Overcoming the challenges of study abroad

By: Gabrielle Langmann – API Tuscania Peer Mentor

Gabrielle is a senior at the University of Pittsburgh, and studied with API at Lorenzo de’Medici – the Italian International Institute in Tuscania, Italy during the summer 2010 term.

“It’s just like riding a bike; you’ll never forget!”

As I was preparing myself for my study abroad experience in Tuscania, Italy last summer, I knew that I would inevitably face some challenges that I’d have to overcome. Before I left, I had read plenty of materials about challenges such as culture shock and homesickness thanks to API’s Online Toolbox, and in retrospect I can attest to the fact that I did have to face those challenges. However, I didn’t realize as I was preparing to go abroad that I’d be facing challenges before I even stepped foot into an airport.

A few weeks before my departure for Italy, I received an orientation packet from API in the mail, complete with arrival instructions, my living arrangements, and an itinerary for the cultural activities API would be doing with us. I tore open the envelope eagerly, excited to see what my study abroad experience in Tuscania would have in store for me. Much to my surprise (and slight horror), one item stuck out on that list:

“Bike Tour of Tarquinia”

Sounds fun, right? I found out after I arrived in Italy that Tarquinia is a beautiful, historically rich town about a twenty-minute bus ride from Tuscania. At the time, though, the only part of that line I could focus on was

“Bike. Tour.”

Confession time: I never learned how to ride a bike. Somehow, I missed that check box on my early childhood “to-do” list (on the bright side, I got the tying-my-shoes thing down pat). As much as it pained me to admit it, I realized that I didn’t want to be forced to miss what could be an amazing opportunity during my time in Tuscania just because I never got those pesky training wheels off of my pretty pink bike with the handlebar streamers and the little pink basket and the… okay, you get the picture.

So what did I do? I bit the bullet and asked my boyfriend, an avid bike rider, to lend me a bike and give me a lesson (or five) in the art of riding a bike… or, at the very least, in the art of not biting the dust while breezing through the winding streets of a picturesque Italian town.

Equipped with a helmet (in case I really did bite the dust), I began learning how to balance on the bike, followed by tentatively pedaling with my boyfriend holding onto the handlebars for dear life (at my insistence). Finally, though, I decided to just go for it, telling him to let go. I wish I could say I flew away with the wind in my hair, without a look back… but I really only made it up and down the end of the street a few times before calling it a day. For me, though, I had accomplished so much more than simply avoiding a scraped knee and a little embarrassment before going to Tuscania.

Studying abroad is all about facing challenges. For example, I spent my first full day in Tuscania eating the meal bars I had brought with me from home because I was terrified of the prospect of having to go out and speak entirely in Italian in order to find something to eat. Little did I know that in only four short weeks, I would be having conversations in Italian with the shop owners with whom I initially had been afraid to speak. Though we never did go on that bike tour, learning the basics of how to ride a bike before I went to Tuscania was a small preview of the challenges I would be facing while abroad. Even that tiny amount of self-confidence that I gained from trying something new and overcoming its challenges was meaningful to me, especially once I went abroad. As it’s often said about the ability to ride a bike, I’ll never forget the wonderful feeling of facing those challenges and successfully overcoming them.

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