OUR STUDENTS’ EXPERIENCES!
Italy Maymester – Erin Shannon
This past May, I spent three weeks traveling all over southern Italy and Sicily, sampling the best food I ever had, taking cooking classes, visiting historical sights, and buying more leather than I have use for. However, my time abroad was not a vacation; it was an academic experience, as Dr. Nicolosi so regularly reminded the 27 of us. Although our beach days on the pebbled shores of Soverato on the (freezing) Ionian Sea were relaxing, our trip centered on learning. I’m talking about the faculty-led Gendered History of Food Maymester, of course, which also happened to be the best three weeks of my life thus far.
Before going on the trip, I was petrified. I had only ever been out of the country once, to Canada in eighth grade with my family. I also didn’t know any of my classmates, and was skeptical about the close friendships Dr. Nicolosi assured us we would make. My fear worsened when I realized during our first day of class that I was the youngest person on the trip, as I was the only rising sophomore. As I got to know people through our three days of on-campus classes, I felt slightly better, but it wasn’t until we got to the airport that I became more excited than nervous.
The seven-hour-long flight and jetlag that accompanied it were well worth it when we arrived in Rome. Our tour guide, Mario, greeted us, and as soon as we dropped our luggage off at our hotel—a mere several blocks from the Vatican—we began exploring. We walked around Vatican City, and saw the Pope from very far away. Mario arranged lunch for all of us outside a small restaurant, which served us a four-course meal that was filling, delicious, and cheap. Dr. Nicolosi explicitly banned us from eating at any international fast food chain while we were in Italy, and it was an order we (mostly) willingly followed after experiencing our first meal. Our welcome dinner that night was even better than lunch, again consisting of antipasti, a pasta course, a meat course, and dessert. That night, going to bed on a full stomach and jetlagged was a beautiful experience.
The next day, we all bonded throughout our travels. We became close so quickly it was dizzying, but it was amazing. That night, we had our first experience with real Roman pizza outside a small trattoria. We talked about what we most wanted to accomplish in our lives over wine and dessert afterwards, and then found our way back to the Trevi fountain at 11, where we took ridiculous group photos and pretended to be Lizzie McGuire in The Lizzie McGuire Movie, making wishes on Euros we threw over our shoulders into the fountain. We stuck together, a large group of American tourists completely out of our depths, and navigated Italian culture as best as we could. Thankfully, we did have several students who spoke Italian (shout-out to Danielle, Nick, and Andrew for helping everyone with the language). I still am close with my Maymester friends, and it never fails to make my day whenever I see someone on campus and get to talk about our crazy trip.
We saw so many historical places throughout our trip that it was overwhelming in the best sense of the word. Considering that we all have seen pictures of these monuments throughout our schooling, I thought I had an appreciation for them. I was wrong. I was not prepared for the humbling experience of being in such an ancient place. Even when visiting other historical monuments, like the Duomo in Florence with its intricate molding and painting and decoration, or Pompeii with its houses and baths still eerily intact, I stayed in a state of perpetual awe. Seeing the accomplishments of people from thousands of years ago still standing was unbelievable, and made me realize how very small I am. However, it also was an uplifting moment that restored my faith in humanity: We as a unified group of people, the human race, can come together and achieve great things that last beyond our short time on earth. We can create work that inspires others to go out and create as well. We can leave this place better than how we found it.
One of the ways we shape the world is by first shaping ourselves through individual growth. And one of the most fun, and simultaneously most terrifying, ways to grow is to travel. Maymester courses are excellent for students who want to study abroad, but money, homesickness, or course requirements limit them during the semester. It is short enough to still save the rest of the summer for family time, work, or vacations, but long enough to be transformative. I came back from my three weeks in Italy, and two days after landing, started an internship with Chubb Insurance for the rest of the summer. However, although I was only in Italy for three weeks, those three weeks changed my life more so than any other event thus far. For the first time, I was exposed to abject poverty, and had to confront my own privilege as an upper-middle-class, white, able-bodied, educated, American citizen. A beggar woman followed our group around on two separate occasions while we were in Palermo, the urban capital of Sicily, our last stop. I was horrified not at her, but at my immediate reaction, which was fear: I never before had seen someone who had absolutely nothing and I didn’t know how to react other than to avoid eye contact and not respond. We were obviously a target audience because we were Americans wealthy enough to travel to Italy. It was then I realized that I am not just an American citizen, but a global citizen as well, and what responsibilities that entails. It is so easy to get caught up in being a citizen of your hometown, of TCNJ, or your state, but we need to take the time to step back, gain some perspective, and see what we can do to help the global community as a whole.
Culture shock is a wonderful thing. Even the scary experiences are transformative. Allow yourself to immerse yourself in the culture, no matter how awkward you feel. I did not speak a word of Italian when I went to Italy, other than the curse words my great-grandma mutters while baking. Struggle with the language: Try to speak with people in their language, not yours, as you are their guest. Learn broken Italian through ordering gelato on a daily basis. Get lost in Rome and end up eating the best pasta carbonara you will ever have. Haggle with a street vendor in Florence using Euros, not dollars, and reject an offer of marriage in exchange for a leather jacket. Understand that you are so lucky to be an American, but do not throw your citizenship in people’s faces—be humble and be respectful. If you are not uncomfortable, you are doing it wrong. Go forth and experience other cultures. Go to a place where the people speak a different language than you do. Go to a place where people will only associate New Jerseyians with Jersey Shore. But most importantly, just go. Take a Maymester—you’ll thank yourself forever.
Nicaragua – Alexa Logush
Nicaragua is a country of rich beauty and vibrant culture. It offers both the historical and political in its past and present. A visitor can easily see and feel its stories when driving through the streets of Managua or experiencing a taste of Nicaraguan cuisine at a nearby restaurant. As Americans in Nicaragua, I don’t believe we were exactly ready for the ten-day journey that was to come. When we boarded the airplane, hands gripping the straps of our backpacks, we were eager and a little afraid. We were looking forward to stepping outside of our comfort zones and embracing something totally new. During the first two days, our group struggled a bit in coming to terms with the dissonance we felt. Small parts of us wanted to go home though we knew we wanted to stay awhile and learn more. Once we visited Los Quinchos though and spent the day with the children there, we found ourselves quickly easing into the sights, smells, and life of Nicaragua.
Nicaragua opened its arms and mouth and eyes to us. It told us its stories and we wrote them down into our journals or hugged them to our chests at night. Throughout our stay there, we had the pleasure of meeting with so many wonderful organizations and in doing so we found that our culture isn’t so far away from theirs. At the end of the day, we still smile and laugh and eventually we fall into a peaceful sleep where we dream about the weather or about what’s for dinner the next day. Nicaragua has seen its fair share of tyranny and disarray. It has stood up against many obstacles and continues to do so. But the people there are living and exhaling light and life into the lives of others. On behalf of The College of New Jersey’s Women in Learning and Leadership Nicaragua Solidarity Project III group, I’d like to say thank you to Nicaragua for turning on a light inside our hearts. May that light never be switched off; may it illuminate on and on.