It is hard to believe that the semester has officially come to an end. While there is surely mental rumination yet to come, tomorrow marks my last full day in Riva San Vitale, and by all accounts the end of my study abroad experience. It is certainly a bittersweet feeling if there ever was one. I miss my home, family, and friends; I miss the United States, Massachusetts and Virginia. At the same time, I have forged a connection with Switzerland and Europe, the likes of which I could have never imagined. Toughest of all is the sense of finality accompanying my departure. Never again will I have the opportunity to simply drop my engagements and live in a foreign country for four months, largely insulated from many of the responsibilities that would otherwise tie me down.
As I look back on my experiences this semester, I am directed to the document upon which I spelled out my initial goals for the Presidential Global Scholars program. As is the case with many glimpses in the past, hindsight reveals and overwhelming degree of innocence. As I compare the goals that I had set for myself, I’ve concluded that I was both eerily clairvoyant, and woefully naïve in predicting my time abroad.
I had separated my original goals into overarching, thematic aspirations, and place-specific, experiential goals. It is easier to measure the extent to which I achieved the latter set, so I will begin there. Of the 24 specific things I had hoped to experience, I was able to accomplish, conservatively, eight. It is safe to say that I became more aware of the reality of travel (cost, time, planning, etc.) during the course of the trip. I found that I had been far too idealistic in preparing for my experiences, a point that I have explored in the past. More importantly, however, was the fact that my priorities changed throughout the semester. I became less and less concerned with seeing the blockbuster tourist attractions. Though these were indeed interesting, I found that trying solely to visit the Mona Lisas and the Coliseums of the world was a quite exhausting way of traveling. The times during which I was most at peace often involved walking alone through smaller cities like Edinburgh or Lugano, or going on morning runs at the base of the acropolis in Athens. I realized that many of my most memorable experiences were low-key and spontaneous. So, despite the fact that I was unable to see visit all of the locations I had originally hoped to visit , I am at peace knowing that I made up for this by way of experiences that were more unique and just as worthwhile. Note to self: Timothy, you can handle spontaneity. It is O.K.
More interesting and perhaps more telling of my growth while abroad was the extent to which I accomplished my broader, personal-growth goals. As I review these, it appears that I was a bit more successful – I’ll score myself a five out of seven. I will begin by talking about the goals I feel I was not able to adequately accomplish. These both involve cultural immersion, and undoubtedly play off of each other. The first was to become proficient at speaking Italian, and the second was to form deep relationships with locals. While in Europe I have certainly realized the value in learning a different language and have spoken about it at length in a previous post. Unfortunately, despite making definite progress, my Italian skills are not quite where I would like them to be. As such, I feel that I was precluded from really developing the relationships with locals that I had hoped to make. Nevertheless, I think the cultural experiences that I did have were quite beneficial. I am also still determined to learn another language. I am not sure if Italian is the right one for me, but after my time in Europe I am convinced that learning languages is one of the best things that one can do to improve cultural competency and global awareness. If all goes as planned, I will be celebrating my one year PGS anniversary with a blog posted in German.
Although my Italian growth was somewhat disappointing, I feel that I definitely made significant progress in other personal goals that I had set for myself. Among these was a desire to better understand Europe as it relates to the global economy, being that I am a business student and will be resuming my business studies upon returning to the United States. I feel fortunate to have visited places like Greece, Italy, and Ireland, countries whose financial problems I had only been able to read about in news publications. After spending time in these areas I feel that I have a better understanding of the intricacies of the financial difficulties facing the Eurozone, as well as a cognizance of some of the cultural undertones which are surely contributing to the manner in which the Eurozone crisis plays out. I also had the opportunity to visit Germany, the figure of European economic strength. Again, it is surprisingly eye-opening to be able to place a face to a name that had only been able to read about. Finally, my experiences in the financially strong and geopolitically neutral country of Switzerland have only added to the broader perspective of global business that I now possess. Our time at the World Economic Forum, for example, was one of my favorite components of the program.
Another goal that I feel I was successful in accomplishing involves the way in which I view Europe. Before arriving abroad I had seen the continent as a more or less homogenous place containing arbitrarily drawn borders and culturally insignificant language differences (an exaggeration, of course). However, this couldn’t have been further from the truth. Each country that I had the opportunity to visit had drastically different cultures, people, architecture, and natural beauty. Despite the fact that the Eurozone is often a symbol of cooperation and solidarity, I have learned that national pride, too, is an integral component of the region. I feel that I have a grasp on what makes an Italian different from Swiss, and a Swiss from a German. This improvement in global perspective will undoubtedly change the way I view Europe upon returning to the United States.
A final goal that I set out to accomplish, and to some extent feel that I have achieved, involves what I called “finding my niche in the world.” This is one that I know I will keep thinking about as I distance myself from this experience; like many things this semester, the true meaning of the change is not yet apparent. Nevertheless, we have spent time talking about a lot of the world’s big problems throughout PGS (hunger, poverty, energy, etc.), as well as the fact that the solutions to these issues will only come with the collaboration of the correct group people. I always imagined applying myself to something that would produce good in the world. If nothing else, PGS has taught me that there are a lot of areas in which there exists such a need – a need for dedicated and caring people who are interested in solving problems together. So, while I am still not sure what exactly my impact will be, I have an infinitely better idea of what my impact could look like.
These are obviously just a few of my reflections of this semester; I could go on for far longer. I have realized throughout this process that it takes a while for the blog seeds to germinate. Therefore, I am enthusiastic about continuing to talk about my PGS experiences throughout the summer and beyond. I am also positive that I will have experiences in the near future that will ignite PGS feelings and memories. I will be sure to share them despite being far away from Europe. However, for now it is time for me to say goodbye to a place that has undoubtedly changed my life, and will surely influence path I take for years to come. It was one of the hardest experiences I have ever gone through, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Thank you Riva San Vitale. Thank you Switzerland. Thank you Europe and Africa. I’ve had the time of my life.