situations may have been for her (or how many tears were shed) she ultimately felt– and feels– empowered because she got herself through. She overcame what she needed to overcome in order to accomplish what she wanted to accomplish.

When people try new things or pursue new experiences, they are usually already outside of their comfort zones. It is natural to feel vulnerable in this space– vulnerable to judgement from the self and to judgment from others. But if a person is about to realize enough to rid themselves of expectations and outcomes, positive growth can occur.

As I express my thoughts on these topics, Virginia adds something interesting.

Referring back to the jungle hike, she says, “One of the things that was really weighing down on me in that moment was the expectations of the other people behind me. I think that it was really good that in that moment I knew that I was having a hard time, but the people who were breezing through it– even if they had judgement towards me internally– were only showing me compassion. Even if they walked by and thought to themselves, ‘She is so weak,’ they were still willing to offer me water and check in on me and help carry my backpack.”

At her weakest– and at her admittedly most vulnerable– Virginia was met with kindness and lending hands.

I love that she shares this with me, because it reminds me that an important aspect of being a part of a community is stepping up to the plate compassionately when your strengths are needed. At the same time, part of being a member of a community is allowing others to help you when you legitimately need help.

When we as people are able to put away ego and competitiveness– to embrace not only our own vulnerabilities, but the vulnerabilities of others with an understanding that we all have our strengths and weaknesses– true progress can be made.



Concluding Thoughts

When I ask Virginia how she would sum up the impact that Brazil had on her, she says, “Most of the strength that I draw from in my life right now comes from the TA who taught me the breathing exercises. She is very much the type of person who is able to acknowledge when somebody else is having a hard time, but she also won’t put up with bullshit. She’s like, ‘You’re having a hard time right now; let me empathize with you and tell you something that I can relate to about where you are right now, and then explain how I got through that, or offer you some tips and techniques that will let you know that it’s okay for you to be here right now, but you can’t stay here forever.’ There is a fine balance between being in a place for too long and pushing yourself past something too soon. It’s not something that I have mastered because every situation is different, but what is important is taking the tools that you were taught to use in the past and applying them appropriately to help you through whatever it is that you have in front of you.”

“So now, with certain things, I have gone from this place of fear and inaction to one of excitement and inspiration. In some ways, I want to have challenges because I want to see where they’re going to put me.”

Continuing, she explains, “I am braver and more aware of what is happening around me now. Like emotionally, I am more excited about things. I am more in life now, more aware of the fact that life is a whole process. And I want to experience that. I want to recognize the fact that this is where I was and this is where I am now and this is where I am going to go.”

“The part that I haven’t necessarily figured out yet is how to get from where you are to where you need to go– emotionally, physically, intellectually, whatever– in every instance. But you know, I think that’s life. I think that’s the point of life. I think that the biggest thing that this trip really instilled in me is a sense of adventure.”

“There are definitely still going to be times where I am afraid, and I am going to be scared. But I am not scared to overcome my fears anymore because I went to Brazil. My appreciation for adventure, my desire for adventure, and my excitement about adventure– my openness to adventure– is so much more than it ever has been before. So is my desire to be uncomfortable, because I know what that can bring. I think that’s such a good thing because I had been in a place in my early years of college where comfort was all that I knew and I couldn’t deal with anything else. I couldn’t be independent.”

Virginia admits that while her trip to Brazil was her first big step towards achieving her desired level of independence, she still has progress to make. She constantly reminds herself of this: “You did the big thing, but now you have to do the small thins by yourself, too. You have to find joy in the small things, too. Navigating the unknown in a small way is just as important to achieving independence as navigating the unknown in big ways.”

While we discuss this, I have two moments of clarity myself.

First, an independent person has the ability to go and do something on their own and find just as much fulfillment from that as they would if they were with other people (in ways both big and small).

Second, if you have something within yourself that you are trying to achieve or move towards, sometimes the best way to do that is by willingly entering the unknown. You don’t have to totally throw yourself in the deep-end; you can hang out in the shallow end at first.

But, as Virginia has reminded us, you must keep a pulse on when it is time to swim over to a place where you feet don’t touch the bottom anymore.

Otherwise, you will never make it to the other side.



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