Everyone was crying. My aunt, uncle, grandparents and cousins had all come to drop me off for my first day of college. Sound excessive? While my nervous anticipation was standard among freshmen, I wasn’t like most freshmen. My family wasn’t helping me move into a dorm room, they were sending me to another country 4,000 miles away.
I didn’t have to learn to navigate a campus, adjust to dining hall food or worry about communal bathrooms because unlike most freshmen, I began my college experience in Florence, Italy. All I knew was that I would be joined by 30 other Syracuse freshmen that had also applied to spend their first semester abroad.
“Discovery Florence” certainly was a discovery. Those pesky freshmen insecurities I thought I had escaped still existed in Italy only on a larger scale. Navigating a campus? More like navigating a new country. Gaining the freshmen fifteen? Try avoiding the “Florence fifteen” with an overbearing host mom. Feeling lost? Well, that’s unfortunate because chances are you can’t ask anyone for directions in English.
To call my first semester unconventional would be an understatement—it was unbelievable. I spent my weekends discovering the city, enjoying alcohol (legally of course) and absorbing the Italian culture through trips to the Riviera, Venice and Rome. I spent my fall break living out of a tent at Oktoberfest, I took two trips to Switzerland and I cliff jumped off the Amalfi Coast.
Now, fast-forward five months. My days of gelato, home cooked meals and cultural excursions transformed into dorm life, dining halls and snow. Snow everywhere. Not the kind of snow you experience in cities like Philadelphia or New York, but the type of snow and bone-chilling cold that could very likely awaken the White Walkers in an episode of Game of Thrones. My family gave me a less emotional sendoff at Syracuse than at the airport, but this time I wished that they had stayed a bit longer. I stared at my blank dorm room feeling just as unprepared for this second foreign experience.
During the first week of classes I realized that I hated my writing major, that my French professor thought I was mocking her for accidentally answering her “oui’s” with “si’s,” and that the amount of homework assigned abroad tripled in “real” college. My final class of the week was entitled, “Defining a Happy Life” and it was at this moment I thought: you have got to be kidding me.
I ended up with 8 a.m. classes, the bane of my existence, every single day during that semester. I exchanged fresh cappuccino and a picturesque walk to campus for communal showers, dining hall cereal and a treacherous hike to class all before 8 a.m. My dorm was at the bottom of a steep hill and I didn’t own a pair of snow boots yet, therefore, my Ugg’s doubled as ice-skates most mornings as I tried to keep from sliding into the glass lobby doors of my dorm.
For class I read The Happiness Hypothesis, Plato and Tolstoy but I came no closer to defining the elusive question of happiness. We read The Myth of Sisyphus, about a man who had been doomed by the gods for eternity to push a rock up a hill, only to have it roll back down again. I felt like a modern day Sisyphus, trudging up the snowy hills of Syracuse and making very little progress.
I had finally learned how to find my astronomy lecture, manage the workload and survive the dining hall when sorority recruitment began during my second week. If you’ve never experienced this, let’s just say I didn’t feel like I was in America or Italy anymore, but another planet. Girls were interested in what I did on campus, where I liked to hang out and my major. Well, I told them that I wasn’t involved in anything on campus, that I didn’t know where anything was and that I regretted my major.
The “Defining a Happy Life” class culminated in a term paper where my professor asked us to define happiness, which isn’t hard or anything. I began to realize, probably from having to talk to so many girls during recruitment and thinking so consciously about happiness over those five months that no definitive definition exists. Happiness used to be grabbing a gelato, walking along the Arno River and stumbling over my Italian. My definition of college drastically changed in Syracuse and so did my definition of happiness.
My experience as a freshman abroad was uncommon and I had some serious catching up to do. I had already gained the Florence fifteen, so I could check that milestone off my list. Once I bought a pair of snow boots and changed my major the culture shock of snow and real work wore off. Whether in Florence or Syracuse the struggle to survive first semester happens everywhere—only for me, it happened twice.