Blog #6: End of Summer Reflection

As I prepare for my third year at Notre Dame, reflecting on this summer and all the opportunities it has brought me is a unique privilege that I am so grateful to have experienced. Before this summer, I had never left the United States—not for a family vacation, not for a study abroad experience.  Initially, I felt very out of my element, nervous and apprehensive, not entirely sure I was prepared to live on my own all summer, much less in a foreign country. Through my internship cohort, I was able to prepare quite heavily for my experience and knew better what to expect, but one thing I could never have predicted was how amazing the relationships I developed would be. 

I remember landing in Milan, thinking about whether or not I would make friends, whether or not the research I was doing would be something I liked, what I would eat for dinner every night. After only a week with my research cohort in Milan, I already felt like I was building strong relationships. The cultural differences I expected upon my arrival, while still present, were not nearly as daunting as what I expected.We all had similar music tastes and interests, and it became increasingly easier to find things to talk about every day during laboratory experiments. During the weekends, my new friends and I would even hang out, and exploring the sites and sounds of such a bustling, beautiful city was an experience unique to my particular location—I got a lot of my cultural experience through just living my day-to-day life. 

A lot of people say that studying abroad changes them for the better. I think that sentiment rings true for the most part, but I don’t necessarily feel different; rather, I feel like a more improved version of myself. I am able to connect on a whole new level with those outside of my culture and those that I normally would not have the privilege of meeting had I not taken the jump to study somewhere new to me. Every piece of my Italian experience has made me a better global citizen, and I am so excited to take my newly-improved linguistic skills and better understanding of cultural differences to experiences back in the USA and abroad someday soon.

Blog #5: The D6 Dimensions

I’m writing this blog post from a less-than-comfortable terminal seat in the Milan-Malpensa Airport, reflecting on my past ten weeks studying both chemistry and Italian at l’Università degli Studi di Milano. At the end of our cultural experience abroad, a reflection utilizing the Hofstede Insights allows me as a student to truly reflect on the cultural differences I’ve been privileged enough to observe and experience this summer. Using the Hofstede D6 Insights allows me and my cohort to better identify these differences to gain the most out of our immersion as it comes to a close. For me, identifying differences is integral in my cultural understanding. 

One of the D6 dimensions I felt a dissonance between the USA and Italy was in Long-Term Orientation—more to say the emphasis on past culture and history in modern context. In Italy, history is everything. Culture is everything. From ancient Roman architecture to the use of the formal, Italy grounds itself in the past and respecting it. While the appreciation of history and culture is something that I absolutely devoured while in Italy—either via museums or just casual conversations with friends—there was a palpable difference to engaging in history here versus in the US. Not only is there just more culture in the sense of more time passing, but also in the feeling that history is immovable. In the USA, the majority of my historical knowledge came and went with AP US History and not much more beyond that. I would never consider myself the most well-versed in the context of American culture on that front, and so even at the personal level, my Long-Term Orientation is minimal when compared to Italy. Moving forward, not only just for Italian history and culture but also my own, I definitely want to engage more and make sure that I’m allowing my culture and its history to be shared.

Another dimension I felt a noticeable difference in was Indulgence. Something that surprised me when I had been in Italy for a few weeks was that Italians don’t really indulge in the same way Americans do. While, yes, I was in Milan—the fashion capital of essentially the world—I didn’t see many of my peers decked out day-to-day in designer brands. Clothes were understated, everyone brought their lunch everyday, and sweet treats were only for once and a while. I’m not sure why I expected Italians to indulge in the same way Americans did—maybe because of the rich pastas and delicious pizza on top of well-curated wine collections—but I soon realized that these decadent pieces of Italian culture are treated very dearly. Cultural appreciation reserves true indulgences for when they are significant. Instead, Italians definitely have their greatest indulgence in what Americans colloquially call “self-care.” Long lunches, social aperitivo, and evenings with loved ones are Italy’s greatest indulgence, which is something I grew to love. I definitely, when able, want to bring back this sentiment of treating the self emotionally instead of with material goods—I think life is better that way.

My ten weeks in Italy, as my friend affectionately pokes fun at me for saying, were “fantastico.” Every person I met, every place I went, and every new experience I got the privilege of living have completely changed my perspective for the better. While, yes, my Italian improved by an immeasurable margin, my appreciation for other cultures even outside Italian—through Greek and French erasmus students, through late night excursions to my favorite kebab place, and even conversations with someone random on the train—grew into something beautiful. Taking all these moments with me (and a scrapbook of memories), it is safe to say that Italy is a part of my life that I will never forget.

Arrivederci, Milano. Alla prossima!

Blog Post #4: DIVE Reflection

Small talk with strangers has never been my particular strong suit. While I do enjoy small talk and socializing, oftentimes there’s a certain level of discomfort for me when interacting with an individual that I am just meeting for the first time. From my perspective as an American abroad, I am used to a different type of social interaction during my typical errand runs—a quick greeting from the cashier on my way to self checkout, and that’s basically the extent of our conversation. At the local grocery store where I do my weekly shopping, the self checkout option—the option that at home I had grown accustomed to—is seldom available, so my checkout experience is with a cashier. Every week, it is the same man who is typically there to scan my groceries. We typically exchange a brief greeting and he continues to scan my groceries and take my payment. I usually have my headphones halfway-in or am on my phone, and up until around my third week in Milan, I don’t think we had established my routine. 

Upon getting settled in Milan, the cashier started being more friendly with me and would ask me small questions as I was checking out, like “where are you from?” (my American accent is very obvious in Italian) or “what do you do for work?” when he saw my badge for my internship. While these questions are harmless and definitely were an attempt for him to make basic small talk and get to know one of many grocery store regulars, initially I was on red alert: as a young woman, it can be hard for me to offer information regarding my personal life, routine, or anything that reveals too much information about me or places I frequently visit. Out of safety, I’ve always been advised—whether by parents, friends, mentors, etc.—to only share information with those I’ve come to know, sometimes I can be hyper vigilant with this particular advice. Upon this grocery store visit, I was a little on edge. 

Using the D.I.V.E. reflection, I was much better able to reflect on interactions like these, and though small, these small observations and changing my frame of reference do help me understand the culture around me:

Describe: A male cashier is asking me questions about me, Milan, and my experience here while scanning my groceries. 

Interpret: It is strange for a man to ask me questions about my life because he could potentially be gleaning information off of me, which could present a safety risk. 

Verify: After returning week after week, I noticed this type of conversation is typical for cashiers in grocery stores all over Milan. After going to other stores for small things, and waiting in line watching other interactions, I realized this is a normal conversational habit here. 

Evaluate: While my normal culture is a little more antisocial, I find these interactions—now that I am more familiar with them—a good source for language practice and a friendly encounter every once-and-awhile. 

After stepping through the D.I.V.E. framework, I not only was able to acknowledge a new cultural difference between my US life and life in Milan, but also was able to better understand a social norm that I normally would avoid. After growing acclimated to this type of conversation, I definitely feel generally more comfortable doing things in Milan and talking to strangers in the process. 

Blog #3: Stereotypes

Throughout this summer, the unique experience of living abroad has definitely allowed me to feel more united in a global community, interacting daily with people I would have never met without traveling across the ocean. With this extreme privilege also comes the ability to notice the small things about my daily interactions that both help me understand my role as a “global citizen” and also connect with those outside of my nationality. Europe in general has its preconceived notions of America—often labeled as the “noisy tourists” that arrive for the stretch of the year between May and September. For many of the people I interact with on a daily basis, I’m the first American they’ve truly met. While this at times feels daunting, as I’m creating a perception of an entire country to them, at the same time it’s a very valuable experience to show them the pieces of my life in the states that have shaped who I am. 

The first few weeks in Milan came with a lot of questions about the USA: graduate students were shocked to find out that I lived six hours by car away from my home to attend college, that a US large soda is “truly absurd” by comparison to the European equivalent, and many conversations about what Americans do for fun were exchanged. Sometimes it felt that there was an assumption that America was exactly as those cliche teen movies characterized it—and there is some truth behind the stereotypes of Friday Night Lights and the Fourth of July. But overall I didn’t really experience harmful stereotyping by my peers, more of a genuine curiosity about the other side of the planet. I recall one of my graduate student mentors perplexed at just exactly why I decided to study in Italy this summer—America is so far away and has everything one could possibly need. The glamorization of American life is definitely palpable, but it more creates a sense of shock or curiosity in those I interact with as opposed to confusion. 

For the most part, I think the Italian perception of the USA is shockingly accurate. Italian young people are almost midwestern in their politeness—everyone is friendly and eager to socialize, but one large difference between Italian young people and American young people is within the university experience. While students still attend university and can sometimes live in dormitory-style housing, the party-sport-study-repeat structure of American university life is not at all replicated. All these aspects of life are distinctly separate. Sports being a fixture in American university culture was so shocking for many of the people I interact with daily—school is a place for studying. The concept of so many students continuing sports alongside their education was something that definitely contributed to the heterostereotypes that I sometimes saw in my daily life. The differences in university life between Italy and America definitely contribute to the heterostereotype of the USA being a hub for partying, drinking, and generally just “being American” in the most stereotypical sense. When I view America from their point of view, it does make a lot of sense that many of the aspects of our culture that others are aware of is in the form of socialization—movies depict it, songs are about it, it’s the most accessible view of the US from an abroad angle. I think seeing how America is perceived also helps me understand better the similarities and differences in Italian culture, and taking these small observations with me has helped immensely in my cultural integration. 

Blog #2: Critical Incidents

Within my first weeks in Milan, I became quickly acclimated to the city atmosphere and used as much of my time as possible to learn about the city—and country—I am living in for the summer. I expected to encounter cultural differences going about my day-to-day, engaging with members of my lab or strangers in public spaces, but I don’t think I could have anticipated the process one must undergo in order to comfortably adjust to a foreign environment. Italy is for the most part very similar to the United States in many practices, however I initially got tripped up on many of the small nuances present in Italian culture that a textbook could never prepare me for. The largest cultural changes for me came in the form of basic communication which flowed into personal interactions. Communication is the foundation for so much cultural growth, so overcoming the barrier of my limited language knowledge is something I still need to continue working on, but over the short time I’ve been present in Italy, I can already see the improvements beginning to take shape. 

When my foreign language internship cohort was sent to our selected locations, one thing we were taught to identify during our time abroad was “critical incidents” where our cultural expectations and the actual cultural structure of our new country did not line up. These critical incidents are an extremely valuable opportunity to improve our intercultural skills and continue to grow as global citizens. Communication in general continued to be a challenge, especially in the context of customary greetings. In the US, I’m used to greeting people in passing with a brief smile and continuing to wherever I’m going. In Italy, my experience has been a lot more cordial. In my first week, I would walk past the members of my lab that I knew who appeared to be going somewhere, flash a quick smile, and keep walking past. I only learned after watching other interactions between graduate students that it was unusual to exchange an unspoken greeting, and instead a verbal acknowledgment is much more common and is a respectful way to acknowledge anyone you might know. It also isn’t atypical to stop and have a brief conversation. For me, after several years of college, I’m much more used to nodding to my peers on the quad and continuing to walk to my destination, and it took me a while to realize that my peers here in Milan were wanting me to verbally engage in order to exchange hellos whenever we encountered each other. Small components of the relationships I’m cultivating here help me fit better with the change in culture that I have the privilege of observing this summer. 

Overall, these small changes in my life throughout my experience in Milan are helping me to become a member of a greater global community, and learning from these critical incidents through the guidance of my Italian peers provides a priceless experience for any language learner.

Blog Post #1 – Pre-Departure Expectations

Buongiorno! My name is Marissa, and I am a rising junior at Notre Dame double-majoring in Biochemistry and Italian Studies! This summer, I’m embarking on the interdisciplinary venture of a lifetime, traveling to Milan, Italy to conduct research at Università degli Studi di Milano (UniMi) in organic synthesis, organic chemistry, and biochemistry under Dr. Daniele Passarella! My work may be studying organic and bioorganic synthesis, but my day-to-day life will be completely immersed in Italian city life and culture! As the child of a primarily Italian-American family (with other cultural influences from central and Western Europe), I am looking forward to living in a country where I can immerse myself in a new academic and social culture. The Foreign Language Internship program (FLI) at Notre Dame provides a student like me—who has a love for cross-disciplinary study—to challenge myself in both of my areas of academic interest.

Before departure, my FLI cohort underwent the IDI analysis which identified our perception of culture versus our actual level of cultural awareness, which allowed us to objectively look at where we were at versus where we would like to be in our cultural perception by the end of our FLI experiences. The IDI helped me more innately understand my role in a more multicultural environment, and moving forward towards my summer in Milan, my added awareness not only of my strengths in cultural appreciation but also areas I could improve will help immensely with my adjustment to life in Italy. My summer experience will place me in Milan for ten weeks—plenty of time to get a taste of Italian culture and learn about the differences between my life in South Bend, Indiana (and my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri) versus Milan. As a personal goal, I want to embrace asking questions and not shying away from admitting when things are unfamiliar to me. Being intentional in acknowledging my weaknesses in cultural awareness will help me get the most out of this experience.

At the end of the summer, I hope to reflect on this experience and how it has changed my cultural perception; I look forward to the challenges of living abroad pushing me to improve my Italian fluency! Because this cohort of FLI interns has two other Italian students, I am eager to discuss our individual experiences and learn even more from them about the cultural differences between the United States and Italy that we observe, as well as compare regional differences in Italian culture. With my departure date a little over one week away, my excitement is being redirected to productivity—packing for this summer, and for finishing my finals! It’s shaping up to be an amazing ten weeks, and I can’t wait to share this journey!