By Meg Green
Studying abroad is commonly defined as the opportunity and act of a student pursuing education and cultural activities in a country other than his or her own. A uniquely unforgettable experience, its popularity has dramatically risen over the past decade. Over 304,000 students – a number that represents just over 1.5% of all students enrolled at an institution of higher learning in the United States – traveled abroad last year. Of those 304,000 undergraduates, approximately 53.3% chose Europe as their destination.
Sewanee student Sara Balte was one of those undergraduates. A current senior here at The University of the South, Balte traveled to Perugia, Italy during the 2016 Easter semester. Venturing to the rural, hilltop town alone was the exact “unconventional” experience that she had hoped for, explaining, “I’d dreamed of studying abroad since high school and always knew that I wanted to. I wanted an unconventional study abroad experience and felt that a medieval town in central Italy was a perfect way to do that.” Students like Sara help the University continue to maintain its prominence as a leading institution for study abroad programs and postgraduate travel fellowships; in fact, Sewanee students have visited over 64 countries in the past few years alone. Many academic institutions design their programs to encourage students to immerse themselves in a particular subject while abroad in the hopes of heightening the scholastic pursuit.
Balte, a psychology major and anthropology minor, discovered that “It’s actually really good to change up your environment every once in a while because it gives your mind the rest that it needs. Going abroad and living in a different culture enhances all of your senses, forcing you to take note and be aware of all the details of daily life happening around you so that you can best respect the culture that you are living in.”
During her four months in Perugia, Balte recounts a whirlwind of emotions—many positive, some negative, and even a few “neutral” moments in between. “Overall, it was an overwhelmingly positive experience that I feel grateful to have had. Being able to travel across Europe so easily was a dream, and interacting with a population who views the pace of life so differently from Americans was refreshing and forced me to take a step back and come to see that life can be lived less compulsively, with fewer lists, and more time to just be in la vita bella [‘the beautiful life’].” While reminiscing about her time abroad, she recalls hiking with a new friend one weekend when they “stumbled across a WWOOF (a worldwide program linking organic farmers with local volunteers to encourage educational, cultural, and philanthropic experiences based solely on trust, rather than monetary exchange) Italia site.
“They invited us to have lunch with them, and they gave us a tour of their intentional living community space. We got to sit with them and hear some of their stories while communicating in broken Italian and broken English. It was so random, but one of the most authentic ways to closely interact with people of an entirely different culture. It showed me that it is possible to create and nurture a global community.” Balte fondly remembers the many dinners she was invited to by locals, including one during which an “Italian woman taught [me] how to make tiramisu! Amazing, right? Oh, and I learned to make pasta, too!”
She is painstakingly honest, though, in the difficulties of studying abroad, sharing, “What some people don’t realize when they sign up to study abroad is that you’re still the same person with the same thoughts and emotions that you have here in the states. You don’t become this new carefree person who is happy all the time just because you’re away from home. There are still tough moments—times when you are sad, anxious, etc., and that is perfectly okay because you’re still a human being—living and learning abroad doesn’t suddenly change that. You just have to remember that.” Lack of organization or involvement abroad proved to be yet another frustration for Balte, active in Sewanee’s very own Office of Civic Engagement; arriving with the hope to spread Sewanee’s sustainable partnerships with local organizations, she soon discovered that her expectations would shift while in “the completely different world” of Perugia. “It’s difficult to create and maintain relationships with community partners when you only plan to spend four months there. A large part of study abroad that I disliked was my lack of involvement in extra-curricular activities. I felt by the end of my time that I didn’t have much purpose or community to pour into and build up and that aggravated me. What I did there was so different than what I am involved in here.”
Still, Balte chooses to glean perspective from her semester abroad. When prompted if she would do it all over again if given the chance, she replied with a resounding, “Absolutely! Being there was a dream. I was pushed to befriend complete strangers in a foreign country, to learn a new language so that I could get around. I learned how to appreciate food as a social experience, and I learned how to travel by myself. I got to see places that some people only dream of – and I am forever grateful for that!” Aiming to continue the Sewanee legacy of community outreach and stewardship, Sara imparted these final words regarding the entirety of the study abroad program to current and future classes: “This opportunity comes at the perfect time in life and is one that should not be passed – your notions and generalizations about how all people act and interact within this world will be challenged because there is no such thing as ‘universal.’