It’s no secret that AFSers go on to do extraordinary things. Marcio A. da Fonseca is no different. Marcio, an AFS Returnee (Brazil to U.S.,1982-83) is the Director of Oral Health for Special Needs Children, Head of the Pediatric Dentistry Department, and tenured professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Dentistry.
In honor of his host parents, Melford and Anne Bolick, Marcio established the Melford and Anne Bolick Scholarship Fund in August 2014. We spoke with Marcio about his exchange year in Princeton, NJ, the Melford and Anne Bolick Scholarship fund, and learning to be resilient abroad.
Please speak to your connection with AFS and your journey from Brazil to the U.S. Why was your study abroad program so impactful for you?
I was very interested in discovering the world through AFS because otherwise it would be very difficult for my family to be able to afford the experience like that financially. So, when I was selected by my local chapter and awarded a scholarship, it was a dream come true. I knew I would not be able to make it outside Brazil to travel, get to know new cultures, and meet new people.
As many of my AFS friends did when they returned to Brazil, they taught English as ESL at a language institute, so that for me was also a way that I could support myself and pay for my studies later. And as I started dental school that was a lifeline for me. Through that, I got to meet new people, worked in my local chapter as well. And the rest is history, as they say.
The ability to go abroad with AFS was really a life-changing experience, I have no doubt. I said this to my family many times, if I could live one year of my life again, it would be my AFS year.
Can you talk a little bit about these long-lasting relationships with your AFS friends and your host family?
I have wonderful relationships with my host parents and sisters, and with extended friends of the family, many of whom were AFS students all over the world. My family were very active in the Princeton community, so we had a lot of people in the house, a lot of friends came to visit, and those friendships have lasted over the years. It is really fun to see how we’ve become adults and what we are doing professionally. Interestingly enough, many of us are in higher education, teaching. We keep in touch via social media and we look forward to visiting with one another whenever we can. But I also have another interesting connection with AFS.
When I did my pediatric dental residency at the University of Minnesota, my department head at the time told me, “I always like former AFSers to become residents, because they are very adaptable and resilient.”
What type of skills and capacities did you develop while living abroad that enabled you to be so accomplished in your field?
For one, you get to know yourself really well; when you are removed from your family, from that social support that you had before, you have to create a whole new network of support. So, you start learning what you like and what you don’t like. It becomes very clear to you.
And with that experience of being away from that comfort of home support, you start to develop a lot of resilience, you learn to be more outgoing. I am an introvert, but I learned to make myself comfortable in social settings that otherwise I didn’t have to if I were back home. It also develops emotional intelligence and self-awareness, how you react to diversity and how you negotiate conflict, as I have spoken before, how you have difficult conversations, empathy, and compassion. Incredible skills that if I lived comfortably at home, it would have taken me many, many, years to develop. It is incredible what a year abroad or summer abroad can do to you in terms of adaptability and understanding, or at least to desire to listen, to understand why people are different.
How did you keep in touch with AFS Brazil, when did you get back in touch with AFS-USA, and what was the tipping point for you to decide to establish in the Melford and Anne Bolick scholarship fund in 2014?
When I went back to Brazil, I worked with AFS in my local chapter for many, many years as I was going through dental school and selecting students to go abroad, recruiting host families, and fundraising for the local chapter for AFS Brazil. Eventually, I was voted by the national volunteer organization in Brazil as the director of the board.
When I moved here to Chicago, back in 2013, somehow, I got connected again with AFS-USA. Years ago, as my host father was getting ill, I thought that would be a nice thing, as I was financially more settled, to establish the Bolick scholarship with the intent of allowing an American low-income child to go abroad. Because like me, I knew if I didn’t have the help of AFS Brazil, I wouldn’t have gone abroad. I also wanted to do something to honor my family and the country that hosted me.
What advice would you give to children and parents who are thinking of sending their children abroad?
First, I would not be worried about missing a year because you are going to get many, many years within that year that you are going to spend abroad. Many, many years of wisdom and life experience that you would never get in a year, just because you want to go to college right away. You are young, you have to do it now. This is time to do it, it will shape who you are going to be for the rest of your life, so do not miss the opportunity.