My Semester in Siena

Name: Meghan Blunt

Type of Project: Education Abroad

For my STEP Signature Project, I studied abroad in Siena, Italy during the Fall 2016 term.  I participated in a program called Siena Italian Studies, a full-immersion school that caters to foreign students learning Italian.  Throughout the semester, I engaged with the language by taking a variety of courses taught in Italian, living with a host family, volunteering in the community, and traveling around the country.

Although I have always considered myself to be the adventurous type, studying abroad in Italy was definitely a step outside my comfort zone.  Prior to my semester in Siena, I had never traveled outside of North America.  My international exposure was limited to what I had read and seen on the news and a few brief trips to Canada and Mexico.  My knowledge of Italian culture was even more lacking, based solely on media coverage and anecdotes from friends and family members who had vacationed there previously.  To prepare for my semester abroad, I had completed the minimum required coursework in Italian: three introductory classes that provided me with the basics.  However, after taking the summer off from language training, I was wholly unprepared for conversing in Italian.  Before departing for Italy, most of the people with whom I’d spoken told me not to worry.  “Everyone in Italy speaks English. You’ll be fine!”  However, as I quickly learned, this was only applicable to larger and more touristy cities, like Rome or Florence.  Not to mention, the program in which I was enrolled taught courses exclusively in Italian.  Needless to say, my arrival in Siena was a bit of a culture-shock.

Living and traveling in a foreign country encouraged me to become more self-reliant and flexible, strengthened my communication skills, and expanded my worldview.  For the first time in my life, I found myself alone in a strange place, without parental guidance.  The 9-hour time difference made my daily calls home difficult to maintain.  I learned to reach out to friends in the program and my host family, in spite of the language barrier, when I was stressed and in need of emotional support.  Traveling also aided in my journey to independence. Back in the USA, I usually traveled with my parents and always in places where English was spoken.  Learning to navigate on my own, in a country where Italian was the primary language, was difficult but encouraged me to plan trips in advance and ask for help (in Italian) when needed.  Additionally, public transportation in Italy, notorious for not being on-time, forced me to become more flexible and adapt to the situation at hand. Speaking in a non-native tongue was difficult at first.  However, attending and participating in classes taught exclusively in Italian, living with my host family (who knew little English), and volunteering in the community enabled me to develop my communication skills and learn about the culture from a local’s perspective.

One of the unique aspects of my program was its emphasis on full-immersion learning.  For the duration of my stay in Siena, I lived with my host mother, Fiorella.  A Siena native, she was an incredible source of information.  Through her stories and her actions, I gained perspective into what life as an Italian often looks like.  Although Italy is considered a 1st world country, the standard of living is significantly lower for most citizens than their counterparts in the USA.  Fiorella’s apartment, like many in the region, was quite small, with sparse and often dated furnishings.  My room was a tight space, designed for efficiency rather than comfort.  However, I adapted and learned to appreciate the people, rather than possessions, that filled the apartment.

Living with Fiorella also opened my eyes to the political atmosphere in Italy.  Every morning and every night, we would watch the news on Rai 1, one of the nation’s public broadcasting stations.  Whereas the news in the USA is very America-centric, the reporters in Italy would discuss topics pertaining to the European Union and other nations around the globe.  To my surprise, there was almost always an update on affairs in the United States.  It almost seemed that Italians were more informed about the presidential election than I was.  At times, my host mom would shout something at the TV, exclaiming her disapproval for a politician or the nation’s dealings with refugees arriving en masse.  As a bystander, I gathered information about her opinions.  Other days, she would ask me if I understood what the reporters were saying.  If not, she always made sure to explain the story in language I would understand.  After I was aware of the situation, we would often talk about its social, economic, and/or political implications.  Although our opinions often clashed, it was interesting to hear another person’s perspective on hot-button issues.  Had I lived in an apartment with other Americans, like many study abroad students, I would have missed out on this aspect of the cross-cultural exchange.

Service-learning was another integral part of the program.  Each week, I spent about 3 hours with students studying English.  Although my work was focused on helping them learn the language, I found myself learning a lot from my students.  In the high school, I discovered that Italian public schools do not have sports programs, clubs, or other extracurricular activities for their students.  Instead, they must find interest groups in the community, which not everyone can afford.  School sponsored events, such as field trips, were limited and dances were unheard of.  Many of the students had an idealized vision of the USA.  When we were first introduced, I received countless questions about Prom, Disneyland, and Hollywood celebrities.  (It didn’t help that I hail from Los Angeles.)  In their eyes, the USA was a land of opportunity.  Through my volunteer experience, I learned that things I take for granted, such as high school football games and dances, are not necessarily available to students in other countries.  Although the United States has its fair share of problems, I am very fortunate to call it home.

When I first told people about my decision to study Italian in Siena, most people responded with, “Why?”  After all, I am a Molecular Genetics major.  Unlike speaking Spanish, which is often considered an asset in the medical field, being semi-fluent in Italian appears to have little benefit in my position.  However, this is not the case.  Learning Italian in its birthplace provided me with the opportunity to experience a new culture from a local’s perspective. For more than three months, I lived with Italians who shared with me their linguistic knowledge, political opinions, and age-old traditions.  Speaking in another language 24/7 also forced me to learn how to process information in a foreign context and accurately convey my thoughts, often with limited vocabulary. Cultural awareness and communication skills are desirable traits in most professions.

At this point, I plan to pursue a Master’s Degree in Genetic Counseling.  Programs look for applicants who have good interpersonal and communication skills, since genetic counselors are responsible for providing patients with advice regarding sensitive topics (i.e. cancer, genetic disorders).  In the future, I may be required to work with clients whose lives are drastically different from my own, to understand their sometimes difficult situation, and provide them with the best course of action.  Analyzing, interpreting, and conveying data in a digestible manner is very similar to translating a foreign language.  The processing skills that I acquired while studying abroad will serve to aid me in ensuring patients understand the presented information.

Overall, my decision to study abroad was probably the best in my life.  Through Siena Italian Studies, I gained a greater understanding of Italian language and culture, formed several close relationships with fellow students and my host family, and visited places I had only ever read about in history textbooks. I am so thankful that I was granted this opportunity, and would highly recommend this experience to anyone considering it!

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