Reflecting on Internationalizing my Degree
So, here I am. Standing on the precipice of the rest of my life after college, and I am reflecting on how it, and my intentional, strategically chosen international experiences, impacted my education and myself.
If anything is certain – while I am less and less sure that anything can be certain in this world full of so many corners I have yet to see – it is that I am not the same person exiting the University of Florida as I was entering it.
When I turned 18 in my senior year, I almost immediately ordered a new passport so I could travel to Perú with my best friend and her mom to visit their family on spring break. I saved the money for the plane ticket; I purchased my passport; and I submitted my excused absence form, so I didn’t get in trouble for skipping on senior skip day for my flight. Until that point, I had never left the country, and neither of my parents had left the country except for my dad’s training in South Korea when he was in the army. To me, the world was scary, but I also for some reason felt incredibly drawn to see more of it.
I remember feeling so upset with myself while I was in Perú because I could not communicate my thoughts as well in my Spanish as I could in English, and so I talked in my second language less and less out of frustration. Now, I think this might have been the catalyst for my decision to minor in Spanish in college.
When I decided to minor in Spanish, I also knew that I was going to have to finish the classes quickly because I was planning to transfer online, which did not offer Spanish as a minor. So, a careful decision turned into three intense semesters in which I took almost entirely Spanish classes where I was thrown in with native and second-language speakers alike. I became more comfortable with not knowing all the words I needed to communicate, or not having the perfect accent – my goal became to simply be understood.
To be understood and to understand is something I found myself wanting more than anything in the rest of my travels abroad and international experiences on campus. Locally, I became a conversation partner with the English Language Institute because I wanted to understand more about what it was like to be an international student on UF campus. I applied to intern with the UF International Center because I wanted to understand more about how to communicate with an international audience that was somehow also a local audience. I continuously sought the answers to the questions, “What more about the world do I not know? What am I missing?” In this searching, I became more comfortable communicating across different cultural perspectives; however, I think I was comfortable because I was not the one in an unfamiliar cultural surrounding. Communication is always harder for the person who is operating almost entirely out of their cultural context.
Now that I have been living in Italy for about two months, I think I can safely say that confidence in unfamiliar cultural situations does not transfer as easily as you think it would from your home country to another. You have to work at it and be intentional with your learning and unlearning.
When I was home, I never thought about all the things I took for granted that were probably exhausting for international students and faculty to figure out every day. How to order food, how to use public transportation, knowing whether or not to tip and so many other things that just didn’t occur to me are things you have to relearn when you move to another country.
And it is draining, discouraging and just so hard. I have also learned, though, that I can do hard things.
While I wish I could say that all the skills I needed to successfully make this transition were learned in Gainesville, the truth is I needed to be thrown into the fire before I really understood it. My time abroad has been spent just wanting to be understood, and often just wishing to understand how things work here.
Professionally, I know why it is hard. I know that I am the one who is now operating in a completely different cultural context, and that I just need more time to figure it out, and I will be culturally proficient in no time. Personally, however, I am homesick, and I am realizing that maybe being comfortable and confident in unfamiliarity just means becoming okay with confronting what you don’t know again, and again, and again.
Like I said, I am more and more unsure that anything can be certain in my adventures abroad. The International Scholars Program has allowed me to hone my language skills, and it has helped me learn how to create communications content across cultural differences. But, it has also led me to a place where I must conclude that the courage live in a space where you are constantly aware of the global implications of everyday actions does not require the absence of fear or discomfort, but their acceptance.