Finding my roots while studying abroad

By Alicia Kennedy, API Cádiz Peer Mentor

For as long as I can remember, I have had a burning desire to explore the world outside my small, predominantly white, middle-class, suburban town. Many of my peers were content with the status quo and did not share my desire to move away and discover all that this world has to offer. Growing up with a mother who hasn’t renewed her passport since the 80’s and a father who has never owned one – meant that for the majority of my life, vacations consisted of 2 hour car rides to the beach, and ordering Chinese food counted as a cultural experience. I have never been satisfied with that lifestyle.

When I entered college four years ago, I got my first real taste of diversity. I was in classes with students from halfway across the world and just walking through the halls I could hear conversations in a number of languages. I longed for the opportunity to study abroad and see what else the world had to offer. I was fortunate that my degree program required me to study abroad for a semester and I waited anxiously until my junior year for the opportunity. I carefully selected my program in Cadiz, Spain and counted down the days until my departure. I knew that this experience was going to change me forever and I set many goals for myself before I left. Aside from polishing my Spanish language abilities, I wanted to explore a new culture. I wanted to increase my cultural awareness and appreciation for diversity. More importantly, I wanted to find out more about who I was. As a third generation American, much of my family history is based on the other side of the world. I have always wanted to connect with my roots and meet both my Italian and Irish relatives. While I was abroad I traveled to both Ireland and Italy to connect with my family and now have a deeper sense of self and a better understanding of where I came from.

I traveled to Italy first and spent a few days with my grandfather’s cousin and her son’s family. I had never met them before. They didn’t speak a word of English and I didn’t speak a word of Italian. We relied on my cousin Ciro’s laptop and Google translate to communicate. While I was concerned about the language barrier at first, I quickly realized that you can connect on a deeper level without words. I felt closer to my cousin Maria when she was holding my hand as we walked through Pompeii than I did when we were typing back and forth on a computer. Those five days were some of the most life-changing of my entire experience abroad. For the first time I was able to see where I came from.

Alicia with Italian relatives

But my trip to Italy was only the beginning. In December, with only a few weeks left abroad, my girlfriends and I decided to take a weeklong trip to Ireland. With only a backpack and list of CouchSurfing hosts, we hopped on a plane and landed in Dublin during one of the most epic snowstorms in recent memory. We arrived at our first host’s home in the middle of Fermoy, County Cork – a small speck on the map with nothing but miles of green countryside in the horizon. Our host family couldn’t imagine why we would want to come to the middle of nowhere in the dead of winter. As it turned out, my great-grandmother was raised only a few miles away in Riesk. We didn’t know where her home was, but I just wanted to get as close to it as I could – just to feel connected. I pulled out my census documents that I had spent months searching for online and shared them with my host family. They were thrilled and eager to help me find my great-grandmother’s home. A couple days later, once the ice had thawed from the gravel roads, we ventured out with nothing more than my records and phone number of a farmer in town. We went as far as we could and then stopped to ask for directions. It was a Sunday and we weren’t anticipating finding anyone, but spotted a family in their driveway and pulled over. We rolled the window down and asked if we were in Riesk. The man responded, “Sure are. What can I help you with?” Jim, our host father responded, “I’ve got an American in here lookin’ for her great-granny’s house.” “Who is she?” he replied. “Her last name was Geary,” I shouted out the window. “I’m a Geary,” he said. I was in shock. The next thing I knew he and his wife had whisked us into their home and were pulling out family photo albums. They grabbed my census papers and started cross-checking them with theirs. As it turned out, they were my cousins! They had been looking for the half of the family that had come to America just as I had been trying to connect with the half that had stayed behind in Ireland. It was truly a moment of Divine intervention. What were the chances that I would not only find my great-grandmother’s home, but also find relatives who had been living there all this time? It was a powerful moment and one that I will never forget.

Alicia's Irish relatives

I came back to the states a completely different person. I was more relaxed and confident in who I was. I had a better understanding of where I came from and that helped to figure out who I am today. Benjamin Button said it best, “It’s a funny thing coming home. Nothing changes. Everything looks the same, feels the same, even smells the same. You realize what’s changed is you.

Alicia is majoring in international business and minoring in marketing and Spanish at Bryant University. She participated in the fall 2010 Advanced Language and Integrated Studies Program in Cádiz, Spain.

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  1. Julie Leitman says

    Alicia, an amazing post! Thank you!

  2. Wow this is a nice topic, it will help student a lot during their study period, it will be great support for them, thanks a lot.

  3. Really interesting and helpful post, Alicia!

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