My Education Abroad Experience in Siena, Italy: STEP final reflections

For my STEP signature project I spent eight weeks in Siena, Italy, a smaller but very important city in region of Tuscany for an education abroad experience. While in Siena I took multiple classes to both further my knowledge of the language and of the culture as well as spending a good deal of time doing a variety of community service projects and living life in a foreign city with my host family. This education abroad experience allowed me to travel thorughout the Italy as well as Europe, broadening my mind and allowing for some of my perspectives to change.

My initial thoughts with going overseas for an entire summer were that I would eat a lot of good food and see very beautiful things. My mind didn’t wander over to the challenges I might face when it came to language barriers or socio-cultural differences. I didn’t dare take a guess at what my host family would be like or the lack of information I had been given about them before hand, I had only cared about finally being about to study abroad in Italy, one of my dream destinations.

I quickly realized that as my host family didn’t speak any English and all of my classes were in Italian that everything was going to be a bit more challeneging than I had previously anticipated; however, I rather enjoyed that extra challenge and it pushed me to learn more and further immerse myself. I had to be open to making mistakes and making a fool of myself in front of other people or I wasn’t going to thrive. I had to be willing to put myself out there or nothing was going to change for me. I am so glad that I did. I’ve grown a great deal more confident, and not just in my Italian speaking ability, but in myself and how I work with others and navigate my daily life. There was a point on my way to my program that I had a flight delay and thus was going to miss my ride from the airport to the city where I was going to be living for the duration of the summer. Because of this, I had to learn to do and try a lot of new things on my own. It was rather frightening. Thankfully, I made it safely and everything worked out after I fumbled around for a while. It felt both satifsying and terrifying to try and have to figure out verything for myself in a foregin country and in a foreign language, but I was able to do it. Experiences like these and many more have helped me to realize just how much this education abroad experience has hepled me change or the better.

What things/aspects led to a change in you, and how did that affect you?

The main aspect of this project that led to a sort of personal transformation were the cultural difference between the United States and Italy, as well as the lanugage difference. There were a lot of little differences that built up to a challenge, some of these were the amount of money spent on things, or how the difference in water and electric bills affect the usage of both in daily life. Another change was the slowed down pace that life seems to go to in Italy. Everything is a lot more relaxed and people appear to be a great deal more understanding of time delays and other mishaps that are out of any person’s control. For instance, everyone runs very late. This could include everything from buses to planes, although rarely trains, to arriving at a given destination or starting class. My classes often started ten minutes after the specified start time. There were times that when I was waiting for the bus to come, that I would just opt for walking instead because the buses could be both late and unpredictable. Professors, families, and friends understand that things just happen sometimes. It was a change for sure as everything in the States is scripted, on time, and if something does go wrong, there should be a back up plan.

This was incredibly inspiring for me because many people just took time to enjoy life. It was weird. Meals lasted longer and involved direct eye contact and conversation. Showers were very short and there was no air conditioning, so we were always sweating. Lights weren’t turned on until sunset and they didn’t stay on for long after that. Family time was regular and speding time without electronics was both common and encouraged. It was a culture shock to be sure. This made me appreciate my time more and who I spent it with. I was very cognisant of the amount of water and electricity I was using as well as amount of time I spent with both my host family but also with the people I met on this trip. I adapted to the long meals spent talking and the late nights spent outside looking at the stars. I have a greater appreciation for differenct cultural variations such as keeping my shoes on in the house and not going outside or to bed with wet hair. I also have a greater appreciationg for being able to take long showers and having air conditioning everywhere I go.

It is strange. In a world that is full of industrialized countries there are still so many differences between countries and customs. Of course everyplace has their own language and manner of doing things, but we don’t always realize how long it truly takes to become accustomed to something until we travel somewhere else and attempt to live there. I lived in Italy for over two months. I spoke Italian everyday and lived as if I were an Italian. I walked almost everywhere and talked with strangers out in the campo and in different resturaunts and shops. I made new friends and learned new ways to do things. Of course I also learned more Italian. I was able to learn about Italian politics, art, and food. I got to see and new perspective. It was amazing. There are so many wonderful opportunities in this world. For me, this was one of them. I made some amazing friends, both with my fellow classmates and with my host family, who I still keep in contact with.  I recieved a new and improved outlook. This program affected me in many ways, and I am excited to be a part of something like STEP.

Why is this change/transformation significant or valuable for your life?

When a person goes to another country, they start to learn how to navigate life in that new place. There are variety of different customs and socio-cultural norms that a person needs to adapt to as well as compare to what they may have grown up with or been accustomed to. We live in a big world that is constantly changing, so it’s important that we are changing too. There is so much to learn from other people and cultures. I went into my study abroad experience not knowing quite what I had gotten myself into. I was going to live with complete strangers who didn’t speak my language in a foreign country that I had just started to learn. It was an entirely new experience and one that I wouldn’t trade for the entire world. My study abroad experience, while challenging, was beautiful. I was able to meet some truly wonderful people, become acquainted with some really great places, and truly immerse myself into the culture.  This experience forced me to not only look at myself in a new way but also where I came from  and how I choose to portray myself to others. I don’t think i’m the same person who boarded that plane back in May, as clichéd as that may sound. This truly was a life changing experience.

I know that I will be able to handle myself in a variety of situations, whether they be personal or academic, and I am very confident now that I am on the correct career path. This summer, with the help of my STEP Signature Project has helped me see that. I am very excited to see what is to come.