What I Learned about Myself Abroad

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At Westminster Abbey during a weekend trip to London

One year ago today, I began the most exciting and terrifying experience of my life, flying to Florence, Italy to study abroad. The fear and nerves I experienced were mostly just when I was getting ready to go, because once I was in Florence, my three and a half months there turned out to be the most exhilarating and transformative time in my life thus far. In honor of the one year anniversary of the start of that journey, I’m reflecting on some of the things I learned about myself, which being so far outside of my comfort zone helped me discover. Here’s a list of some of those things, from the trivial to the life changing.

My Italian heritage is more evident in my appearance than I thought. I’m 3/8 Italian from my Dad’s side but even though people tell me I look like him, I never thought I looked Italian. I didn’t think anyone in Italy would mistake me for a local because I have my mom’s blonde hair and fair skin and I’m pretty obviously American. But there were a few times when Italians came up to me to ask for directions around Florence, speaking Italian. I’m pretty bad at giving directions even in English, so I usually wasn’t very helpful but I was so flattered to be mistaken for a local or at least someone who seemed like she knew her way around. Another time, I was speaking with a shop owner who asked me where I was from. I told him I’m American, and he asked “but is your dad Italian?” It was especially surprising that he even correctly guessed which side of my family is Italian.

I use facial expressions to communicate a lot. I never realized this before my friends in my study abroad program told me. When I was younger, people used to tell me I had a poker face or was hard to read (sometimes I still get told that), but I guess I’ve lost most of my subtlety. My friends started commenting on the facial expressions I made when I was completely unaware of making them. It was when I was most relaxed and comfortable around the people I was with that this happened. It makes sense that I use my face to communicate a lot because I often find talking difficult. I found it really helpful to use my facial expressions when speaking Italian since I was never sure if I was saying things in the right way, but my face could help show more of the intricacies of what I was trying to communicate. Sometimes I could rely on facial expressions alone to convey what I couldn’t figure out how to say with words. Gaining self-esteem allowed me to express my inner feelings that I would normally keep hidden.

I enjoy visiting art museums alone (and preferably when there are few people there, although that rarely happened). I like going at my own pace. Sometimes when I felt a bit homesick or lonely, I found comfort in seeing art that was familiar to me from my studies of Art History.

People tend to like me, especially when I allow myself to open myself up more to them. I’ve always had very low self esteem and tend to assume that people won’t like me.  Usually I’m very reserved when I first meet people and I don’t reveal much of my personality until I know them really well. When I did show more of my personality when I first was getting to know people, they tended to respond well to that and some became good friends. I’m not as horrible at conversations with people I’ve just met as I’ve always thought, as long as I trust myself.

Feeling comfortable talking to people I’ve just met is one thing, but it doesn’t mean I’m good at public speaking. I had a lot more oral presentations during my program than I’m used to and I struggled with them. Every time I went to present, I became incredibly nervous and felt like my brain switched off. That’s still a work in progress, but I did discover that when I put less pressure on myself to do well and didn’t spend quite as much time obsessively preparing for the presentation, I usually felt a little less nervous and  did better. I tend to get much more anxious about things than is necessary and it ends up hindering me more than anything else.

-Overall, I came to understand that I’m a much better person than I’ve ever allowed myself to believe. I’ve spent my whole life with a very low self-image and it’s been incredibly damaging to myself and what I’ve been able to accomplish. When I was abroad, I finally began to trust myself and allowed myself to open up to others, and in doing so, I found that other people tend to think I’m a good person. My self-esteem was so low that it took me finally trusting people’s positive opinions of me to finally believe it myself.

 

 

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