Yes, I’m the Girl Who Studied Abroad

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“OMG did you study abroad?!” I hear this on a daily basis. My friends mock my stories and newfound outlook on life since I returned from Florence, Italy. How do I respond?

Well, a year ago I left for the airport for my four-month adventure. It’s been a full 365 days since I strolled down the winding cobble stone streets and walked along the Arno River. I can still taste the Chianti and Gusta Pizza whenever I think back to sitting on the steps of Santo Spirito.

I was on the other side of the world, thousands of miles from friends and family, in places where my communication clung to a shoddy WiFi connection–which rarely worked. Homesickness and culture shock are real, and they hit me hard and fast.

What I missed most were my familiar daily routines: going to class, walking past Old Main, going to the gym, studying and hanging out with my friends. I would have given everything to be home with my parents and, most importantly, my dog Cassie. But I knew this was a once in a lifetime experience, and it was one I refused to let slip away.

Everyone I met abroad was there for a different reason. Some just wanted to club, some adored the food and others hoped to make long-lasting friendships.

Me? I just wanted to travel. Who knew when I would be able to come back?

Each weekend blossomed with a new adventure. A program-loner knowing only a few people who’d be calling Florence home, I did my best to get out of my comfort zone by planning trips with a variety of people. I started to foster a sense of independence.

Last February, I traveled to Interlaken, Switzerland to paraglide, something I never imagined I’d do. Strapped into our plastic shells, I met a girl who was also studying in Florence in a different program. One exhilarating trip later, we got to the bottom of the mountain. We decided we had to be friends simply because we’d just jumped off a cliff together. Later, we realized we had a ton in common and made sure to stay in touch–even once we were stateside again.

I always talk about my time abroad because of moments like that. You never know where you’ll go, what you’ll encounter or what memories you’ll make. It can difficult agreeing on where to go and what to do when you travel with relative strangers. Still, some of my fondest memories were the trips I took over those short four months.

16 weeks later, I’d visited 10 countries and 23 cities, navigating planes, trains, metros and buses–pretty much everything short of a hot air balloon.

As my time in Florence came to a close, I was truly heartbroken to leave. I knew a piece of my heart would always remain in Firenze. I sincerely regretted those homesick weeks–that was time I’d never get back–but I came out on the other side a stronger, more confident and independent person.

The cab pulled up to my apartment early that final morning. The driver helped me hoist my bags in the car, and we drove away–and just like that, it was over. In the taxi, we chatted in Italian. When I first arrived four months prior, I was jet lagged and shell-shocked, knowing very little Italian. I was by no means fluent now but I conversed with ease.

While everyone is different, my study abroad was an extremely influential four months that quite frankly changed my life. Sometimes, it takes being an ocean away from everything you know to truly understand yourself better and get some perspective. The beautiful architecture, inspiring art and wonderful aromas of freshly brewed espresso wafting through cobble-stoned streets are never far from my mind. I often reminisce: looking at photos, postcards, souvenirs and wearing clothes I bought in my travels.

And here’s my response to the mockery. Yes, I’m “that girl” who studied abroad–it’s a title I’ve embraced. And I’m counting down the days until I return.

Rachel is a Penn State University senior studying print journalism. She loves John Hughes movies, Audrey Hepburn and all things travel.

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