This story was written for a media-writing course at the University of North Texas.
Just over 5 feet with a petite frame, Stephanie Féo Pereira Antunez, a Brazilian exchange student at UNT, seems to be swallowed by the vast world around her, but her intense cultural personality and international ambition make up for what she lacks in physical size.
The cultural pop in her personality can be seen in her colorful wardrobe and heard in the wisps of an ingrained accent. A strong grasp of the English language is sprinkled with the occasional, “How do say…?”
But her charming persona and smile overwhelm any inconsistencies in her language barrier. With a marketing degree from UNT in hand, she hopes to pursue a career in an international beauty company, such as L’Oreal Cosmetics.
“You need to love what you’re selling, be passionate about the company you work for and believe in your product to promote it,” Antunez said.
Until she achieves her ambitions, Antunez works in the UNT International Sponsored and Special Programs office, which markets to students in foreign countries.
“Ever since I got the job last May, I’ve learned so much about other people,” Antunez said. “I’m much more aware of the world around me.”
While the university builds a new recruitment center, UNT International has been placed in a miniature, temporary office on campus. The whitewashed room is a mish-mash of diversity, as it is decorated with mismatched furniture and filled with chattering accents from around the world.
The fusion of diversity, accompanied by chatter and occasional laughter, does not distract from the diligent work of the day. Antunez and two of her co-workers lounge around a computer and debate about what campus restaurant they should recommend on the organization’s blog, while an English man shares pictures from a recent trip to the new UNT office in Hong Kong.
In the past few years, a large portion of UNT’s recruitment attention has gone to foreign countries. UNT International is responsible for reaching foreign students and introducing them to programs at UNT.
In an effort to reach out to Brazilian students, Antunez helped create a YouTube video, which contains segments of interviews with numerous Brazilian students at UNT. Antunez’s video reaches more than 15 different countries and receives double the attention of other UNT sponsored videos.
“I never know what Stephanie will be up to next,” said UNT International Director Pieter Vermeulen. “One day, she’s the movie star in our Brazilian YouTube video and, the next, I look up and she’s having lunch with the mayor.”
Antunez met Denton Mayor Mark Burroughs after she translated one of his speeches at UNT. He asked her to meet with him and his wife to prepare them for a trip they are about to take to Brazil with UNT delegation.
Antunez said that the lunch reminded her how different it is to be a member of a community where politicians actually care for their constituents.
“I don’t ever remember a time in Brazil that people were happy with the government,” Antunez said. “Politicians get messy there. I’m happy to be in this country because I know that my taxes aren’t funding shady politicians.”
Although she is glad to be free of Brazil’s political instability, she deeply desires for the Brazilian people to unite and demand change in her country.
“It’s not just our government,” Antunez said. “It’s the Brazilian people too. They don’t do anything about the problems we face there. It’s very frustrating.“
The negative effects of the government span out to many different sectors of the country, including the destruction of the public school system.
“I went into a public school once and I was so depressed at what I saw,” Antunez said. “Broken boards and desks. Professors don’t even show up on some days.”
For this reason, Antunez’s single mother sent her to a private school that ranked tenth in the country. Antunez had a strenuous coursework of 15 subjects per semester with weekly tests in every subject. She said that she has probably learned less in her two years at UNT than in one semester in her Brazilian private school
“You aren’t there to get a 4.0 GPA because it’s impossible,” Antunez said. “Yeah, you will learn more, but you’re miserable all of the time.”
Antunez finished her high school career in a foreign exchange program during her senior year. Today, she understands the language and cultural barrier that UNT foreign exchange students face from her first experience in an American high school.
“Going to high school in Missouri was funny, because Brazil is so far removed from their reality,” she said. “ People thought that Brazil was in Africa. So many people asked me if I had to ride a canoe to school or fight lions in my backyard.”
Antunez was exposed to Hollywood movies so she felt that the gap was somewhat one-sided, although a few irregularities arose. For example, she was amazed at first at how different the social culture is at parties.
“The girls here don’t even listen to the rhythm; they just shake their booties,” Antunez said. “Apparently I was a bad prom date because I won’t dry hump.”
Many other miniature inconsistencies revealed themselves throughout her first year in the states.
Her most comical experience took place before her first class in her new school. She was sitting next to a teenage boy who immediately inquired about a minor circular scar on her arm from an infected meningitis shot.
As she tried to explain its origin with broken English, he misunderstood. His eyes grew wide with fear, then amazement. For the rest of the week, he claimed that the new Brazilian girl had been shot and shouldn’t be messed with.
Since high school, Antunez has become much more assimilated to the U.S. culture and her English has significantly improved, but has used her experiences to help the multicultural students in UNT International.
“I’ve noticed how much she reaches out to kids who aren’t from here,” said Antunez’s roommate, Becca Wilson. “I always think it’s funny when she brings her friends from Brazil home because sometimes I catch them speaking Portuguese or talking about things that she doesn’t bring up with us.”
Antunez’s work with foreign students has taught her to be patient and tolerant of their confusion.
“I know what it’s like to have no idea what’s going on,” Antunez said. “I’ve been there before and sometimes I still am. I just hope that my experiences can help others and make me better at what I do.”