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).
Finals week is here, and I think I’ve mastered the intersections of procrastinating and study abroad. While my peers are in Maastricht (like responsible adults), I’m back in Italy, avoiding my final papers and snacking on Panettone! Call it irresponsibility or just plain crazy, but if I’ve learned anything in the past few months it’s that you CAN travel around and still pass your classes!
That being said, it’s difficult knowing that in a month I’ll be leaving all of this — the spontaneous travel, the amazing food, and Maastricht— behind. I miss GWU, and I miss D.C., but I’m not really ready for the impending judgmental looks when I ask for mayo on my fries.
Study abroad is a lot of things. It’s putting yourself in a whole new, unfamiliar environment, oftentimes where people don’t speak the language or don’t know your culture. It’s experiencing new flavors, meeting new faces, and trying things you never thought you’d try before. It’s oftentimes lonely, oftentimes sad, and oftentimes exciting and happy. There are moments where you sit in your room, wondering why you came here and wishing you were back at Crepeaway. But there are also moments where you look out across the river and think, “By God, I’m actually here.”
The most amazing part of this experience, though, has been my own personal growth. With so much time by myself, I had to become more comfortable and assured in my own body. Over these past four months, I had a lot of time to think about my past, my future, and how that affects my present. I’m much more confident, much more able, and much less willing to deal with things I don’t find of value. Maybe the Dutch bluntness rubbed off on me, or maybe traveling alone just caused this. But I doubt I’ll have trouble speaking up in class, or voicing my opinions to my friends come second semester.
I’m lucky because I have another month left in my apartment. I still have time to visit Eindhoven, Groningen, the Hague, Rotterdam, Berlin, and all the places I wanted to go but didn’t have the time in the beginning. But I can’t say that I’m not ready to go back. It’s been a fun experiment, but I miss the ole U.S. of A. Of course, I’m sure I’ll feel that way about Maastricht in four months.
If there’s anything I’ve learned from traveling, it’s that Murphy’s Law is very real. Everything that could possibly go wrong, will go wrong. However, it teaches lessons that can’t be taught in any other way. You learn quickly that nothing is solved by being passively apathetic. Unexpected challenges will pop up and all you can do is adapt to the new circumstances. It can be difficult to accept a certain turn of events, but it is necessary to overcome particular obstacles. Besides, these road bumps often end up being the most memorable parts of the journey. They make something that was supposed to be mundane become an adventure.
Two weeks ago, my program was returning to Tunisia from an excursion in Italy. The entire journey was only supposed to take an hour. But, it did not go as planned. We were scattered across the airport terminal for hours before learning the flight was cancelled. We sat in plastic blue seats, shared overpriced snacks, and swapped stories for our last grand Italian feast together.
Last semester, my friends and I planned a weekend hiking trip in the north of China. We traveled overnight for hours by bike, metro, taxi, bus, plane, and train to get to the mountains. What we didn’t plan, however, was a hostel. We thought that there was a town full of hostels at the top of the mountain. After hours of late night trains and planes, we hiked for 10 hours up the mountain with all of our bags to find beautiful views, but no town and no hostels. We wandered around tiny villages until we stumbled upon a woman who offered us rooms and a hot dinner. At the time, we were all exhausted and starving and thirsty, but it ended up being the best meal of my life and one of the most memorable experiences in China.
The trips themselves were incredible, but these happy accidents are what made them so memorable. I never would have remembered a canceled flight or basic hostel, but memories of sitting in the airport swapping stories with friends over the cheapest bottle of airport wine and memories of wandering around small Chinese villages will stick with me forever.
So cheers to the missed flights, the late trains, the broken down cars, and the poorly planned plans because they are what make travel worthwhile.
There’s always a moment when a new place starts to feel like home. It happens slowly and it’s often too difficult to notice until it’s done. Eventually, the sight of a coffee shop near your apartment starts to be comforting. The broken sidewalks feel familiar. The chipped paint on the outside of the building is inviting.
However, it’s not only the place that composes the home. The community creates a sense of belonging within that place. The people who surround you make the unfamiliar environment feel welcoming. Inevitably, there are moments when you’re abroad where you’re completely and utterly confused about everything, but it’s the people that help in these moments who become family. It’s moments like fighting off wild monkeys on a mountain peak in Zhangjiajie or bartering with merchants in the middle of the Sahara or being stranded and starving in an Italian airport for hours that help to build these relationships. Retrospectively, these moments are the most cherished.
The first home away from home that I found was in DC, but thanks to the Global Bachelor’s program, I feel like I have dozens of homes scattered across the world. Paris, Shanghai, Palermo, Sidi Bou Saïd, and Tunis are all my homes away from home. Each study abroad group has felt like a family that I can reach out to for help no matter where we are in the whole wide world. Initially, they help you sail confidently into the unknown until you’re able to navigate them yourself. Eventually, those unfamiliar waters become a home.
By Rachel Blair
A key point that I have learned here in France, is learning how to actually balance everything while you’re in a different country. Yes, you have to learn how to balance while you’re away at school, but this type of balance is different. At first I thought it was going to be really easy, because all I’m doing this semester is taking classes compared to working two jobs and being in a sorority on top of classes. But, I feel like finding a balance, especially in this program is harder.
To begin, you’re in a new country, so your motivation to do work has actually gone down. Then, you don’t realize that you’re takin a class every day, that assigns homework every day, so you actually have to get the work done when you get back from class. But then you want tot explore Paris, but you have to eat and it’s already later in the day. It’s about finding what work is most important to do first and not killing yourself over the work either because at the end of the day, you’re going to do fine no matter what.
But on top of that, I think the most important balance comes from actually exploring Paris. Because you’re in Europe, & it’s so much easier to travel, you use up most of your weekends going to different countries rather than visiting different parts of Paris, let alone France. Last weekend, my mother, sister, & aunt came to visit me and it was one of the best times here in Paris. I forgot what it was like to walk around Paris and just enjoy all that it has to offer. Paris is a beautiful place & I decided to study abroad here for a reason & I have to remember that. My goal for this last month of being here is going to be to do as much as I can inside Paris & enjoy all of the little things it has to offer.
To help balance, I advise going on all of the trips that are provided through the program. I will say it over & over again, but I feel like it really helps me get to know Paris & France as a whole.
But, you also must travel. I would feel so guilty if I spent a semester in France but didn’t travel to any other country. This weekend I went to Florence. I have a friend studying abroad there, but my boyfriend is currently with me & his family is from Italy, so we figured it’d be the perfect time to go see it. It was beautiful, but also not what I was expecting. We stayed in Florence & went to Rome for half of a day. I loved it, & know that I will be going back.
I just wish that there was more time in the program. When you start, you think you have all of the time in the world, but in reality, it goes by quicker than you think, & you’re going to leave with still of list of things you want to do, but that’s okay. I am enjoying as much as I can from this experience, but I’ve also accepted the fact that I’m not going to get to go everywhere, & that I am going to come back.
Moral of the story, enjoy Paris, but don’t be afraid to travel.
I finished my first quarter of classes! i’ll have to hand it to problem based learning— it’s definitely an effective method of teaching. If you put in the effort, you get results, and barely have to study for exams. But After all that hard work and many hours spent in the reading room, Ive never been more ready for a break! So I’m off to meet up with friends in Rome, Florence, and Budapest!
In Rome and Florence, I’ll be hitting up the major tourists sites, going vintage shopping, and stuffing my face with gelato! I’ll also meet up with Jade, a GW student currently studying in Florence with a provider program. But beyond the typical tourist stuff, Italy holds a special place in my family history. My father spent a majority of his 20s in Italy cycling for a professional team. I remember sitting in his office when I was younger, listening to him spin tails about how Italian grandmothers who taught him how to make pizza, how he’d exchange champagne won from races for a place to sleep, and how difficult it was to live in a country where no one spoke his language. I never thought that I would have the chance to visit, let alone stomp around on his old grounds!
So far, I’ve spent a night in Rome, and I can see why my father fell in love with Italy. After a day of walking around the borghese gardens and the Vatican, stuffing my face with four euro pasta, I’m tired, sore, and breathless. Breathless not because of the 40,000 steps I took, but because of the scenery and art. Literally— I audibly gasped when I entered the Raphael rooms in the Vatican! The Netherlands has great art, don’t get me wrong, but there’s really no comparison to seeing the Sistine chapel and saint peters basilica, or just walking past the bright buildings littered throughout Rome. And if the art is this good in Rome, Who knows what Florence— the true birthplace of the renaissance— will have in store!
In about six days I’ll be off to Budapest to see my GW friend, Matilda. I’m not sure I want to leave Italy, but I’m excited to see a familiar face from GW. She’s currently studying at Central European university, on GW exchange! A masters university located in the heart of Budapest, CEu is one of the oldest masters programs on the continent, and boasts impressive scientific and humanities qualifications. When I told my classmates about my plans, their jaws immediately dropped, asking me how Matilda got in, how she liked it, and how the classes were. Apparently it has quite the reputation in Europe, and GW students are lucky enough to have program options there! I have no idea what Budapest will be like, but I’m hoping that, since I’m visiting hallowweekend, there will be plenty of spooky things to do. Unfortunately, I don’t think pumpkin gnocchi will be enough to satisfy my cravings for jack o lanterns.
These past three and a half months have been a whirlwind, but I am so proud to say that I completed a semester abroad in Florence, Italy. There were as many bad days as there were good days, but all in all, I believe that the places I’ve seen and the discoveries I’ve made about myself, Italian culture, and academic culture in a foreign country were all rewarding experiences that I will carry with me for this rest of my life.
As a friend of mine so eloquently stated in a Facebook message last week: “Finals still suck even when you’re studying abroad”. And after finishing three term papers, studying for four exams, and presenting two presentations (one of which was for Italian class, and I must admit, my Italian is still a little rusty), I can definitely agree with this statement. However, once I finished all of my assignments and exams, I felt truly accomplished and treated myself to a few farewell activities with friends.
Although I only have a mere 9 days left in Italy, I am enjoying every minute of my remaining time. This weekend I had a Christmastime themed blast with friends! On Friday, I went to the Mercato di Natale (Christmas Market) in Santa Croce. The market, which began in Florence in 2003 is modeled after German Christmas markets and featured a variety of both Italian and German holiday food and decorations. After trying a delicious soft pretzel and buying some gifts for relatives at the market, I then simply took a tour of all of the Christmas lights and trees in downtown Florence. The tree that was most stunning was certainly the tree in Piazza Repubblica.