I remember when I was first applying for Siena Italian Studies, I was asked what I was most afraid of concerning living in Italy. Without hesitation, I responded that I was most afraid of never wanting to return to the states. In a sense, when I used to think of travel, I thought of it with the naivety that other countries were better than wherever I was from. I struggled with the kind of thinking that there must be some better place out there for me that I can’t find in my own country. This was even a factor in my desire to work in international education. However, after living abroad for nearly 4 months, I have come to appreciate Italy for far more than the romanticized preconceived notions I held before.
I used to picture Italy as this surreal utopia where everybody is in a constant state of love and lasagna consumption, and everything comes easily. I used to think it would be an escape and that I could finally live without worry or fear. This kind of dramatization is dangerous because after the glamour of first impressions fled, I was left in shock. Italians struggle with family, with heartache, with money and with job security just like Americans. I’ve seen people begging on the streets, immigrants working all day just to earn a dollar, high schoolers who don’t give themselves enough credit, and teachers who don’t believe in them. I was able to see Italy from the inside out, not as a tourist but as a real student.
After realizing this, I was able to appreciate things about the Italian culture and Italy’s people that I would have overlooked before; a father teaching his son how to say “mama;” a street artist making a sale on one of her paintings; a young person on the bus giving up their seat for an elderly woman; my host mom laughing with her friends. These are the kinds of things I would have missed had I held on to my initial and sole vision of Italy, because I would have been seeking for confirmation instead of really seeing the people around me.
Although my initial view of Italy was positive rather than negative, I was uneducated about this country. I saw Italians as different from me and I saw their lives as a vacation. But being here has taught me to refrain from any kind of generalization about another place and its inhabitants. It is unfair to not consider every part of a country, the positive and the negative; otherwise we will not truly understand people from other parts of the world.
With this, I began treating my experience here less like an extended vacation and more as an opportunity to grow. I have gained a new respect for foreigners to my country, especially those close to me, who come to America with little knowledge of the language and little guidance, but flourish nonetheless; I have gained an appreciation for others’ cultures after seeing, first-hand, that America is not the center of the world; and, most importantly, after learning a language well enough to get by on my own in a foreign country, well enough to complete a semester of classes in Italian, I have gained a confidence in myself that I am capable of far more than I had ever believed. I can now confirm that this experience was a necessity, and that I am better because of it.
Karisa is a current student at Baylor University studying at Siena Italian Studies in Italy during the Fall 2014 term.