Brooklyn Scharwark participated in the ISU in Orvieto Study Abroad program, sponsored by the Department of History and School of Art, during summer 2018.
A two-hour drive, ten-hour flight, and two-hour layover and I was there—Italia. A place that so many people dream about going and there I was, standing in the airport about to embark on this one-month journey for college credit and I did not know a single person on the trip (besides one of the professors, and although she is amazing, she doesn’t count—sorry Professor Jasper). I was the first student in the group to arrive (did I mention I flew by myself?) and as I was sitting in the meeting spot, I was panicking. Although I was definitely sleep deprived (and more than a little smelly), I started second guessing all my reasons for going to Italy.
Who did I think I was, a girl who has never been away from home for more than three weeks and never left the country, flying across the world to a place where I didn’t even speak the language? I was scared, nervous, and doubting myself. But under all those feelings, I was excited. I was so happy to be in this place I had wanted to visit for so long. I was excited to see all of the places and art that I had learned about in real life and not just on a PowerPoint or in a textbook. I could not believe all I was going to see and learn during my month there that would directly correlate with my future research and career. Yes, I was scared out of my mind but that was just nerves, the excitement of the unknown.
As terrifying as the lead-up to my journey was, once I arrived and took a second to relax I realized that yes, I made it there and yes, this was going to be one of the best times of my life. All my irrational fears went away. The rational ones, like “what if I don’t find anyone else in the group?” or “what if someone tries to talk to me in Italian?” stayed, of course (because don’t they always?). I had the courage to do all the planning and take the flight over there, the rest of the stuff was going to be easy. It’s super corny, but the saying “courage is not the absence of fear but the triumph over it”? Totally true. In my situation, and I’m sure almost every other study abroad student’s situation, the first step was the hardest. But once I was there, met everyone, and was on the fast track to making lifelong friends, I finally felt calm and was ready to take on anything Italy threw at me.
Italy threw a lot at me. I knew we were going to be busy because we only had a month to see as many ancient and medieval sites as we could fit it, but I didn’t imagine it was going to be as fast paced as it was. I’m glad we were busy though because it kept me engaged in the material we were learning, in touch with others in the group, and I never had a problem falling asleep at night. We visited so many historical, famous places like Rome, Florence, Sienna, Assisi, and Vatican City.
One of my favorite places was probably Assisi. We got to go inside the Santa Maria delgi Angei, the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels. Although it was beautiful on the outside, the best part of the basilica was the inside. In the center of the building was a tiny chapel that St. Francis supposedly rebuilt while he was alive. We got to walk right into it, touch anything we wanted to. I am not super religious but there was something about the chapel that just struck me. I walked around the whole thing and let my fingers trail over the stones while I did. I was definitely in awe but I was also wonderstruck—I was physically touching history. I think that moment was when it fully hit me that I was so blessed to have the opportunity to be in Italy to see these amazing places and learn about them from professionals in the field.
I had so many favorites while I was there. My favorite café to visit before class, place to eat, gelato store, place to study, etc. So many places I will remember forever. I learned so much information while I was there too. I took two classes that are normally full-semester courses at ISU in one month abroad. The courses were different than on-campus ones, mostly journals and presentations, but they still gave the feeling that we were learning as much as we could. And although there were so many great times, there were a few not so great times.
Homesickness and the fear of not making friends were two things that held me back in the beginning. Sometimes my homesickness would just come out of nowhere and I would want to burst out in tears in the middle of the street. Sometimes it would try to keep me in bed instead of going out and hanging with new people, but I never let it. Even if I was near sobbing in bed, wishing I could see my family and friends, I never let it keep me from having fun. I only had one month in this amazing place to learn, make friends, and eat as much gelato as I could and I was bound and determined to make that happen. My roommates and I got super close. We called ourselves “Cody 3” because that was our apartment name and even had a call we would shout when our professors did a roll call. We would cook group dinners and eat them on the floor and just talk about anything we wanted to. I built friendships with them that would normally take years, but it only took us one month.
Before we knew it our month together was up and we all had to go our separate ways. This amazing, adventure-filled experience was there and gone in a flash and it was a whirlwind of learning, walking, and eating, but it was one of the best experiences of my life. I don’t think anyone could be more afraid of studying abroad than I was, and yet I did it. I made it there and back in one piece, and was actually sad to come back home. Italy was my new home and I didn’t want to leave this wonderful life I had during my time there, but it was time to go. Class was over, everyone had other things to do with their summer, and we had to close this chapter of our lives. This experience will probably be the highlight of my entire life and from here on out I will always advocate for students to study abroad, especially this trip in particular.
And that was it. My first experience outside of the United States was this amazing opportunity to go to Italy. I learned so much, not just about the culture or history of Italy, but about myself too. Everyone always says, “Studying abroad really changes you.” Normally people just roll their eyes at that but as someone who has always rolled their eyes at that statement, I can tell you it is beyond true. I am more confident in myself now; more outspoken. I am more courageous and willing to take risks. My communication skills have improved (but still only in English). This trip to Italy helped me better understand who I am as a person and realize that I had more dreams and aspirations besides just graduating college. And all it took was a lot of planning and a 5,000 mile flight. No big deal, right?