I have been looking forward to studying abroad in Italy since I learned that the very concept existed and that did not change once I arrived at Vassar. After traveling to the country with my family and nearly breaking my 12-year-old neck gawking at ceiling frescos, I knew I needed to spend more time with the big guys Michelangelo and Leonardo. Beyond the obvious appeal of a land of pasta, taking a break from Vassar seemed the perfect opportunity to hit pause on the everyday stressors of internship applications and major requirements. Now I would have time to immerse myself in a language and culture different from my own—one where I could walk among history and learn about my passion for art Italian art in its native language.
I had an idea about what JYA is “supposed” to be, whether at Vassar or another university. From what I witnessed via Instagram, abroad was this pseudonymous, never-ending parade of different countries every weekend, full of photo-ops and wine tours, synonymous with “best semester of my life” and “it changed me,” among other like phrases.
But amid my share of gallivanting and punny captions were hardships I did not expect, and they came at me like a European high-speed rail line. After seeing tags full of expectations about how my JYA should look, I couldn’t help but try to integrate them. I traveled and ate to my heart’s content, but I was not prepared for the emotional strain of spreading myself so thin across a never-ending agenda.
Of course, even having the opportunity to experience travel burnout and Instagram expectation only comes with the privilege of studying abroad. But the fact remains: Travel is draining. Inexpensive flights and train tickets are consistently tempting, and sneakily nudge you into agreeing to another trip. Living out of a suitcase and existing on a loop of taxi to airport to hostel begins to take a toll on you. On top of all that, your eventual home base, the place for your post-travel rest, is unfamiliar and an ocean away from home. The new sights and sounds are stimulating, but also challenging. Part of my mind was always on high alert so I could understand the happenings around me; the rest was an afterthought. The different customs were both a breath of fresh air (late dinners and slow walking) and a slap across the face (the deeply ingrained sexism). That’s not even to mention living with people who do not speak your native language, and missing your family home and Vassar friends at the same time. Oh, right, and four classes in Italian.
Every week was a catch-22: Should I go on this sunshine-filled jaunt to Barcelona with my new friends, or should I take the time I need to rest and take care of my mind and body? The ever-present and pervasive mindset of “I’m only here for so long!” ate away at me as I pushed myself beyond my social limits to obtain the so-called perfect abroad experience. Rimini this weekend? Let’s go! Meet up across the city to see the Christmas tree lighting that would only happen once? I couldn’t say no.
As time went on, I grew more and more exhausted. I missed home. I had midterms. I deeply enjoyed my daily morning espresso, but just wanted a breakfast sandwich, for God’s sake! Finally, a seemingly obvious breakthrough came to me: just because abroad was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I didn’t mean have to move around every moment of every day.
So yeah, that’s all to say that I rewatched all of “Glee” while I was in Italy. Even Season Six. Because JYA would not be worth the stress, anxiety and occasional sadness if I did not take the time to take care of myself. JYA isn’t meant to be a competition of who can visit the most countries in four months. It’s what you make of it; it’s how you let your new environment shape your experiences and maybe even shape you.
I personally returned with an aggressively Italian tattoo, a newfound understanding of my own work-play-relax balance and, naturally, too many memories to count. Say parmigiano!