Even four months after coming back from my study abroad experience, it’s hard for me to collect all of my memories and experiences from my month there and put them into one piece of writing. So much happened in such little time, and while it does seem cliché, my confidence in my identity and my ability to empathize with those around me increased greatly from my time in Italy.
When we went to check into our hotel for our first travel weekend, the owner of the hotel did not understand any English, and we were only a day and a half into learning basic Italian. This was the first of many language barriers I encountered during my time in Italy. We managed to piece together that we had a reservation at the location by showing him our passports and pointing to room keys and various other objects in the lobby, but before then, I had never felt so hopelessly dumb. This first experience, and the many that came after throughout the month, humbled me very much.
At the local bank across from campus, we stood outside of the door for 10 minutes trying to figure out how to enter as we were unable to understand the sign on the door in Italian that translated to “please pull”. We were getting strange looks from the workers and customers inside, as well as people passing by. At that moment, I knew exactly how my parents and countless other people who do not know English as a first language must feel in the U.S. Since returning, I’ve been much more cognizant of non-native speakers and speaking to them as clearly as possible, as well as helping my parents with correct pronunciation and grammar whenever I can as this was what I wanted from native speakers in Italy.
"Growing up, I had always been conflicted about my true identity; however, my study abroad experience taught me I can be both and be appreciated for it."
Despite our language barrier, people in Italy were still very welcoming to and curious about Americans and our culture. In Rome, we sat outside at a plaza for hours talking to Italian students about different cities in America, foods we liked to eat, and the differences in the way we grew up. On my 5-hour train ride to Naples, I sat across the aisle from a 2-year-old boy and his mother. Despite not being able to communicate verbally, we waved to each other and said “ciao” while blowing kisses across the aisle for hours. At various restaurants, our waitresses got so excited that we were from America and wanted to practice their English with us. They practiced their pronunciation with us and taught us new phrases in Italian as well as Italian dining culture. They were excited about their culture and wanted to learn more about ours.
Here at home in Iowa, one of the things I’ve felt most self-conscious about, especially during my childhood, is my culture and how it is perceived by people here. Prior to studying abroad, I had never been fully immersed in a culture different from my own, but seeing how my fellow students embraced the new Italian culture alongside me made me feel more confident in who I was and sharing more about myself.
After the CIMBA program in Italy, a couple friends and I flew out to London for a few days. One of the nights there, I took my friends to an Indian restaurant, something I had never done with my friends back home, and ordered them my favorite dishes and shared memories I had about those dishes. Whether it was the bond we had created by traveling and living together in Italy, observing other students accepting a different culture without hesitation, or both, I had never felt more confident in who I was and representing. I brought this confidence back home with me, and now feel more comfortable openly talking about traditions, foods, customs, and everything that defines my heritage and life.
Growing up, I had always been conflicted about my true identity; however, my study abroad experience taught me I can be both and be appreciated for it. Beyond that and the amazing food and views Italy had to offer, this experience further developed empathy in my daily life for those around me adjusting to a new type of life. I will forever be reminiscent and thankful for my study abroad experience and look forward to the time I’m able to go back and experience it all again.
Sushma Santhana, a University of Iowa biomedical engineering student and a Diversity Ambassador Scholarship recipient, participated in the CIMBA program in Italy during the summer of 2022.
The Diversity Ambassador Scholarship program provides awards to study abroad for a summer, semester, or academic year. The scholarships are intended to support the diversification of students who study abroad. Upon completion of the study abroad program and return to UI, award recipients are asked to submit a photo and an open letter to prospective students or suggest an alternate means of sharing with prospective students.
Please note that the opinions and views expressed by diversity ambassadors are solely those of the students and do not reflect or represent the views of International Programs or the University of Iowa.
International Programs (IP) at the University of Iowa (UI) is committed to enriching the global experience of UI students, faculty, staff, and the general public by leading efforts to promote internationally oriented teaching, research, creative work, and community engagement. IP provides support for international students and scholars, administers scholarships and assistance for students who study, intern, or do research abroad, and provides funding opportunities and grant-writing assistance for faculty engaged in international research. IP shares their stories through various media, and by hosting multiple public engagement activities each year.