Regards From Rio de Janeiro!

An engineering student takes a gap year to work for a renewable energy startup while looking forward to returning to Columbia.

Felipe Aleixo dos Santos Couto
February 03, 2021

This is part of a Columbia News series, titled Postcards, which invites members of the Columbia community who are living and teaching or studying abroad to send us updates on where they are, what they miss about not being on campus, and how they are making the most of their situation during this global pandemic. 

In March, I left Columbia to head home to Rio de Janeiro, which seems both like it was yesterday and a long time ago. 

After nearly two years living in a dorm in Morningside Heights, it was strange being back, and the early months were challenging. I missed my dorm and friends, and the feel of the campus, but I also realized how lucky I was to live with my family and continue to work toward my degree. For the first time in a long while, I got to eat my mom's rice and beans, spend unscheduled family time, and walk and play with our dog Carlota, the love of my life.

I wasn’t crazy about taking classes on Zoom, but they weren’t as terrible as I feared. I was able to continue research with my professor on understanding how large-scale energy storage systems important for sustainability impact electricity prices. I developed a pitch video for a design class, and even got my family into the project—my mom as the cinematographer and Carlota as a supporting actress! 

young man with black and red short, smiling, holding a white dog

After spring classes ended, I was looking forward to enjoying the summer and heading back to New York, but when everything moved online I began to worry about work. My senior year was to be more labs than classes. Was it the best thing for me to return at this time?

During this period of doubt, I had an informational interview with a Brazilian startup in the renewable energy sector, and it seemed like there might be a possibility of an entry-level job.

When I brought up the idea of a gap year, my parents weren’t thrilled. But eventually I convinced them, and it turned out to be the right decision. I did get the job with the company, and I’m learning a lot, valuable experience for the sustainable engineering career I am hoping to have.

I get sad sometimes, thinking of all the things I took for granted: hanging out with my friends, exploring New York's overpriced cafes, going for a sunset walk in Riverside Park, climbing down my dorm's stairs for a 2 a.m. snack on the weekends, or simply crossing campus and running into a friend.

But I'm an optimist. The progress on vaccines is hopeful, and soon enough, people will be able to move about freely, and I’ll be able to graduate from Columbia, a fabulous university that holds a special place in my heart.

Felipe Aleixo dos Santos Couto is a rising junior majoring in mechanical engineering at Columbia's School of Engineering and Applied Science