College is the perfect time to try new things and gain different experiences. For many students, including myself, traveling and living in a new place temporarily is a bucket list goal. I have lived in the same state my entire life and always pictured myself escaping my hometown bubble once I went to college, but instead, I joined most of my high school in the decision to become a JMU Duke. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t trade my decision to come to JMU or the friendships I have maintained for anything, but once I got the opportunity to travel elsewhere, I knew I had to take it.
In October of 2021, I received an email advertising a study abroad program in Urbino, Italy for SMAD majors. At first, I was a bit skeptical because I have never heard of this city before. I always pictured my abroad experience to be in Rome, Florence, or any other well-known place but hey, beggars can’t be choosers. After researching more about the program and what it had to offer, I soon realized that the small town would allow me to engage more thoroughly with the culture and people. Fast forward a few months later, I received my acceptance email and in May of 2022, I was aboard an 8-hour flight to a once in a lifetime opportunity.
The buildup to the month-long trip contained excitement, nerves, and confusion on how in the world I’m going to fit an entire wardrobe in one suitcase. As much as I tried to prepare for what was to come, nothing could have made me ready for the big changes coming my way. I figured I would gain life lessons and maybe a gelato addiction, but the takeaways I experienced has helped shape me into the person I am today. My hope is that if you are looking for a reason to study abroad, my experiences can help inspire you to step out of your comfort zone.
1. Gain Independence
Up until this point, I had only ever traveled with my family or a large group of my close friends to different states. Even when I moved into my freshman year dorm, I had my high school best friend just a floor beneath me. I was used to having structure and found comfort in familiarity. Upon my arrival in Urbino, I was quickly greeted with a 10-hour travel day shared with all new faces. It was up to me to find people to grocery shop with, eat lunch with, and explore day to day activities with.
The newfound responsibility allowed me to bond with my roommates and peers as I lived with them in a completely different manner than I was used to. I came back from Urbino with new cultural knowledge and a sense of independence I lacked prior.
2. Build New Relationships
Between the time difference, no air conditioning, travel weekends, and more, sharing all these experiences with my peers helped to form bonds I’ve never had before. My program contained two additional U.S. schools and integrated us with University of Urbino students who worked as our translators.
We were able to have travel weekends that consisted of taking trains, buses, and cabs to unfamiliar territory where we would stay in various Airbnb. Going from having a close-knit circle back at home to sharing a rented home with strangers was a big adjustment but helped all of us form deep connections. After completing this program, I now have places to stay all over the world and friendships I will cherish forever. Being able to learn from like-minded people who come from different backgrounds will always be one of the best outcomes from studying abroad.
3. Experience A New Culture Firsthand
Staying in the small town of Urbino, the cultural and language barriers were a lot more prominent than other tourist destinations. For starters, I went to a cafe on my first day there and was very confused when I received a cup of hot milk instead of coffee because “latte” means a completely different drink in Italian. It took a few weeks but with the help of my professors and translators I was able to order properly and began to understand the culture more.
I learned to slow down and appreciate what is around me, as Italians never rush and value quality time. This is displayed in the way waiters and waitresses won’t bring you the bill until you ask or how most stores close midday, so everyone has a few hours to eat and enjoy lunch. I also learned the importance of patience when trying to communicate through language barriers. It isn’t easy and can be frustrating but there are other ways to get points across besides speaking the same language.
I hope this blog post was inspiring and helps you make the decision to go beyond your comfort zone whether you are deciding to study abroad or not. Remember that there is a whole world out there and it is waiting for you to explore.