“I’m signing up to study abroad in Italy, which is 4 weeks long, and I may stay over a few weeks longer to visit friends in Europe. I know that life for you will be very different with me gone all of June, and maybe most of July, but I really need to do this.” My four children looked at me, at each other, and back at me. Then the question I was waiting for fell out of the 17 year old son’s mouth, “But…who will buy the groceries?”‘
As a single, forty-one year old, work-at-home mother (and primary caregiver) for my four children, committing to a study abroad program was not an easy nor simple decision. Many considerations had to be taken into account. Who *would* actually buy the groceries? How would my 17 year old get to work? My sons are old enough to manage themselves. But, what would I do with the girls? They certainly couldn’t just stay home – alone – for two months while I bounced around Europe. Planning for this experience abroad has been both overwhelming and exciting. Between my last minute anxiety about being so far away from my children to spending my third night in Florence at the local ER, getting to Italy and settling in has come with its fair share of ups and downs.
At the root of my struggle has been the internal conflict of being a fully autonomous adult in America versus a suddenly very dependent study abroad student in a foreign land. For my younger classmates, being here in Italy isn’t that much different than being in the dorms at college. Run out of money? Call Dad. Get lost? Smartphone Map App to the rescue. Health takes a turn for the worse? Mom will call your family doctor and take care of you. But when I ended up in the ER (dehydration is a buzz kill!) calling my study abroad contacts (teacher, program, insurance) was the last thing on my mind! As a health-conscious adult, I knew that I was dehydrated to the point of needing medical attention. So I took myself to the local hospital and communicated as best I could with the staff. After a long, frustrating, night in the ER, it finally occurred to me, “I should totally have brought an Italian speaking person with me.” I mean, obviously, right?
It’s here in these little moments where I realize as an older, non-traditional, study abroad student my mindset and outlook on things is just different from my classmates. Over the last week I’ve learned to ask for help with more things, double check my prerogatives to make sure I’m not being overly ambitious, and communicate with my group about my day-to-day agenda more than I ever would have to if I were stateside. Personally, I think it’s a great lesson for me in the value of community. So many times as Americans, we operate in a sort of self-imposed solitary confinement. And for the most part, it probably works for most of us. However, experiencing the value of an in-person team has taught me more about myself than I expected.
This is the power of a study abroad program. Yes, I am a 41 year old mother of four. But I’m still on a journey. I’m still growing and changing. And I’m so grateful to be able to experience the whole of this experience. And as for my 20, 17, 15, and 13 year old children? They are fine. I get a text from one or two of them every day asking me things like, “How do I use the toaster oven, again?” to “The iPad mini isn’t working, Mom!” To which I’m having a lot of fun replying, “Sorry, can’t really help you with that while I’m 5,000 miles away. YouTube it!” My children are not youngsters anymore. They do not need me to personally feed and water them every day. They must learn to be more independent and what a better way for them to learn some life-management skills than with me in Italy?