Today we hear from our newest team member in ACCENT’s San Francisco Center, Partnership and Administrative Coordinator Alexa Ball. A New York native and NYU alum, Alexa is an International Education professional with an enduring love for Rome. Alexa discusses why she chose to study abroad twice in the Eternal City and why returning to the same city is an invaluable experience.
Hi everyone, I’m Alexa and I am one of the newest ACCENT team members based out of San Francisco. Having studied abroad many times myself, I consider myself a study abroad junkie! My study abroad experiences have taken me to Italy, Germany, Ghana, and China and after having experienced the meaningful cultural exchange that study abroad offers, I am thrilled to join ACCENT to develop transformative programs in Western Europe — and especially in Rome.
As an undergrad, I very carefully chose Rome as my first–and second–study abroad destination. After my first short-term study abroad program proved to be a successful experience (and an addictive one at that) I followed my love for Italian language and culture (and cacio e pepe) back to Rome to study for a full semester. Unsurprisingly, I returned to Italy for a third time, this time to Turin to teach English and have since returned to visit my host family. While I love revisiting the country that first christened my passport, I sometimes feel guilty for repeatedly choosing Italy as my go-to travel location.
Usually when I cross a destination off of my travel bucket list, I feel a sense of finality in the experience and I am in no rush to return. There’s so much of this world to see and I can’t waste any time! Still, no matter how many times I visit Italy and pretend that I am at peace with the prospect of never returning, I know that I will return without fail. Italy has etched a permanent spot on my travel list–a spot that remains at the top, might I add.
When choosing a second study abroad destination, I considered other locations, but my mind always returned to Rome. My Italian had improved immensely in the two years since I had last been in Italy when I couldn’t even keep “buongiorno” and “arrivederci” straight. Yes, that’s right, upon meeting my host dad for the first time I confidently shook his hand and proclaimed a loud “goodbye!” which solicited hearty laughter from the dinner table. I wanted the chance to redeem myself and at least get the basic salutations right. Once I submitted my applications to study in Rome again, I didn’t look back.
However, when I arrived the second time and was greeted by a familiar city, I panicked. Studying abroad is supposed to be a challenge in cultural adjustment, right? It is all about trading the familiar for the unknown so as to learn about yourself and others. I felt I had just swapped the familiar for, well, the familiar. I worried that I wouldn’t experience the initial culture shock and challenges that all of my peers would be experiencing, challenges that make study abroad so transformative. I felt that I had mistakenly followed a nostalgic desire to recreate a past experience, not a true passion for Italy, back to Rome.
Still, I resolved to keep an open mind and tried not to play tour guide as my new roommates and I explored a city that I had traversed many times over. Little by little, thanks to my roommates, local friends, and professors, I started to see a Rome that I had not seen on my last trip. I now saw a city that looked a lot different from the vignettes of Rome etched in my memory and old Facebook albums. My first trip had changed me and I was now seeing Rome not as a tourist, but as a culturally sensitive and humbled traveler. My new coursework gave me the space and tools to unearth a Rome that I hadn’t had the time or means to think about before. The second time around, I studied not just Italian language, but the religion, art, politics, and sociology that characterizes Italian culture and defines decades. As I met and interacted with more locals, I immersed myself more fully in my host culture while becoming more inquisitive and critical of my own. The bones of the city felt more or less the same, but the experience was vastly different because I was different.
I’m often asked what advice I would give to students studying abroad, and I would say to return to your host city months or years after you depart. Maybe not to study abroad again, maybe just for a short trip, but you’ll find that the city you once called home will continue to teach you new things. If you can’t physically revisit your host country, revisit it in other ways. Seek out culturally relevant clubs on campus, share your experiences and advice with prospective study abroad students, or continue language classes or courses related to your region of interest. Maybe just re-watch that movie that originally inspired your travels-you’ll see it differently.
I left my first study abroad program naïve enough to think that I had figured Italy out. I left my second study abroad program knowing that it’s better to leave a place with more questions than when you arrived. As I look back now, I know that my decision to study abroad in the same place twice was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Study abroad is often seen as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and there is some truth in that idea. Still, during my second time in Rome I discovered the value in revisiting the places of your past travels, not to relive past memories, but to see the destination through a new lens.
This experience made me realize that it’s okay to revisit your favorite places more than once. Instead of crossing those destinations off that long travel bucket list of yours in permanent ink, try using a pencil.
~ Alexa Ball, ACCENT San Francisco