“You don’t look American,” remarked one of the inquisitive students at Nossa Escola school.

I found myself staring back at a classroom of 30+ students at a local public school in Recife, Brazil. I was there partnering with educational NGO Somos Professores and agency Melhor Comunicação, developing a targeted communications campaign for Somos Professores’ new Alavanca Program that aims to support public school teachers in project-based learning initiatives. While I was interviewing teachers during my first week for research, I met an engaging, dedicated teacher named Elisa, who asked if I might come back to practice English with her students.

There was no malice behind the student’s comment – just pure curiosity.

It was actually rather appropriate for the situation given that I was the only Asian I had seen since arriving in Recife and the first American whom these students had ever met. I had composed a few slides about myself to help break the ice as the students were very shy at first. By the end, however, they were excitedly shouting answers in English and asking some questions of their own – Did I know BTS? Did I watch Grey’s Anatomy?

That morning was a microcosm of my entire TIE placement in Brazil, in that I entered with excitement but also some uncertainty and discomfort. Yet I’ve learned that it’s in those moments of vulnerability that our senses are heightened to what we’re truly capable of, and to different perspectives that could become integrated into life beyond the experience abroad.

I ventured on TIE with no frame of reference as one of two inaugural participants from VMLY&R. I applied as I connected with its belief in the power of the private sector to benefit global social initiatives, more than just leveraging but celebrating the skills cultivated in the advertising industry. Personally, I wanted to feel challenged, give back in some way, step outside silos by working cross-functionally, and become a more conscientious, confident leader.

What followed was more than I could have ever asked for – A veritable, real-world crash course in problem-solving, critical thinking, resource management, and leadership development.

Somos Professores is an educational NGO founded by teachers for teachers who are passionate to improve an educational system rife with bureaucratic challenges that hinder certain groups from having equal access to quality public school education. They are in a critical transition period from an open crowdfunding platform model to a focused program of nurturing 15 projects. Our task was to execute a multichannel campaign platform for this new Alavanca Program that would increase awareness and encourage applications of eligible teachers within the Jaboatão region.

With few benchmarks or previous references in this niche educational space, Somos Professores judiciously projected 50 applications, with an ideal goal of 100. To achieve this, in 30 days we worked to secure free or subsidized efficient local media placements and developed a creative platform across multiple channels. The process was certainly not without its obstacles – from government rejections to production permits – but through a confluence of hustling and mini-miracles, we produced a fully-formed, cohesive 360° campaign that was pushed live across video, geotargeted mobile, OOH, digital, and social media.

Sure, I had my clients’ bottom lines at stake with my work back in NYC, but I had never felt this level of investment before.

I returned home with a renewed sense of energy for my industry and the skills that it helps to promote. Advertising CAN be a driving force for positive change, especially if we recognize and harness its power.

And as such, a few weeks later, I woke up to an incredible message from the Somos Professores team that they had nearly doubled their seemingly unreachable goal and received 193 project submissions! More importantly, our campaign was the first step in expanding their message for greater community engagement and support for future programs, ultimately leading to more constructive learning opportunities for students.

Throughout this journey, every single person inspired me to think beyond my immediate surroundings and the status quo, to seek alternate solutions and appreciate my capabilities. I was emboldened to take an authority position at times and to be an effective listener at others. And with only 30 days to accomplish our tasks, there was no time to hesitate, which further propelled my leadership development.

As an introvert who has always been surrounded by outgoing, gregarious role models, I equated those qualities with leadership success. However, I realized that you don’t have to emulate someone else’s professional style to be successful. You just need to build the confidence to activate the best version of yourself – and that is what TIE has done for me.

I still have a ways to go, but I aim to continue this journey and the indelible lessons from this experience – and for that, I am forever grateful.