Blog di Bologna “On Paper”

April 22, 2016

in Europe, Italy, Sara McKearn, Spring 2016

The Brenton visit went great. It was wonderful to see him. We cooked a lot together, made tagliatelle, and tried some local fare, including gelato. I’m bringing home my matterello (I just pre-packed it to be sure it fit in my luggage), so I’m excited to bring that experience with me back home and to make more in the future.

Okay, so, I’m kind of a nerd. I played tabletop RPGs in high school and a bit early on in college, so sometimes I think of what I would have on my character sheet as a person. Whenever I have a new experience or do something particularly awesome, I think of how my skills would read on an itemized list on paper.

“Pasta-Making, Level 1” would definitely be on there. Also, “Languages (Human) – Italian,” but you have to take Elvish, too. That’s just useful.

“Parla, amico, ed entra.” 

You know those game shows like Face Off or Survivor, where the contestants have to stay away from their loved ones for an extended period of time and they have those episodes toward the finale where the contestants get to see their loved ones for a short period and after the experience, some of the contestants are empowered, feel recharged and ready to face the end, while others just find themselves missing home even more?

Yeah, I have to admit I’m the latter sort. About two more months to go in this challenge, I will finish, but there are some people I’m missing pretty hard right now.

About a week after Brent left, I had my very first UniBo exam. It went way better than expected and, although I studied, I thought the professor was very generous with the grade. After the experience, I feel simultaneously relieved and anxious for future exams. Relieved because I already have one under my belt and no matter what I get, the last one I took will bring up my average. Anxious, though, because grades are really important to me and I’m afraid the other professors won’t be as forgiving or lenient with their points. For example, I have a paper due on Saturday for my philosophy class and I’m really nervous about it. The reading is a bit difficult to follow and the lectures are, well, in a foreign language.

It is quite rough to have an anxiety disorder and be studying abroad. It’s forced me to be patient with myself, moreso than I could be in the States. Some days you just have to treat your brain like it has the flu and give it some time to breathe. During my first week here, I had a bit of a breakdown during a walking tour because I could not understand anything one of the advisors was saying to me, no matter how many times I asked for clarification. One of the other students talked to me and calmed me down. She said something I had heard dozens of times before, but in that moment, it resonated with me: It’s okay to make mistakes; that’s how you learn.

For the majority of the students here, this is an entirely new experience. Our levels of Italian differ wildly, but there were students in the program taking the same exam who studied longer and more attentively than I had, understood more of the lecture, and have far more experience with the language, and were still freaking out that they might fail. Sure, I don’t want to fail my other exams and write-ups, but if I study and keep in contact with the professors and develop a sense of what they expect from me, hopefully they’ll at least see I’m trying, even if I don’t do great on the exam. The second-semester students have attested that most of the time, professors are forgiving if your Italian isn’t perfect. They know this isn’t a system we’re used to. They just want to see that we’ve made an effort in class and thought about the material.

I’ve had a lot of anxiety over this trip, but I think I expected that. It’s taken a lot to accept that my performance here may not be perfect.

I haven’t traveled outside of Bologna much since arriving, which has allowed me to get a greater sense of the culture of Bologna in a bubble. It’s caused me to pay more attention to the subtle nuances of the accent, the food, and the perspectives of the inhabitants.

In the end, I don’t know if I’ll regret that decision or not. Initially, it was a decision I made because I wanted to devote more time to studying, but as of late, I’ve been a bit too anxious about the tasks before me to do much of anything that requires heavy thought. I think it’s best that I didn’t travel, because I don’t do well with strict itineraries when I’m like this. I get too stressed about making my transport, getting up on time (despite the inevitable insomnia that comes from trying to sleep in an unfamiliar place), remembering to take my medication at the right times, and trying to stick to a budget, that the experience and the joy of the travel is lost on me. Plus, the constant change of location can be a bit jarring. It may just be sour grapes, but I never liked trying to cram trips to major cities into the span of a few days. I much prefer to take my time. That said, Brenton and I have discussed travel plans and I feel confident that we will come back. On vacation.

I think it’s important for study abroad students to rely on the people you can for support while realizing that some (a lot) of people in your home country may not understand your stress. They’ll see the pictures of monuments and food and landscapes that you post on social media and think you’re on vacation. If you have anxiety–yes, it compounds the stress a bit, you may freak out earlier and longer than other people, but–I’ve found it’s a little easier to adjust to this reaction from other people, because you’re used to freaking out internally without other people understanding why or seeing the reaction at all. I hate to say it, but when you have anxiety, you’re used to feeling alone.

Though, it’s helped knowing that over the semester a lot of students have periods of anxiety, too, and the resources are available to get help and find guidance. Even if they don’t have an anxiety disorder, it can be a stressful experience. It’s not a vacation, but it’s more rewarding than any vacation I’ve ever taken. Vacation is about recovery and relaxation. Returning to your normal life in your previous, unfrazzled state. Like, trying to scrub all that fatigue from your skin. You hope to return to normal life happier, but at your core, you don’t intend to change very much. Education and the study abroad experience is about improvement, and improvement takes work. You build new skills and sometimes you even discover traits or resources within yourself that you didn’t know you had. The objective is to be changed from the experience and that it is not a passive process.

So, no matter what it looks like on paper or on a screen. Study abroad is not a vacation. Repeat that to yourself. Do it again. Do it again. You won’t believe it until you get here.

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