* Host family:
My host family was incredible. I adore them. That said, I think it's fair to note that a number of other students had issues with their host families. In some cases my perspective is that the students were at fault more than the parents. For example, some parents complained to the program because the students were not home enough and went out too frequently. I also think the parents talked to the program too soon.
Be aware that the program has a staff member whose role is essentially to call your host family and see if they have complaints about you. She advocates for them, not you. I recommend you invest in your host family and learn as much Portuguese as possible so they prefer to come to you if they have an issue rather than tell the program.
At the same time, some students faced genuinely problematic situations in their host families. Several host families did not feed the students, and the students had to eat leftovers or pay extra to eat out at times and/or buy groceries for themselves. Most students lived within a 10 minute taxi ride of each other, and those who did not were isolated and had to pay significantly greater taxi fares to reach the entertainment districts. Students who lived more than a block or three from the beach could not walk alone after dark due to security issues, which left them feeling cooped up.
It seemed to me that the students who knew Portuguese beforehand had few issues with their host families. On the other hand, some of the students who made the least effort to learn Portuguese had relatively uncomfortable stays. Again, my host family experience was phenomenal. I could not have asked for a better situation.
My host family was great with food. I told them I like salad, so we (meaning me) ate salad at every meal! Brazilian food is good, especially at the self-service buffet restaurants. However, I still really missed non-Brazilian (American, Chinese, Indian, Thai, BBQ, Mexican) food by the end of the program because they are not available in Fortaleza.
* Social & Cultural Integration:
How integrated did you feel with the local culture?
I love Brazil but I found interacting with locals difficult. We do not interact with local students and your options at making Brazilian friends your age is to 1. have a host sibling or family friend your age or 2. meet someone at a club (which as you know can get dicey). On the positive side, most students lived reasonably close to entertainment and the beach and were able to get out and see demonstrations and events there. We also visited and spent time with a series of NGO's, which was a spectacular aspect of the program. Still, I wish we had Brazilian buddies. I was extremely lonely in Brazil in spite of my wonderful host family and relatively strong Portuguese. I couldn't find a website or location to go to casually meet people. Club or bust.
* Health Care:
How well were health issues addressed during the program?
My physical health was good. The weather (sunny, warm, breezy) certainly helped. Bring diarrhea pills. Mental health facilities are EXPENSIVE and scarce. They do not accept insurance. Expect to pay up to $200 per session. Since mental health professionals charge more per hour than people in the favelas make in a year, you won't have to wait too long for an appointment-few locals can afford the rates.
Brazil is unsafe. Expect that going in. SIT does a great job of warning us of safety concerns during orientation. They bring in three expats and have them discuss their security challenges. As with the host families, student experience with safety differed depending on their level of proficiency in Portuguese. Most of the students who were targeted were speaking English in public with other Americans after dark. Keep everything locked away at the SIT offices except your bus pass, cell phone, and a small amount of cash.
Our program had a 2:1 breakdown in favor of girls. None of the boys got targeted; to my knowledge, between a third and half of the girls were. Hello, sexism.
Tips: Hide important and expensive stuff (all electronics, because of Brazil's import tariffs) in your underpants. Put things in a plastic grocery bag. Go out with your host family. Even though your Portuguese may be rusty, do not speak English in public! It attracts attention. Try to appear disinterested but aware of your surroundings. Buy and wear local Brazilian textiles. They're cheap, comfy, and attract far less attention than colorful and expensive foreign clothes.
How easily were you able to live on a student's budget?
I was fortunate to live within walking distance of the school and a two minute taxi ride from the clubs. That kept my costs at a fraction of those who lived farther away. I was very conservative with my money and rarely went out. I ate lunch at the chain supermarket to keep my costs down. Even so, I went over budget. Salvador is twice as expensive as Fortaleza, so plan accordingly for your week-long stay there.
Do you have any general money-saving tips for future study abroad participants?
Eat at the local supermarket. Ask Oelito about the lunch special at a nearby restaurant. Stay with your host family for the duration of your ISP. Split cabs with students living nearby.