The saying “I left my heart in x location” gets tossed around so frequently that it’s become a cliché, but after returning from my semester of study abroad in Florence, Italy, I genuinely felt as if I had left some part of myself there and I was left feeling like I had reverted back to the version of myself I had been before my semester abroad, filled with self-doubt and hindered by my fears. I had been so happy to discover myself opening up in Florence, leaving my inhibitions behind and becoming a much more outgoing and confident person. I remember thinking that when I got back home, I would be able to do so much more, things I would have never considered doing before because they seemed too scary and I didn’t believe I could do them, but in Italy, I no longer felt those fears, or at least believed in myself enough to face them. When I first arrived home, I felt confident that I could retain these skills I had fostered while abroad, but after a few weeks at home, I realized I no longer felt the same. It was as if the confident and independent version of myself could only exist abroad and I had left her there when I flew back to the U.S. I went to apply for summer jobs and felt very unsure of myself. I got a job at a boutique, but I felt intimidated by the customers and my fellow employees (some of whom were three years younger than me). I acted meek and insecure. I could sense myself acting that way and I hated it, but I also didn’t know how to change it, how to rediscover the boldness I had felt abroad.
I went through a period of feeling a deep loss, for my time in Florence and the person I was there and the way I had felt. I cried frequently and felt lethargic. It was heartbreaking to think that all that I had gained in Italy, I had lost so quickly. However, things started looking better towards the end of the summer. I had a conversation with a close friend who had also been abroad and was also feeling down and missing study abroad. I told her about my feelings of loss of confidence and her response was so thoughtful and comforting. She said that I might not be feeling as confident now, but I knew I had it in me because I did have it in Italy. I can be that person again, I just needed to work on redeveloping it, but it would probably be easier this time since I’ve done it before. I frequently reminded myself of her words when I needed reassurance. And the exciting thing was, I did feel myself regaining the confidence. By the end of my summer job, I trained a new employee, who was much older than me and I found myself able to talk to her comfortably. I was also talking to customers and other people in my life with more self assurance. I was excited to go back to my college and take on my senior year.
However, when I arrived back at school, I struggled to express that confidence because people there only knew me as I was before going abroad. I found myself falling into my old habits of insecurity because I knew that was what they expected of me. It was only around my close friends that I could be as uninhibited and confident as I was abroad. I rebelled as much as I could against reverting back to how I was before studying abroad, because I could now see how much that former version of me had limited myself. It felt like I had so many more friends in my study abroad program than at my home campus, where my social anxiety had held me back from connecting with more than a handful of people and had limited me from maintaining some of the connections I had formed. However, my close friends reassured me that I seemed more confident than I had been before study abroad. This was very comforting to hear because it was hard for me to tell how I seemed from the outside. After hearing this from my friends and continually reminding myself that if I can be myself candidly and openly, people tend to like me, I was quickly able to begin feeling like I was connecting with more people, even reconnecting with people I had known freshman year, but hadn’t stayed friends with. I began sharing my experiences and personal thoughts with my friends and sometimes even with people I didn’t know that well, something I never would have done before my semester abroad. I felt myself being more open with others, something I had learned to do in Italy, and like in my study abroad program, people seemed to respond well to my openness, candidness, and honesty. In the past, I had always been so shy, scared to let my personality out for fear of what it might reveal and what others might think, but in Florence, I had discovered that people tend to like me for the person I am. When I let myself relax around people and be myself, people respond much better to that than when I hide who I am. In the past, I had struggled with even knowing who I was, but in becoming more social, I learned so much about who I was at the same time as I was becoming that person. I guess the personality was always in me, but I never allowed others to see it, and in doing that, I prevented myself from really understanding who I was either.
Because humans are social beings, I think our identity is determined partly in how we interact with others and how they perceive us. I learned a lot about myself from how my friends in my study abroad program thought of me, and they seemed to tend think much more highly of me than I did. This new self understanding brought me so much more confidence than I had ever had before. I found that even people at my school seemed to respond well to my openness and seemed to fairly quickly accept my more friendly nature, despite the fact that it might not be what they expected from me based on how they had thought of me before I went abroad. Once I felt freed in this way, I began to feel happier because I felt better about myself. Every little interaction I had with someone, that may have been a tiny bit scary for me, brought me so much joy. I would walk away from these interactions feeling much more buoyant because I felt like I did in Italy, assured that the socially confident part of me was still there and filled with the happiness that connection with others brings.
I’m so fortunate that something as simple as believing in myself, which I have control over is really all it takes to completely transform the way I am for the better, and to relieve myself of the handicap I’ve placed on myself all my life. The experience of coming back after a semester abroad and learning how to readjust may have been just as valuable to my personal development and self understanding as the experience of studying abroad itself.