With Solidarity Comes Friendship

MerryWangVaticanGroupPhoto2019As strange as it may sound, in the weeks leading up to my study abroad trip I had a sense of dread lingering in the back of my mind. During my spring semester of freshman year, I had excitedly signed up for a month-long UTD summer program in Italy and  Switzerland, where I’d be studying the sociology of religion that coming July. But as I sat at home during June and the check-in countdown on my Delta app slowly ticked away, I started having second thoughts. Our study abroad group had only met twice before the trip, and we had never even met with all 18 of us present. I knew that I was going into the program not knowing any of the other participants: that’d been a conscious choice. Two of my friends had signed up for a third-party program for that summer and had asked me to join them, but I decided to do a different program, thinking: what was college if you didn’t try to throw yourself out there, right?

All of a sudden, it’d become the night before the trip and I was almost regretting that decision. I knew that outside of class, the students would be given time on the weekends to explore. But what I didn’t know was whether I’d be able to make friends on the trip to go exploring with, whether I’d enjoy the company of the other students, and whether we’d all walk away from this trip on our separate paths and never talk to each other ever again. I pondered this during my flight to Rome, anxiously shuffling my feet as a group of us followed Francesca, one of our program assistants, to the villa in Rome that’d we be staying at.

Our week in Rome largely consisted of the 18 of us being led around to various landmarks by Dr. Rosen, an art history professor from UTD. I had made some stilted conversation with a few people on the trip and at this point I had accepted my fate, thinking, “well, I made a valiant effort, guess I’ll just go through this month never speaking a word to anyone, it’s fine.”

In retrospect, what broke the ice for all of us was the night that we had to get back to the villa after the group dinner we had had with our professors. The restaurant was quite far from our villa, on the opposite side of the Tiber River. We had originally taken a tram with Francesca to get to the restaurant, but Francesca wasn’t heading back to the villa that night, so we were on our own for the return trip. A few people had decided to walk back to the villa, but a majority of us were waiting for tram 8 at the stop. Trams 3 and 8 came by that particular stop. Time passed. Many tram 3s came by, but no 8. We became more paranoid as it got later into the night. A few of the guys started to doubt whether tram 8 even stopped by our stop, to which one of the other guys swore on his life that tram 8 stopped there since he’d “been stuck for hours at this very stop the week before.” The odd specificity and confidence in his statement, mixed with the deliriousness that nighttime never fails to provide, struck a chord of hilarity among our group and opened up more banter.

At the end of our time in Rome, we packed up our bags and made our way north to Lugano, Switzerland. I should take this opportunity to say that during this trip, things tended to either not work out, or almost not work out. Take the train, for example. We had a 10 minute transfer in Milan when going from Rome to Lugano, our train had arrived late, and the platform number of the next train could not be determined until we arrived at Milano Centrale. I remember all of us rolling our bags off of our first train in a panic as we followed Francesca, straining our eyes and ears towards her before seeing a series of outstretched hands shoot up around her, “Five! Platform Five!” and scurrying onto our connection through the sea of disgruntled Italians.

The last three weeks of the trip were spent in Lugano, where we had our classes at Franklin University. A sense of community had definitely begun to form, from our shared experiences inside and outside of class and inside jokes. We had gone from strangers to friends sharing AirBnBs on the weekends. I personally spent one of my weekends in Florence, Pisa, and Venice in a group of five and my other weekend in Milan in a group of seven. The sense of freedom and adventure that comes with exploring a foreign city with no one but a few of your peers is incomparable: you form a sort of bond that stems from the fact that you’re all young adults from the same university, trying to experience as much as you can while also trying to survive without any supervision. We essentially spent all of our time together.

Our last week in Lugano was a whirlwind as our professor, Dr. Carol Cirulli Lanham, wrapped up the course content and we turned our focus to the final project: a 3000-word sociology paper due on the last day of the program. The last few nights were long and late, but not without a trip to Lake Lugano to shake off our stress. I’ve always claimed that mutual suffering is what brings people together. That’s definitely what happened the last night before I left the dorm, with a few of us sitting in a circle in the kitchen in front of our laptops, sweating from the excessive brain function and the lack of air conditioning in the building.

I left the same day that the program ended, which was a Thursday. The university allowed people to stay in the dorm until Friday, which was the date that most people were leaving. I had booked a flight home from Zurich for Friday, so I wanted to leave a little early to make sure I’d make the flight. A quick round of goodbyes was shared as I left the dorm to head to the train station. I cast a backward glance before Andra, another one of our program assistants, sped off with me in her car to the train station. The solitary train ride, along with the night I spent in the hotel room alone in Zurich, gave me a ton of time to reflect on my experiences, something that I hadn’t had a chance to do up until that point. Upon arriving at the hotel, I took a much-needed shower and nap before waking up and basking in the air conditioning. Sitting in bed, I read through the messages on my phone from my friends who were still at the dorm in Lugano, seeing the notifications pop up and smiling at the reports of their shenanigans on the final night and their declarations of how they missed me already. “I haven’t even been gone 24 hours,” I replied, “what will you do for the three weeks between now and when the semester starts?”

I sit here now in my apartment at UTD as a sophomore. My friends from the study abroad trip and I meet up regularly, and we talk, laugh, and care for each other as if we’ve known each other for three years and not three months. Going on this trip may have been one of the best decisions I’ve made, and I’m grateful that I was able to come out of it with not only a full brain but a full heart. While education is an essential part of study abroad, studying should not be the only thing you’re doing abroad. The friends I made on the trip truly rounded out my experience. To those who are on the fence about study abroad: do it. Jump in without any inhibitions. The experiences will thrill you and change you for the better. And you just might come out with some of the most precious people in your life.

-Merry Wang, Faculty-led in Italy/Switzerland, Summer 2019