In my sophomore year at The Ohio State University, I decided to pursue the STEP Fellowship. Following the completion of that year, I spent six weeks in Siena, Tuscany, Italy from June 9, 2018 to July 23, 2018. In Siena, I lived with a local host family and took three language and content courses, all taught in Italian, for six weeks to earn a total of 10 Ohio State semester hour credits. I was enrolled in Siena Italian Studies, a school established by Italian educators from Siena intended to teach those who live outside of Italy to be fully immersed in Italian culture, language and lifestyle. As a part of this program, I attended classes Monday-Friday, ate breakfast and dinner with my host family, and was exposed to not only Italian life, but Sienese life. I enrolled in this program with intentions of improving my language speaking skills and completing my minor in Italian language.
I would say that my view of the world around me changed due to my participation in this program, but I consider that to be an understatement. Prior to this full immersion experience, I have never been to Europe. To be more specific, at the time I have never left North America, with my first time leaving the country being last summer when I spent five weeks in Canada. Every single part of this experience, from the time difference to going through customs at the airport, was extremely new for me. My understanding of myself was one of the first things I noticed starting to change. I struggled academically in the beginning of this program and I was extremely insecure about it. This was not my first time feeling like the weakest link in my Italian class, I experienced this in my second semester of sophomore year in my advancing Italian classes. I was discouraged and frustrated upon realizing that I have been learning Italian for five years and not half as skilled as others in my advanced class in Italy. However, after being naturally forced to speak Italian around my family, who spoke little to no English, in my classes/to my professors and to locals, I passed exams for fluency with flying colors. I am now considered to be bilingual. My stamina to transition from proficiency to fluency is something I never believed I had, as well as the courage to allow myself to experience failure and try again.
I definitely had assumptions prior to arriving in Italy. This particular program places students in a family without telling the student who they are living with in order to avoid assumptions. Naturally, I assumed the best, that I would be living in the city center and all my friends would live near me. Upon arrival, I was placed with the most incredible family, but they lived about 15 minutes outside of the city center. I got lost on public transportation multiple times my first week. Being that I did not have cellular service, I was scared, annoyed, and agitated my first week due to how I never seemed to understand the bus. This was especially agitating being that I have perfected the New York City Mass Transportation System since I was 12 years old. It was difficult for me to enter and exit the city with the bus schedules, so I used that as a crutch that would hinder me from getting out more. However, a week in, I realized that if there’s a will, there’s a way. Thus, I memorized the bus schedules and figured out how to get around on my own. I loved every second of it.
Although I did have assumptions, many aspects of life in Italy caught me off guard, which led to the transformation of my world view. Italians are happy people, and I truly believe that is because they live simply. Their homes are extremely minimalist, they dress simply, they do not have fancy belongings to show off, but they are all happy. I realized in Italy that there is more to life than the gluttony of American society. It took me three weeks in to realize that I needed to stop and appreciate my surroundings a little bit more, talk to people outside of my social circle, and just live in the moment, especially because I really do not know when I will ever have the opportunity to return to Europe again.
My relationships with people was probably the aspect of this trip that I value the most, next to my increase in language skills of course. To begin, I came to Siena with a few people from Ohio State, one being one of my classmates with whom I have had class with for four semesters in a row, others who have been in my classes but never really had a chance to connect with. I left Siena with two of my now closest friends and a dozen other Ohio State connections, as well as friends on the programs from state as far as Singapore and cities as close as Cleveland. Being American in any foreign place is overwhelming, given our reputation and stereotypes that come with it. However, when you are with other Americans who are just as eager to explore, go out, and learn the language and culture, everything is so much easier.
The family I lived with was incredible. The family was was a couple who had kids later in life, so they were nearing 50, with two small children who were 7 and 9. While the children were, at times, a lot to handle with their 7 and 9 year old attitudes and constant crying, they were incredibly social. My family spoke little to know English, so communicating with the kids was my favorite part because Italian was so simple. Through my family, they introduced me to their children’s grandparents, their aunts and uncles, their neighbors, the parents of their children’s friends, and so many more people. My family brought us to family gatherings and cookouts, as well as to dinners with friends. They cared about me and the other American girl who lived with me in their home to a point that I questioned why. I never figured out why they treated us like family, but I believe that was the true nature of the Italian people-making outsiders feel like insiders. Although I haven’t spoken to them since I left, saying goodbye was so hard. I will never forget them and I will always appreciate everything they have done for me.
The experience that I truly believe changed my life was Palio. Palio is a medieval horse race that has been taking place in the Piazza Del Campo in Siena since the Renaissance. (There is a really good documentary on Netflix called “Palio” that explains the event in the fullest extent) Siena used to be divided into districts, and each district would enter a horse. These districts still exist, and if you are born in Siena, you belong to a district. The best way to describe a district, or the Italian word contrada, is probably a mix between a fraternity and a church parish. Your parents are in a contrada, so you are in a contrada. You are baptized into this contrada and all your friends growing up are in your contrada. Your friends parents are your second, third, fourth, etc. set of parents watching out for you. It is a community. It is why people born in Siena never leave Siena, because they have their whole lives in their contrada. I learned a lot of this information from my own family, who was in a contrada, but from the young locals I formed relationships with in Siena. My friend from Ohio State lived with a family with a daughter who was the same age as us, so we would frequently go out with her and all of her friends, who were in her contrada. Each of these contradas still enter horses and the whole city gathers and celebrates for weeks leading up with each contrada having huge outdoor parties. The horse race is 90 seconds but the anticipation for those 90 seconds is like nothing I have ever experienced. It was an unbelievable experience seeing the preparation and aftermath of Palio and the passion the Sienese have for their city.
I can affirm that this was indeed a transformational life experience. To start, it made me regret not making Italian my major. While I do not think I can physically sit through and succeed in more difficult Italian classes, I do want to continue to speak, which is difficult to do when you are living in middle America. This is why I intend on joining Italian Club and remaining active in the Department of French and Italian. The change in my development matters because I feel that I have matured during my time in Italy. I had an open mind through my initial struggles and I realized that I was in Siena for a reason with work to be done. It was the greatest time of my life so far and I was meant to experience all of that.
My goal was to excel in Italian, which I did on a level that exceeded any of my initial expectations. By the end of this program, I have written two 10 page final papers in Italian on Italian Art and Emigration. I have given 5 presentations in Italian. I have mastered an oral exam that was simply a conversation with my instructor. I did what I was there to do, while exploring the country and all of its treasures. I can speak the language that my family lost when my Italian ancestors who emigrated to the United States lost. I am connected to my heritage and my culture in a way that I am so baffled and humbled by. I would like to thank the faculty and staff at Siena Italian Studies for providing me with the experience and education of a lifetime. I would also like to thank Janice Aski, one of the most remarkable professors I have ever come to know and the heart and soul of the Department of French and Italian at Ohio State, for believing in me and encouraging me to participate in this program-Grazie Janice! I could not be more grateful for Ohio State, Siena Italian Studies and STEP for this incredible opportunity.