The content of each post is solely written by that contributor and only expresses the contributor's personal views. Each post does not represent the views of all the contributors or Women of Color Living Abroad as an organization. Each contributor is speaking from their own person experiences and/or perspective.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Purpose and Passion: An Interview with Dr. Nicole Monteiro

By:  eternitysojourner

Several months ago, I met a new friend on a mothering forum.  Both residing in the Gulf, we began chatting about our mutual love for travel and the excitement of being new mothers.  The more we conversed, the more I realized that the humble soul I befriended is a seasoned traveler and accomplished psychologist.  Go figure! 

In this interview, Nicole shares her adventures abroad and experience of mental health on both sides of the hemisphere.  Her experiences left me so spellbound that at times I dropped my pen to simply listen!  I hope that you, too, will enjoy this glimpse of life as a mental health professional abroad. 

You describe yourself as a “world traveler, global observer, and culture connoisseur”.  Please explain.

Well, I guess those are the threads that connect both my personal and professional travels.  I’m a clinical psychologist, and I’ve been traveling since the age of 13.  Travel is a way for me to explore other cultures, people, societies, and individuals; so it’s a way to connect all of my passions which include studying the human mind, human development and human relationships.  I do a lot of international consulting work and I sought those opportunities because of my love for travelling and how important I believe it is in my field to understand the range of human behaviors and cultures.

In your profession, how similar or different is health care abroad when compared to the U.S.?

I earned my doctorate in the US and, much like American mainstream culture, the western philosophical tradition of psychology is rooted in individualism.  I did my dissertation research in Ethiopia and saw a different approach.  I was there for about ten months and observed a more holistic understanding of the individual and how psychological or mental health is defined.  That’s because the society is more communalistic.  There’s a spiritual understanding of the causes, contributions, and most aspects of health.  I found the same to be true when I was in rural Senegal and when I worked in Haiti after the earthquake of 2010.  If you don’t acknowledge spirituality or religion in your conceptualization of mental health, you won’t get far in most places around the world.

At the same time, I don’t want to romanticize the situation because you also notice that many mental illnesses can go untreated due to the stigma and limited health care resources.   This is a downside because, for example, when a mental breakdown is attributed solely to spirit possession there may be cases where the individual and family are ostracized and there aren’t alternative treatments options available to address their suffering.

More and more women of color from the West are getting out and seeing the world.  What unique opportunities and challenges does this reality pose?

I think that whenever you’re in the forefront of a movement, you encounter numerous opportunities.  When I applied for fellowships or jobs abroad, people were really interested in me, my stories and experiences more than, say, those of a white male.  You can really sell yourself as having a unique perspective and understanding of diversity.  As far as the challenges- people don’t exactly have an accurate perception of women of color and assume, because they don’t know anything about us or have been misinformed by skewed images, that we are promiscuous or uneducated.  Folks have said some crazy things to me!  However, this means we have an opportunity to enlighten and open that conversation.   

Last year you added yet another credential to your CV…you became a mom!  How has mothering changed you, your view of the world, and traveling in it? 

I notice a lot of responses, reactions, and projections that my daughter receives as a young, black baby.  Most of them are positive, some neutral, but I’ll also get negative comments about her complexion or hair, even from my own friends and colleagues.  Having a baby with me abroad has elicited so many responses.  At first, I found it annoying and irritating but now, I look at it as another opportunity to understand people’s anxieties, conflicts and biases.  I had to take these comments towards myself and baby as my responsibility to enlighten.  It also shows me that I need to equip my daughter to be able to operate with confidence and openness- to be so comfortable with herself that other people’s misunderstandings won’t shake her or cause her to retreat.  Also, I’m going to Botswana next month, so I have to think of my daughter’s safety in terms of vaccinations, access to health care, nannies, babysitters, etc.  These are matters that I didn’t really worry about before. 

Can you share your most fascinating experience abroad?

Okay, let me see…honestly, it would have to be when I went to Haiti in May 2010, four or five months after the big earthquake.  I volunteered as a psychologist and led a mental health team.  So, to have confidence in the fact that we were able to help and had something concrete to offer was really something.  When you’re out in the world, you can feel so insignificant but in Haiti, though it sounds cliché, all of the medical volunteers were really like a global community working for the greater good.  I interacted with a people and culture that are so resilient.  Even though there was so much sadness, a collective trauma, and limited resources, the faith and spirit of the people was so strong- it was humbling.  It was a learning experience that really helped me as a professional. 

What about your most frightening experience abroad?

Riding on a small ferry boat for an hour-long trip across the Atlantic Ocean between two islands in Cape Verde (Fogo and Brava).  The ocean was rough, the boat was unstable, people were getting sea-sick, I was by myself and I didn’t speak Creole/no one spoke English.  I seriously thought the boat might capsize.  Obviously, it didn’t!  But during the ride, I made subtle eye contact with an older man on the boat who had clearly made the trip numerous times.  We were able to communicate with the few words I did know and he rubbed my back and comforted me as he saw my motion-sickness and the shear fear on my face.  I couldn’t help but imagine the horrible journey our ancestors made across the Atlantic during the trans-Atlantic slave trade!

What advice would you like to offer a young woman of color, setting out for her first experience living or traveling abroad?

I would say just tap into your inner strength and the essence of who you are. Be confident and be open.  I would also say not to put up barriers; use the opportunity to explore and learn.  Why travel half way around the world if you’re not going to engage with others. Also use the time to learn and develop yourself.  It’s like the saying goes, “no matter where you go, you always take yourself with you”.   Don’t think you can escape all of your problems just because you travel or move abroad.

I also think that traveling builds your confidence.  There aren’t many situations that can make me give up or make me feel helpless.  A smile and a nice tone of voice go a long way.  Learn how to build relationships with people.  Be confident, be open, and…be charming.  J

Read more about Dr. Monteiro’s travels and insights at Global Insights and Neneh Fati.


  1. Great post.. Dr. Monteiro has the occupation that I want.... Would love to know more on how she obtains jobs in international consulting with regards to mental health ...

    1. Thank you! Maybe you can contact her via her blogs. She's very approachable!

  2. "Be confident, be open, and…be charming." This is Dr. Monteiro to the max!

  3. Great work Nicole, missing you back her. Hope all is well with you adn baby Fati. Shes such a beautiful baby. Ghuson Mahammed

  4. I have known the Dr. since a child. I first met her at her grandmother's house in No. Philadelphia. She has grown to be a power house just like her grandmother.
    She was raised to be a leader and scholar. Her parents, family members and community family members, which I am one of, love and respect the work she is doing and stand with her in her journeys and work.
    Thank you Dr. Monteiro.

    1. Beautiful! Thank you for sharing! :)

    2. WOw, thanks for sharing that account! What an honor.