Delaying a career choice is not necessarily bad — especially when you stall in Brazil

It’s April, and for many of you, that means it has already started: A few of your classmates, maybe even a friend or roommate, have already lined up post-graduation jobs.

They’re permasmiling, these soon-to-be-employed peers of yours, looking for any excuse to tell you about their sparkly new positions, replete with suits, commutes and, if they’re lucky, maybe even a dental plan.

Pomerantz with a child from the Pataxó indigenous village of Boca da Mata in the Brazilian state of Alagoas.
Pomerantz with a child from the Pataxó indigenous village of Boca da Mata in the Brazilian state of Alagoas. Photos Courtesy of David Pomerantz

If you’re reading this, you’re probably not one of them. I’m here to offer something a little different. For the sake of this article, we can call it the “stalling option.” The stalling option may not include a salary, and you should probably wave goodbye to that dental plan. Your parents probably won’t like it, particularly if you have loans to start paying back. But if you feel queasy when you think about graduating and looking for a 9-to-5, and you don’t mind an adventure, then the stalling option may be for you.

I graduated from Tufts University last May with a degree in history. That September, I hopped on a plane headed for São Paulo, Brazil.

I had no special ties to Brazil at the time. My college roommate and best friend had been planning on going there for several months, and the more I thought about it, the more it made sense to tag along — I knew I’d be finishing a summer internship working as a newspaper reporter in September, and had no idea what I wanted to do afterward. Brazil seemed like a great place to stall.

I’ve been back in the States for three months now, and I still don’t know what I want to do with my life. But my time in Brazil exposed me to people and places I had never imagined existed, and that’s something that very few first post-grad jobs can offer.

I was introduced to the generosity and openness that plays such a large part in Brazilian culture before I even set foot in the country. A group of men I met at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York had been deported from Boston and were returning to Governador Valadares, their native city and the point of origin for many of Boston’s undocumented Brazilian immigrants.

Once on the airplane, I sat with the men, one of whom was being forced to leave behind his wife and 5-month-old daughter. Despite the gravity of his predicament, my seatmate warmed to me immediately. We could communicate only through gestures and the few words of Portuguese I knew, but by the time we landed he was already inviting me to his house, 14 hours outside of São Paulo. That type of personal warmth would become typical of almost every person I met and every place I went in Brazil.

Still, São Paulo’s international reputation is less friendly than that tale indicates. Like its more famous neighbor to the north, Rio de Janeiro, the city is known for a tremendous crime problem. While I was lucky enough to avoid any trouble, violence was a constant concern for the duration of my stay.

São Paulo has other problems, too. The city’s overpopulation, sprawling geography and dearth of public transportation combine to make for a nightmarish urban tangle. Traffic is ubiquitous and ghastly, and the resulting smog hangs over the city like a veil. Even a congested city like Boston feels downright quaint by comparison.

At times, I struggled with living in a city so different from the world I knew — such feelings of dislocation and displacement are worth taking into account if you plan on doing anything similar. If you’re going to go to a place that isn’t located on the well-beaten tourist trail, it’s worth remembering that there are probably reasons for that.

Still, those concerns were dwarfed by the myriad little things that make living in a foreign country so special. Whether I was chatting with street-side fruit vendors or playing pick-up basketball with a couple of teenagers whose English was essentially limited to the words “Michael Jordan,” every day brought a new adventure.

It goes without saying that the stalling option is going to be more fun than working here at home. But to truly succeed, the stalling option must be more than a long vacation: You have to be able to return home and use what you learned to market yourself as an improved candidate for employment. You have to be able to sit down with an interviewer and say, “I spent the last few months living in a foreign country, and here’s why that makes me the person you want.” And you have to believe it yourself.

To do that, you need to do something constructive and educational while you’re stalling. Plenty of people go live abroad after college and teach English to earn money. This is relatively easy and can be very worthwhile. But if you want to make the stalling option pay off in the long run, you need to do something more.

For me, that something was volunteering at a nonprofit organization called the Brazilian Institute for Education in Sustainable Business, or IBENS. IBENS works in rural, poor and environmentally threatened areas of Brazil, teaching residents of those communities to use natural resources sustainably and profitably, ideally helping to alleviate both poverty and environmental degradation.

I worked in IBENS’ São Paulo headquarters, a small office of about five employees and five college-aged interns. Most of the work I did there involved translating documents from Portuguese to English and helping to write grant proposals to international donors in English.
A group of children play in Boca da Mata.
A group of children play in Boca da Mata.

But what made my time at IBENS so special had little to do with translating or grant writing in São Paulo. IBENS paid for me to spend two weeks traveling to several indigenous communities in northeast Brazil. We conducted workshops there to help communities market and sell sustainable products, such as artisanal necklaces and honey, instead of cutting down trees or over-fishing rivers.

This was by far the most rewarding part of my experience in Brazil. By that point, my Portuguese was strong enough to talk with the community members fairly smoothly, and I experienced a world that most Americans never encounter.

I learned, for example, that poverty is not the same for everyone. Some people had cell phones, but no decent health care. Others had reliable food sources, but sporadic access to clean water. Others were lacking in basic elements of infrastructure, like schools and roads.

I learned a lot about the sustainability approach to addressing both poverty and the environment — particularly, where it works and where it does not. IBENS’ work did not always succeed. In some of the communities we visited, I felt the sustainability approach was misguided. In others, being a part of IBENS’ work was very encouraging.

I’m job-hunting now, and I can tell that my time at IBENS strikes potential employers positively. During a recent interview for a job in which I would raise awareness about climate change for the coming elections, I was able to tell the interviewer that global warming became more of a personal issue for me when I saw the last fragments of remaining forest on the Brazilian coast. If I decide to return to journalism in a city like Boston, I’ll be able to tell an editor that I can communicate with the Hub’s sizable Brazilian population and am on my way to being able to talk to the city’s Cape Verdean communities, whose residents speak a version of Portuguese Creole. How many reporters in Boston can say that?

If you’re going to try the stalling option, you don’t have to go the idealist route. The third sector is plum with internship or volunteer opportunities, but you can just as easily work for a business, publication, bank or large corporation. Use your school’s alumni network to find graduates living in a country you find fascinating, or just try Googling. You’d be amazed at how many organizations around the world would be happy to employ a young, college-educated American who’s willing to work for little or no money.

Now, some of you might get stuck on that last point. Yes, one seeming disadvantage of the stalling option is the fact that you usually lose money on it, compared to a post-college job that helps you immediately start earning money to pay back loans.

In response, I would say that you don’t have to lose nearly as much money as you might think. Picking a foreign destination with cheap travel fare — you can find roundtrip tickets from New York to São Paulo for $600 — helps a lot. Most developing countries have an inexpensive standard of living that’s easily manageable if you have just a little money saved in advance. Teaching English on the side of whatever work you’re doing can help earn some cash as well.

More importantly, try to think of such a trip as a long-term investment. People spend tens of thousands of dollars on college. They do it to invest in their future, and they’re confident they’ll see returns on that investment in the form of gainful employment.

What I’m advocating is merely adding to that investment, and it means getting a bigger return. At the very least, you’ll learn a new language, and you’ll probably learn a lot more than that. My friend and traveling companion worked for a biofuels company and learned more about that industry than any college class could teach, and I can say the same about international development and environmental sustainability.

There’s nothing wrong with the people who already have their June 1 jobs lined up. If you can get that one you think will be fulfilling, jump on it. But if you don’t, consider stalling for a while. You may find that slowing things down is the best thing you can do to fast track your career.

A fishing boat sails at sunset on the Paraguaçu River in Bahia, Brazil.
A fishing boat sails at sunset on the Paraguaçu River in Bahia, Brazil.

Market day, when people come to trade goods and food, in Cachoeira, a town on the Paraguaçu River.