There has never been a time in my life when I don’t remember my mother telling me stories of her junior year abroad in Montpellier, France. From describing her breakfasts to the amazing springtime trips with her friends, my mother filled my imagination with her memories and emotions from her life years before. It’s not a surprise, then, that with these stories came the assertion that, when the time came, I would have my own adventure abroad.
But I was stuck. In my own imagining of my future time abroad, I never felt a connection with a certain language or a certain culture where I was sure I could feel at home for an entire year. I took Spanish all through high school and had basically accepted that I would be going to either South America or Spain, but my heart wasn’t fully content. I didn’t know what to do.
The love I developed for Italian then fell into my lap completely by accident. During my first experience with registering for college classes in the fall of 2013, I quickly realized that my Spanish skills were not good enough to place me above the 202 level despite my four years of experience. Only taking a language for fun in the first place, I soon settled on a completely random language to start from scratch: Italian. I took it because I liked Olive Garden and because my step-dad’s family is from Italy, but I had no major attachments to the language, nor the culture. I wasn’t even taking Italian with the idea that I would one day study abroad there; at that point, I was still invested in the William & Mary/St. Andrews Dual Degree Program, where I would spend my sophomore and junior years abroad in Scotland.
Soon, though, I knew I couldn’t go through with choosing Scotland over Italy. After only a few weeks in the Italian department at William & Mary, I was completely hooked. I would study for hours and complete the writing prompts with such fervor that I surely seemed crazy. I loved going to the Italian House activities, and signed up to live there as soon as I decided to leave the Dual Degree Program. By the fall of my sophomore year, spending a year in Italy was becoming a quick-coming reality.
I chose my program in Siena for several reasons: the first is that the town is not as big as many study abroad towns in Italy, and therefore does not have quite so many English speakers as the main metropolitan cities. The second reason is the service component, where we must go out into the community for several hours a week and give back, whether that is teaching English, helping at a nursing home, aiding the town’s emergency responders, or whatever other opportunities present themselves. The third and probably biggest reason is the host family experience. I had spent my entire life hearing about my mother’s wonderful host family in France, and even had the pleasure of meeting them this past summer. In choosing between my several location options in Italy, I had to decide whether having a host family was an important enough factor for me to choose the Siena program. After a quick phone call to my mom and a prayer that I would be placed with a nice family, I sent in my application to Siena Italian Studies.
It was the best decision I ever made. After only a week of being in Siena, my host family had already started to feel like a home away from home. They fussed over me and made sure I liked the food, and included me in every activity they took part in. My host sister, Luisa, quickly became one of my best friends in the world. She is 18 and in her last year of high school, so our ages are similar enough that we can share friends and activities easily. I often tag along to birthday parties and dinners out with her friends, and they have all accepted me as part of the gang. I can’t imagine going through this year without this family.
Because the truth of the matter is, too, that doing a whole year abroad can be really hard. Even in a place as wonderful as Italy, I have had my fair share of homesickness and sadness that only comes with being away from all things familiar for a long period of
ime. William & Mary was the only school I applied to, so to choose to go away for an entire year was heartbreaking, on a certain level. And being away from my family for so many months at a time was almost impossible to think about doing. But my host family gave me opportunities to feel like a part of a family over here, too, in a way that makes missing my real family not as painful.
For me, choosing to do an entire year abroad instead of just one semester has allowed me to build relationships with the community and culture that would be impossible in a shorter amount of time. For my community service, I have been
able to work with the same group of kindergarteners since September and therefore build a deeper and more trusting relationship with them, as well as see how much they have progressed since early fall. I feel less like a temporary tourist and more like a part of the life that goes on here in Siena. I have developed preferences to certain stores and restaurants that I can continue to use throughout an entire other semester instead of rushing to try it all before time runs out. I can speak Italian better and with more confidence than ever before. I love that I can help my new Spring-semester-only friends find their way in a city that was once just as foreign to me, but now feels like a second home.
If I had to go back and do it all over again, I would choose exactly the same course for me. Siena, Italy has been a place where I’ve grown as a person more than ever before, made lifetime relationships with the people in my program and especially with my host family, and learned how to become a part of a new culture by simply being willing to try. A year abroad gave me an opportunity to go above and beyond just the typical study abroad experience, and find my niche in a place on the other side of the world. It has been exciting, unbelievable,
and more than I ever could have imagined. I never want to say good-bye.