“Firsts are best because they are beginnings.” – Jenny Han
When it comes to preparing for the first few days abroad, jetlag and culture shock often demand most of our attention. I’d argue, though, that along with acclimating to time differences, learning basic do’s and don’ts in your host city, and interacting with staff, fellow students, and locals, the first few days of any abroad experience ought to be spent observing and reflecting on internal catalysts of learning: our emotions. As I reflect on my first three days here in Siena, I would like to share three feelings that are shaping my experience into a transformational one.
Stay with me: we can’t ignore this one! In the weeks leading up to my arrival in Siena, family members and friends constantly asked me how I felt about my upcoming trip. I would often respond by saying nervous or afraid, and that was the truth. In addition to the excitement, there was a whole lot of fear. A teacher once told me that fear can be useful sometimes; it means you care. I certainly cared about communicating politely and honestly with my host family and other Sienese locals. Although I am passionate about Italian language, I convinced myself that I would not have what it takes to communicate effectively. Before arriving at my host family’s home, I acknowledged my fear; instead of surrendering to it, however, I decided that I would trust what I know. I accepted the possibility that what I knew wouldn’t be enough and vowed to make that an opportunity for growth – not a reason to further fear. This decision led to an enjoyable first night celebrating a birthday in my host family’s home and a second night conversing over dinner with my host mother. These moments are encouraging me to reconceptualize my worries about being in this beautiful new place. I am beginning to understand the root of my fears as things I care about deeply – things that can consequently motivate immersion and exchange.
That being said, these first few days have offered a kind of agency over what I care most about. I’m realizing, though, that this can – and must – come with a deep sense of humor and humility, especially during time abroad. Peri, my peer here in Siena, mentioned an overlooked insight to me yesterday: we don’t know what we don’t know. I felt this lesson deeply during our Italian language placement. The brief quiz we had showed me that I may know quite a bit, but I still have so much to learn. There is a humility in confidence that does not exist in pride. In order to fully embrace all that this experience abroad has in store, I am learning to feel confident in what I believe I understand, but also willing to accept the inevitable evolution of that understanding.
Last but certainly not least, these first three days abroad have taught me a great deal about trust – what it means and, perhaps more indelibly, how it feels. Since Siena is a home-stay program, my host family and I must trust each other. This trust cannot be one-sided and it cannot exist by default; there is a kind of lend and borrow that needs to be cultivated in order for all parties of the trusting bond to enjoy it. I am noticing that intangible offerings (companionship, honesty, respect, you name it!) nourish relationships with host family members, fellow study abroad students, and even Sienese locals. Trusting these offerings is energizing and fulfilling based on the extent to which we embrace the reciprocity, gratitude, and generosity involved in each exchange we encounter.
For anyone looking to study abroad and for those who wish to trust themselves more in order to do so, I encourage you to take notice of the feelings that fuel you. It’s only been three days and I have already learned so much about myself, my new friends and host family, and the spectacular city of Siena.
Kyra is a Summer 2019 Siena Student from Muhlenberg College.