As I type this, I’m sitting down on my bed back home in the United States for the first time in what feels like centuries. It was a whirlwind of travelling, and my phone has changed back to Eastern Standard Time, but my body hasn’t. I have been reflecting on the different aspects of being abroad and going through all the things I’ve learned and the ways I’ve changed, and I can truly say, it has been a transformative experience. At every point in life, we always tend to think that we know ourselves fully and completely, only to be proven wrong the next day – and I think this is true for me. While my core identity didn’t necessarily change, I have gained a new perspective in understanding myself and the world around me that I wouldn’t have had if I had not lived in another country for a few months. One of the main things that I’ve realized this semester is that the world is always much bigger than we imagine it. Of course, this sounds like a no-brainer, but it’s something that we don’t actively think about on a daily basis. In America, if you grew up here, chances are you spoke English and saw the world through a very Americanized lens. It makes sense because on a daily basis, we aren’t necessarily interacting with a different language or a different culture because, well, we’re usually surrounded by Americans (in all the different meanings of the word). But going abroad opened my eyes to entirely different ways of looking at the world. There are other governments, other clothing trends, other movies, other EVERYTHING that we as Americans don’t even realize exists because it falls outside of our daily orbit. Having this type of experience makes you question what you know the world to be in such a way that it makes you want to see more and more and more of it. If studying abroad has given me anything, it is the intense desire to keep traveling and exposing myself to different experiences. I think it is going to be very hard to leave the study abroad mindset and revert back to an American idea of things. But, if anything, having this experience has reminded me that it is possible to do your own work and fill in the gaps even when you don’t always have access to another culture or city or language. And I think that is what is going to help me adjust to being back from abroad, is keeping in touch with all of the friends I made in different countries and texting them in their language to practice and sharing part of myself with them just like they’ve done with me. There’s a whole world full of people that you’ve yet to meet, and just going up to someone and saying “hi” has made all the different in my experience abroad, and it gives me something to look forward to as I hope to remain connected to this amazing and interesting community that I was, if only for a few months, a part of.
People always think it’s funny when I bring it up, but I cannot stress enough how different of a person I am now than I was during high school. Like, complete 180º different. Going away to college didn’t just give me a chance to meet people outside of the small town I grew up in, but it also affirmed and challenged different parts of my identity that I didn’t even know were possible. It’s been a long process of coming into myself (and it’s not done), but I have been more in tune with my communities and identities in a way that I had never had before college, and in a way that set me up for an abroad experience.
Many people say that going abroad is a chance to “find yourself.” And, in many ways, I believe that this is true. Spending time in a community that is outside of what you are used to makes you think more critically about how you walk through the world. But there’s also the importance of the period before going abroad that is very important in accessing your identity. Doing a self-inventory before I went abroad was a very important part of putting me in the right mindset to travel and live in such a different space. The communities and bonds that I left behind in DC for the semester have been very important in understanding how important a support network is for me. There is a necessary labor that happens in building a space for yourself, and it is so important to have that space in order to be safely challenged and continuously grow, knowing that you have people around to catch you if you need it.
One of the biggest culture shocks for me since going abroad has been the intense paradigm shift in identifying with the work that you do. In the US, it is a given that your identity is constructed by what you spend the majority of your time doing (perhaps work or school). It’s not uncommon to meet someone for the first time and be asked the age-old question: “So what do you do?” It has been so ingrained in my mind that I began to also identify with whatever job I was doing, or even what courses I was taking. In Europe, the idea of identifying yourself first as your career or job is so foreign, that often it doesn’t even come up in conversation until much later in knowing a new person. Actually, I couldn’t even tell you the jobs of most of the people the people that I’ve met so far in my travel experience. It just simply isn’t as important. And the reason I bring this up, is because it has made me consider my identities even more (ironically). People don’t ask me what job I’m working or what internships I’ve had, but they do ask about my family, my hobbies, and my passions. In this way, I’ve been able to actually take more ownership of my identities because of how much more they mean in this cultural context. People ask because they want to know, and I’ve become prouder to share these parts of myself that previously might have been secondary to whether or not I’m working a “hillternship.”
I’ve seen some beautiful places and met some amazing people, and each part of this experience has been a way to both affirm and safely challenge how I walk through a space. That is not to say that you *need* to study abroad to get out of your comfort zone, but sometimes you need to peek over the other side of the fence to see something new in the world and in yourself. Expanding your mindset, and also your community, gives you a space to become more of yourself than you ever thought possible, and in the best cases, gives you people to always fall back on no matter the circumstances.
By Dom Reynoso
Over the past few years since moving away to college, I have been on a journey of discovering how my different identities and parts of myself interact with each other. I typically identify myself as a Latinx gay man, which are two identities that have combined and contradicted each other throughout my entire life. It has led to a lot of confusion growing up, and it has been an experience of slipping through the cracks. I’m not always seen as “Latinx enough” to operate in those spaces, and at times not “queer enough” to operate in queer spaces because of my race. I think it comes from the reality of how our communities are represented and marketed to the world. When I’m at home in the US, it’s often a struggle to express my identities to people in a way that doesn’t detach them from myself. People typically want an explanation that is coherent with their perception of the world; they want an explanation of “Latinx” that sounds like what they’ve seen in the movies, or a definition of “queer” that can be explained to them without their discomfort. As you can imagine, it makes it difficult to parcel myself out in this way and explain my identities so that they feel lived-in instead of hollow.
Pride in identity is something that I have been challenged with since coming to college. Before that, I had never understood that I could express pride in something that wasn’t normative. And, when I grew to love and express my identities in college, I think it sometimes confused some people. It evoked a sense of disruption when I talked about the intersections of my identities around people who didn’t expect me to. But slowly over time, I got more and more comfortable with the fact that I can claim my identities without shame or fear. Going abroad is such an interesting experience because, in many ways, it is like starting all over learning how to express yourself. What seemed so easy before now exists within the context of an entirely different culture and language. In Italy, people claim their identities in a very different way that continues to change my perception of identity. For many Italians I’ve met, they have a much stronger sense of regional identity than we might find in the US. People classify themselves by their hometown/region first, and then perhaps by being Italian, and in extremely rare cases, as European. It creates a very different aspect of identity than I’m typically used to, but it has a historical reasoning. For many Italians, they remain in the regions that they’re from, and different parts of Italy even speak different dialects (that, according to my host mom, she herself can’t even fully understand when she travels to different regions). This kind of construction of identity is vastly different than what I’m used to, but it is refreshing in the sense that people here are just used to claiming their regional identities more frequently and with more enthusiasm.
It is interesting how a culture and language shift changes your perception of how to think about yourself and the different parts of you that you show to the world. It’s been about a month since I’ve arrived in the country, and I’m surprised everyday about the different things I pick up on. There’s still a lot to be discovered here, and little by learning I’m learning how to define myself again (and maybe this time in Italian).