I’m not young enough to base the study abroad experience on my own anymore. I didn’t even have wifi in my apartment in Ascoli back in 2010, nevermind apps. So there has definitely been a switch in how students navigate their time here, but as a new round of students start swarming through the center, I can’t help but think back to the advice I’d give my students, and I still feel the majority of it still counts for something.
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
— Mary Oliver
To the student that’s getting ready to adventure: Ask yourself what your plan is – seriously give yourself a minute or two to think about this experience that you’re about to begin. This is a small but extremely significant part of your one wild and precious life. Why are you doing this? What are your reasons for coming to Italy? Are you looking to learn Italian? Do you want to get inside an industry here? Are you looking to have better chances for a more international internship? Are you coming here for the food? Do you just want to travel? What was the key factor that led to you submitting your application to study abroad? Think about it, write it down and own that declaration for the time you’re here.
Once you step off that plane, you may be completely overwhelmed – and that is absolutely normal. Remember them every day and make sure to push yourself toward your goals. They can zoom right out of your head when it’s deathly hot or cold out, there’s no AC or “appropriate” heating, you’re slammed with school work and you’d rather just sit in your wifi and watch Netflix until your eyes close. Push yourself. Get out and do what you came here to do. You are living in another culture. Take advantage of everything Florence, Italy has to offer to you.
Here are a few tips with the help of an intercultural communications expert, Margaret Pusch:
Stages Of Transition
Students may pass through these stages in a different order or skip some stages altogether. As your student encounters these stages, listen, praise accomplishments, and offer support. Try not to make cultural or value judgments. Instead, ask about differences and try to understand them together.
With the excitement of preparation comes the formation of expectations and goals. To prepare for the transition, students should research the country in which they will study. They should remain realistic in their expectations to avoid disappointment.
Do you have a question about life in Florence? Do you need help forming your expectations? Ask someone who has studied abroad before, your study abroad office, or even email me! There are no dumb questions. Do you know what threw me for a loop when I got to Italy? That I couldn’t have the washing machine and the oven on at the same time. Know what would’ve saved me from having a mental breakdown when I was baking brownies? Knowing about these things beforehand. If I had been more prepared for what awaited me in Italy, I would’ve been able to deal with these challenges more easily, and with more grace – because there certainly wasn’t any in me the day my brownies were mushy. Go and ask the questions. Do the thing. Prepare yourself.
Arrival Confusion & The Honeymoon
The first few days can be very trying, disorienting, and intimidating. It is not uncommon for students to call home, be upset about housing, the city, jetlag, or local people. If students are upset, they should speak with the local staff, who are ready to help during this initial adjustment period. As everything in the host country is typically new, different, and fascinating, many students respond by being on a cultural high, feeling that everything is wonderful.
Then there is the stage of arrival where everything is bright and shiny and new and exciting (and a little confusing but that’s ok)! Orientation helps you get on your feet with getting settled and ease into this new life you’re living! It’s incredible! You are on top of the world! (for most, some will have homesickness, anxiety, and other worries and this is absolutely fine too – make sure to talk to someone about it – you don’t have to do this alone) But then even for some that are ecstatic right off the plane, you hit:
When the novelty wears off, students can become frustrated and confused by the need to adjust to new ways of communicating and differences in living style, food, social customs, and classroom interactions. Although difficult, this stage prepares students to engage with the new culture at a deeper level.
It’s now mid-semester. Your classwork is heavy. You have traveled a ton. You are tired. You miss your friends. You have a neighbor that practices opera and at first, it was great and magical, but now you wish they’d just stopppp. If you think that you’ll be on a high for every single day of your time in Florence, you are kidding yourself. But this is the critical time when you need to remember that declaration you made. Get out and go to another event, strike up the courage to go talk to those guys that play soccer in the park and ask if you can play too (a student of mine did this one year and they became her best friends). You can create any type of experience you want while you are abroad. The only one stopping you is you.
One of the easiest ways to do this is to grow roots. You’re missing your comforts when you’re homesick, right? So make some things comfortable in Florence. Start routines, make local friends (even if they’re foreigners too!) and don’t.travel.every.weekend. Travel is awesome – and the possibility of jumping on a plane to Paris for the weekend is incredible and you certainly have those opportunities! But just because the planes fly doesn’t mean you should book them every weekend.
Here are the three following steps – just for reference 🙂
Initial Adjustment – As students develop their language and social skills, they become more confident and comfortable with local transportation, communication, and social customs. Understanding these aspects of culture and responding appropriately are important accomplishments.
Confronting Deeper Issues – As students confront cultural differences and personal issues at a deeper level, they begin to see a multitude of approaches to their life abroad and to question deeper assumptions about the world. Students may feel isolated at times.
Adapting and Assimilating –The sense of isolation subsides as students begin to feel more at home and identify with new ways of thinking and behaving. At this point, students are comfortable with their home identities and with the adapted identities they have developed in the new culture. Not all students will reach this stage, so do not be disappointed if you do not.
Have Meaningful Experiences Abroad
I want you to travel but I also want you to get a lasting, meaningful experience while discovering the world. If you keep a balance of travel and staying “home” while studying abroad, you’ll eventually get to take those quotes off of that word and use it as it should truly be used.
Home doesn’t have to only represent one place. Try to create a home of your own while abroad — and it could stay one of your homes for the rest of your life.
Tomorrow, I’ll write out some more examples of why I hate when I hear of students taking off to travel Europe every Thursday through Sunday. You’d be surprised as to how different the experience can be if you just stay put a bit!