Why did you decide to go abroad with your provider?
Kate: When I started thinking about studying abroad, I was an English major and my plan was to go to University College Dublin. However halfway through my sophomore year I switched my major to Music, which allowed me to consider non-English speaking countries.
I had taken four semesters of Italian for my school’s language requirement, and decided that I might as well put two years’ worth of classes to good use. Milan was the only music program in Italy that my school offered a partnership with, and I was lucky that it turned out to be a great program.
Did you run into a language barrier? Did you ever think you knew more/less of the language?
Kate: Absolutely, yes. My first couple weeks in Milan I felt like I was speaking in code whenever I talked to someone. I’ve studied Spanish and Irish (no, not Gaelic, Irish) as well as Italian, but was unaccustomed to holding a conversation that lasted more than a five-minute class exercise.
I took two classes entirely in Italian, as well as two individual studies (music theory and voice lessons) conducted in a mix of English and Italian.
By the end of the semester my language skills were worlds better, though it usually took a minute or two of me stumbling over my words, if the question was more complicated than “dov’é il bagno?” or “un cappuccio e un brioche, grazie.”
Do you feel you got a chance to see the city from a local’s perspective?
Kate: Definitely. Milan is the second-biggest Italian city, but it belongs much more to its locals than its tourists. Locals do speak English, but you won’t get far without any Italian.
When I visited Rome, I was consistently annoyed by shopkeepers insisting on answering me in English, even after I asked them questions in Italian.
Beyond language, though, I lived in an apartment building with Italian families, shopped at a local grocery store, walked to class every day, and sang Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem with il Coro Sinfonico G. Verdi, peopled entirely by the Milanese.
I became really familiar with my own neighborhood, the Duomo area, and the Navigli district, where rehearsal was held.
Do you think your program changed you as a person?
Kate: No, I don’t think it did, and I don’t think that’s a problem. Study abroad seems to be the part of your life where you go, and come back saying that traveling changed you, and oh, you just couldn’t imagine a life without [cultural practice from whichever country you went to].
It all sounds a little pretentious, if you ask me. Like, okay, we get it, you spent a couple months not in the United States. Good job.
I worry that people place too much stock in having a life-changing experience that they can look back fondly on for the rest of their lives, as well as report to their friends ad nauseam upon their return. I worry that this expectation detracts from the purpose of studying abroad - you know, learning how a different culture lives and works, and how you fit into that culture.
I’ve been told I seem more independent now, maybe because I was planning my own trips, booking hostels, conversing in another language, etc., but I don’t feel my worldview has shifted or increased.
I think my parents and my Jesuit education did a good job of encouraging me to look beyond my immediate community and pay attention to the whole world. It didn’t take going to another country for me to realize that people don’t all live like Americans.