I sat in front of the Fontana di Trevi, devouring a cone filled with melting chocolate gelato. I know, I know – typical American. My friends back at home thought this was my every day schedule. I hate to admit, but it kind of was.
When I flew back to Chicago after living in Rome for four months, I had encountered more experiences than some people do in a lifetime, even if they did all include chocolate gelato.
I will admit that my first impression of studying abroad was something along the lines of, “Wine and food pairing? For credit? I’m in.”
At Illinois State we have a growing Study Abroad and International Exchange program that focuses on educating and challenging adventurous students. The Office of International Studies and Programs offers over 1,000 abroad opportunities through ISU and affiliate organizations combined.
So why aren’t more of ISU’s ambitious students taking this opportunity?
Fear is the most powerful emotion that holds students back from this decision, the fear of an unpredictable environment and the fear of missing out on the college experience at ISU.
I was presented with challenges abroad. Leaving my family for four months was difficult, and yes, at times I had to live vicariously through Facebook photos from my friends at ISU.
I received countless judgmental looks walking around like a ‘20s flapper on Halloween. I missed out on shoveling turkey down my throat on Thanksgiving Day.
But I can still promise you the pros outweighed the cons.
When you are thrown into a city where you don’t know a single person, place or word in the language, opportunity presents itself.
You can run like hell back to what you know or you can immerse yourself in the culture. I chose the latter.
Alone in a foreign city, my first step was to make a friend. Her name was Laura from Florida. She’s still my best friend to this day.
I went to school and learned Italian, one of the most beautiful languages on earth. Believe it or not, there’s more to it than “Ciao, bella.”
I practiced conversing with Italians, even if I only needed directions to a metro stop or to know the cost of gelato (I’m sorry, but it never gets old).
Next, I traveled. I traveled on horseback to vineyards and bicycled through medieval cities, down cobblestone roads and hidden back alleys. I sat in the core of the eternal city amongst the chaos of scattered rose petals on the Spanish Steps. Everywhere I went, a new adventure awaited.
I met people who told me stories about their enormous families and their exclusive fashion boutique jobs. They showed me their favorite ancient architecture and fresh markets with the ripest sundried tomatoes.
I learned that the American way to do things is not always the right way; it is simply just one of the ways.
I budgeted my time to include studying, exploring and socializing.
I walked up 551 steps to the top of St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. I dipped my hands in the River Liffey in Dublin. I sat exactly where Anne Frank sequestered herself from Nazis in Amsterdam.
I learned to step outside my box and become independent. I refused to let fear stand in my way.
Today many people ask me for advice before they go abroad. My response?
Indulge in every chance that comes to you. Your family and friends will wait here for you. They will be excited for your journey and listen to your stories when you return.
Sixteen weeks is not enough time. Our world is vast and ever changing. We never have enough hours in a day to examine everything out there.
The experiences and lessons I gained abroad could never be taught by a professor or in a textbook. They are out there waiting for you to discover them.
Enjoy the gelato.