The best thing I have ever done with my life was to leave a relatively comfortable life behind as a consultant in Atlanta and move to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where I spent over a year and a half living and working before starting my journey at Wharton and Lauder in May of 2015. It was an experience that has fundamentally changed me for the better, and I would highly recommend that everyone try it at least once in their lives.
Having lived my entire life in the southeastern United States, I was ready for a big change. I was lucky enough to find a perfect opportunity, accepting a job in Strategy and Investor Relations with MercadoLibre, the leading eCommerce company in Latin America.
While I was thrilled for this new chapter, it brought some immediate challenges. For the first time in my life, I experienced the difficulties of being an immigrant, which has given me a whole new level of respect for immigrants to the United States.
Even though I was guided by a lawyer, the immigrations process was daunting, requiring several steps over the course of several weeks just for me to get an Argentine ID and become a legal resident of the country with a visa to work. In fact, I spent a month longer than expected without a paycheck, waiting for this bureaucratic process to come to an end.
No matter how well you speak the local language, everything is more challenging when you live in a foreign country. I considered myself fluent in Spanish before I moved to Argentina, but I quickly discovered how much room I had for improvement.
Everyday activities became more challenging, from ordering food to getting a haircut. There was always more risk involved, and I never knew exactly what to expect.
For at least the first six months, I spent most of my lunches with coworkers in silence, trying to follow the conversations, and rarely quick enough to participate in them unless someone asked me a direct question. I was very thankful for my friends and coworkers that intentionally engaged me directly so that I could more actively participate in the conversations.
The language barrier made intellectual work even more challenging, which made working in an office where Spanish was the default language especially difficult. Understanding words is one thing, but internalizing complicated business concepts in a space that was totally new to me pushed my Spanish to its limits, and often exceeded them. At work, I was often embarrassed when I had to ask colleagues to explain a concept again or to try to explain it in English.
My personal life was a challenge as well. First of all, I did not know anyone when I moved to Argentina, so I made friends with anyone that I could. At first, that ended up being a lot of American expats in similar situations.
I missed my family and friends who were several thousand miles away in the U.S., and I constantly spent time on Skype and messaging apps to maintain my relationships with them.
I also missed my own culture, often trying to celebrate it in whatever way I could, whether that meant having baby back ribs at an American restaurant on the Fourth of July, watching (American) football in an American bar, or even the occasional trip to McDonald’s. These were little things, but they suddenly became very important to me.
None of these challenges was unique to being an American in Argentina. These are challenges faced by anyone that moves to a new country where they study or work in a new language and live in a new culture. These are the sacrifices made by international students at Wharton and the challenges they deal with every day.
Fortunately, my experience in Argentina was much more rewarding than it was challenging, largely due to the relationships I was able to build and the people who made me a part of their lives.
As soon as I joined MercadoLibre, my new coworkers welcomed me with open arms, even inviting me to an asado (an Argentine barbecue) my second week on the job. A few weeks later, they joined me for a happy hour on Thanksgiving day, giving me a whole lot to be thankful for.
In no time at all, I was one of the crew, attending birthday parties, asados, and other social events on a regular basis with my new Argentine friends. These experiences were the most meaningful because they were so authentic. Thanks to my coworkers and friends, I was able to fully immerse myself in Argentine culture, while simultaneously sharing my culture with them. This exchange was truly a beautiful thing.
I developed an incredible appreciation for certain aspects of Argentine culture. While the steak and wine were fantastic, I appreciated most the emphasis on family and friendships. I also loved how affectionate Argentines are: Hugs and kisses are the standard both when you greet and say goodbye to someone.
However, what struck me the most about the culture there is how happy everyone is with less. When I was there, the country was led by a corrupt government during the height of an economic disaster. Inflation was around 40% a year, unemployment was high, and U.S. dollars were trading on a black market since they were illegal to buy. People, in general, have fewer material goods and conveniences than we do in the U.S. Yet still, they are incredibly happy.
Living abroad taught me a lot, but my most important lesson was to appreciate the most important things in life: the relationships I have with my family and friends.
After over a year and a half in Argentina, I returned to the U.S. with a newfound respect for immigrants as well as a newfound appreciation for both my home country and the world outside of it. Though it was a relatively short period of time in my life, my experience living abroad has had a tremendous impact on me and my own identity. I have been fortunate to further my international education through my focus on Brazil and Portuguese at Lauder, as well as indulge my Latin spirit through my (self-appointed unofficial) role as WHALASA’s #1 gringo.
One of the best parts of my Wharton experience has been learning from my international classmates, and sharing my own country and culture with my international friends (Just ask my Brazilian roommate about his very American Thanksgiving on the Lanners Farm in small-town Georgia.)
As we celebrate International Week at Wharton, I would like to leave you with a few parting thoughts:
Being an “international” is hard. Even if you have not had a similar experience, try to empathize with your international classmates and do whatever you can to make their experiences here at Wharton as positive as possible.
Finally, cultural exchange with people from other countries changes the way you see the world—in such a positive way. No matter where you are from, you should take advantage of the internationally diverse student body at Wharton. As students at Wharton, we have the unique and profound opportunity to share our cultures with each other and celebrate them together.