When I was a sophomore in college, I stepped onto an airplane for the first time in my life and traveled to Italy with a study abroad program. I remember feeling very brave, and very scared. I had never been away from home and I didn't know anyone on the trip. As a 21 year old looking for meaning in my life, I only knew I wanted to be alone, immersed in another country, another culture, in a place I knew little about.
Every day in Italy I walked the meandering, narrow stone streets to school, stopping in cathedrals to see frescos, watching artisans at work in their shops, inspired by everything around me. I have a vivid memory of learning to draw from looking at sculptures and paintings. But it wasn’t just the artwork, it was everything about this culture that inspired me—the way the shops closed for three hours each day so people could linger over long meals together, the evenings wandering in the piazzas when the shops came to life and the streets filled with music and people, the reverence for beauty and detail everywhere and in everything. I departed the U.S. as a psychology major, and returned six months later determined to study art.
In 2008, 35 years later, I finally had the opportunity to return. Only this time, I was escorting my own students on a study abroad program. You can’t imagine how moving it was for me to travel, once again, to the place that changed my life. Soon after our train arrived, I walked alone in a drizzly rain, finding things somewhat changed, but still familiar. Discovering an older gentleman in a card shop, I asked if he remembered a hotel where American students had lived 35 years ago. He spoke to me in Italian and pointed in the direction of the hotel. Then I heard footsteps pounding the cobblestones, and when I looked back, I saw him chasing after me, pulling an old photo from his pocket. He asked me if I recognized the young student in the picture. It was a picture of the shopkeeper as a young man, sitting with one of my classmates, dated 1973! Unexpectedly, all the years suddenly melted away and I was a young girl again seeing Italy for the first time, as I knew my own students would.
Taking ECU students on this trip is the most joyful thing I’ve done in my career, and I believe it is also the most important thing. Whether strolling along the alleys of medieval cities or the sands of the Italian coastline, we are reminded of the heritage that is the basis of western culture, and we discover something new about ourselves.
Studying out of a textbook is one thing, but visiting Michaelangelo’s David in its home in the Academia, standing in the middle of the Roman Colliseum, St. Peters Cathedral, or the Sistine Chapel, is quite another. Going to college is a great adventure in itself, but punctuating that adventure with the memory of a study abroad experience, is more enriching than words can describe.
“At last, for the first time, I live.” –Henry James on his first day in Rome