Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Path

I've been doing a lot of thinking lately about the path I followed academically and professionally to get where I am today. It's incredible how everything is interconnected; choices are never made in a vacuum, they are not static in time. Each small decision, each experience affects the range of possibilities for the next step, and so on exponentially.

For example: my life path changed radically when I decided to go to Brasil at age 15 for a year-long student exchange. The first significant choice was the destination. I still don't have a good answer as to why I wanted to go to Brasil given that I have no family ties there and no specific draw to the country. I briefly considered Venezuela and Hong Kong, but in the end Brasil was always my #1 choice. I was accepted to the program, and spent a year in Maringá, Paraná. It was a fabulous year, and I fell in love with many facets of and people from Brasil. When my year was up and my visa about to expire, I cried harder than I ever have in my entire life. I wanted desperately to stay, to create a vida tropical for myself.

Alas, I had to go home to New Mexico. However, already my exchange year had altered my path. First, while abroad, I'd decided that I couldn't possibly go back to the petty world of high school for my senior year. I applied early to the University of New Mexico (yes, without a diploma or GED - it's possible!), and was accepted. I only applied to that one college. I'm not really sure why. I went to a private high school that clearly groomed its students to pursue an ivy league education. All of my friends aspired to attend Harvard or Yale or Stanford. I never thought twice about UNM. Perhaps it was because they offered me a full merit scholarship plus a living stipend, a pretty sweet deal for someone hellbent on coming back to the US and retaining the glorious independence found while living overseas. Who knows. Maybe I thought if I wasn't accepted it would be a sign that I should be normal and go back to high school. It's funny, I read back through my diaries from that period and can confirm I never even contemplated an option B.

So choice #1 was to leave high school and go to college a year early. Choice #2 was to study Latin American Studies and Portuguese. It was a no-brainer, really. At that point I was so enamored of all things Brasil that the idea of getting a degree that would permit me to speak Portuguese (and recover my Spanish after being cannibalized by it's Iberian-rooted cousin), study Latin American history and culture, and take classes like "Musica Popular Brasilera" seemed absolutely fabulous.

I enjoyed my course at UNM, and loved the college life. I hung out with a crowd of exchange students and immigrants, played capoeira, and got in the back door of nearly all the bars in Albuquerque because the guys working security were all part of the Latin American crowd, all friends more than willing to let me and my sidekick A. in despite the fact that we were drastically underage. I traveled back to Paraná to see my host family and Brasilian friends at every opportunity, racking up an impressive amount of frequent flyer miles in the process.

Still, I longed to be back in Brasil on a more permanent basis. I started to research college-level exchange opportunities, and found a business school in Rio that sent students to UNM on a fairly regular basis, but had never received an American student to date. I didn't particularly care what I was going to be studying - all I wanted was to get back to the country I so loved. One day I called up the admissions secretary at that business school, explained my situation, and asked her what I needed to do to be accepted as an exchange student. She was thrilled, and essentially told me that all she needed was my full name and address, that she'd fax over an acceptance letter immediately. I was incredibly excited, and started making plans to go abroad again that next semester.

I moved to Rio in January 2000 with two suitcases, a hotel reservation, a copy of the acceptance letter from the business school, and a good dose of courage. My first two weeks in the city I spent based at the Hotel Florida, desperately looking for an apartment to rent and trying to figure out the most efficient way to take the bus and metro downtown to school.

I lived in Rio for a year and a half. It was another great experience, despite the fact that I wasn't particularly interested in accounting or finance classes. While at the business school, I met Ricardo (the full story is elsewhere on this blog if you are interested). I also convinced my mom to buy the Casa Rosa just 1 month before moving back to the US (where my wedding to Rico took place last year).

Obviously a lot more happened in 1.5 years in Rio, but the objective of this post is not to tell those stories. The point is, my experience in the cidade maravilhosa definitively affeted my path from that point forward. Critically, my time in Rio pushed me towards getting an MBA. I'd already taken the prerequisite courses, and UNM offered a 3-2 program whereby you could double up on courses in your senior year of liberal arts undergraduate work (taking the basic MBA classes during that time), then go directly to their graduate business program and finish your BA and MBA in 5 years instead of 6.

I wasn't especially enamored by the idea of a career in business, but I figured - with encouragement from my mom - that an MBA was a good meal ticket to have. Especially since I already had one essentially useless degree under my belt (after all, what is one to do with a Latin American Studies and Portuguese degree if one is not interested in working in academia, as a researcher or as a linguist??).

So with the wholly practical justification that an MBA would open doors and get me a good job and a better salary, I started grad school. Again, I only ever considered attending UNM, a fairly mediocre school as far as business programs go. It didn't matter to me, however, because my aspirations were not at all status-oriented and my objective was not to work in investment banking or as a broker. All I wanted was a better arsenal come time to get a "real" job, and for that purpose, UNM was just fine.

I finished my MBA in 2003, at the tender age of 22. Not surprisingly, I hated business school, although I was very good at business (and at school) and had graduated in the top 5% of my class. I had no idea what I wanted to do with myself at that point.

Through a series of coincidences, that I won't get into here, I ended up moving to Austin, Texas and - after a brief stint as a waitress in an Italian restaurant - got a job as Proposal Writer and Director of an HIV prevention program at a local NGO. Again, there are hundreds of stories associated with my time in Austin (bad relationship, crazy job), but suffice to say that I burned out after working nearly 2 years with the intense, high-risk communities that were the target of our programs.

That's when I got the call, from a long-lost friend from my business school days in Rio. He was living in Chimoio, Mozambique and was working as a freelance consultant doing fundraising for private sector agribusiness projects along with another classmate of ours from back in the day. Bruno, my friend who called, wanted to know if I wanted to move to Mozambique to work with him and our other classmate, who was Ricardo. I didn't hesitate even 5 seconds. Yes. I was in for the adventure.

And so I moved to Mozambique in 2005, full of high hopes and idealism, and put my MBA and entrepreneurial spirit to good use. That led - in a nutshell - to getting married to Rico and figuring out, after a 4 year run, that I don't want to work in the development world. It also led to discovering my passion for jewelry and taking my creative side more seriously.

So, the bottom line of this rambling post is the following: without all those twists and turns, coincidences and confluences of experiences, I would not be where I am today. It all comes together, full circle. Discovering myself and my true calling is an ongoing process, impossible without the multiple wrong turns and erroneous paths of the past to shape my vision and determine my way.

Looking back, sometimes I think, "Why didn't I just study art in the first place?" The answer is deceptively simple: Because I wasn't meant to. All of the elements of my path thus far have been necessary to prepare me for a successful incarnation as an artist. I've found my creative vision (thanks to Mozambique, the trade beads from Ilha, and the cultural fusion that defines expat experiences as well as my jewelry inspiration), I've honed my business sense (thanks mostly to the experience of being a self-employed consultant for the last 4 years, but also to my MBA and my entrepreneurial bouts inbetween), and I've recognized and put all of my faith and heart in the importance of DOING WHAT YOU LOVE, not necessarily WHAT YOU ARE GOOD AT. There is a critical difference therewith, and it's taken me this long to see it, much less embrace it. However, I don't lament any lost time; things come together when they are meant to, and in that I take great pride.

12 comments:

david santos said...

Really great work!Congratulations! Have a nice weekend!

Ellen said...

Ali,
I really liked your post. I feel the same way, too! If I hadn't graduated from High School early, moved away, worked here, changed schools, ect I wouldn't be where I am today. and I am SO happy!
So many choices- especially to another country- have a huge impact on your life!

Anonymous said...

incarnation

Ali la Loca said...

~David Santos - Thanks David, you too. The weather is beautiful, cooperating for a great day outside.

~Ellen - Looking back it's amazing to see how it all comes together, isn't it? I'm glad to hear your path has made you happy thus far. :)

~Anonymous - That's what happens when you unconsciously back-translate from Portuguese and then don't edit your post prior to publishing.

alphawoman said...

I enjoyed reading this and learing the entire "back story" lol! You are right, we end up where we are meant to be regardless of the path b/c it is the path we choose.

I still wear the jewelry you made on a weekly basis! I took the green earrings to TN with me last week and wore them all week. The pink's are my favorite of all. Funny, when I have a box of baubles to chose from, my hand always goes towards yours. Yu can use this as a testament!!(as sson as I get a job I'll certain to order more!)

Mary

alphawoman said...

I realize I always think of the earrings as pink, but they are actaully blue...very starnage, don't you think? Magical stones?

alphawoman said...

my key board is not working...lol...I meant strange, not starnage!!

Ali la Loca said...

~Alphawoman - It's so nice to reconnect with you. Thanks for your comment - I will certainly use it as a testimonial when I am up and running with a proper jewelry business and a nice website. By the way, I made a necklace for myself using the same stones as in the Assymetra Earrings, and I also associate them with pink and lavendar! I think they pick up quite a lot of the pink in the way the reflect light.

Meg said...

I understand what you mean completely. I'm struck by being forced to choose a career when you know squat about the world (how on earth could I have known at the age of 18 that I wanted to be a natural childbirth educator). I'm also struck that our hand is very much forced by our circumstances. Re: I'm a stay-at-home mom now not because it's my passion or my calling but because I feel it's the best choice right now financially and for my family. Great choice on pursuing your passions. It's never the wrong time.

Ali la Loca said...

~Meg - Certainly circumstance plays a big role in our choices. I love that you've found your passion in natural childbirth education. Who would have ever imagined our paths back in 6th grade??

Fly Brother said...

Phenomenal post and timely, as I was about to email you to ask about your time in Brazil.

It's very easy to second-guess and lament not choosing a path earlier in life, when in reality, you hadn't encountered those paths earlier. It's tricky mental gymnastics not to fall into the "why didn't I?" trap.

My first foreign exchange was to Sweden at age 16, and I know that if I had been tempted to study in Brazil at that age, I might not have ever returned to the States.

Nice insight into your life path.

Ali la Loca said...

~Anonymous - Thanks, Kim. We are very excited, as is everyone in my family. It will be good to be home, even if "home" is a place I've never lived before.

~Fly Brother - Hook me up with your San Francisco friends, for sure! That is if they aren't lured by the promises of the vida paulista...I'm curious to know why you chose Sweden for an exchange at age 16. I'll look through your blog for info. Beijos!