By Molly Rossi, '16
Why is it so hard to write about yourself? In 12 years of education, I’ve written pages upon pages about countries I’ve never been to, molecules I cannot see, and historical figures from a past I’ve never known.
We sit down to write a report, and the first step is simple: research Montenegro’s crime levels, the biological properties of enzymes, and the political context of Marie Antoinette’s actions. We teach ourselves. We learn. We fill ourselves with information until it pours out in the single-spaced orderly facts we put on the page.
Yet, given prompts like: “Tell me about yourself,” or, “Describe who you are,” or even just, “What did that experience mean to you?” I begin to stumble. So often, we forget to learn ourselves. To watch ourselves grow. To write a story about us, not them.
Last year, I lived in an ambassador’s villa in Rome. Then I moved a few blocks away from Vatican City to study the following semester. That winter, I decided to stay abroad. I spent the spring as the only American exchange student, and first University of Richmond student, to study international law at Leiden University College in The Hague, Netherlands. And then I came home.
I’ve struggled to tell my own story about my year abroad without stumbling around in the obvious clichés: girl goes to Europe, girl goes on “adventures,” girl gets lost in a strange place, girl finds herself. It’s all very true, and all sounds very typical. But thankfully, as John Steinbeck once said:
A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike.
And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless.
We find that, after years of struggle, we do not take a trip;
a trip takes us.
The trip took me — that’s how it happened. Nothing about my experience went according to plan. Journeys are always so personalized, mine so dependent on who I was when I began and how I saw life along the way. Relating the entirety of this experience to someone else proves impossible..
I’ve been asked over and over again about my experience, and I’ve told a million different stories:
The time home was on top of an Italian shoe store
The man sitting at the café, who won an Oscar writing about Rome and told me to do the same
The time I was alone in Paris
Massimo, the old Italian man who led me around the Louvre, stopping at every Caravaggio but not the Mona Lisa
The cliff and the pink boat and the jump that left us shivering
The hospital and the kidney stone and the nurses who would speak to me only in Dutch and shot me in the leg with morphine
The friends who rode their bikes to the hospital to sit with me and who bought me Pop Tarts when I could eat again
For a long time, these stories stood alone. I wasn’t ready to encapsulate my experience. But I’ve finally found the story behind them that matters most. I didn’t find it thousands of miles away, but here, at UR.
When I came back to Richmond this fall, I started to notice something: There are international students here going through the same things I did while I was abroad. They came to a place they didn’t belong, and had to start over the same way I did. They’re looking for the same things I was. They are here, in my classes, in my dining hall, sitting next to me in the library. Dozens of students are building their own kaleidoscope of stories at Richmond.
They need support; they need someone to share with. So, I got involved. Whether it was the Abroad 360 luncheon, a Pi Beta Delta mixer, the Farewell this winter, or driving my Australian friends to their first pumpkin patch, I took every opportunity this semester to be involved with students who are taking the same leap I did one year ago. Becoming a small part of their stories was what has illuminated mine.
Right before I left Leiden University College to finally return to the U.S., I said this to my first friend in The Hague:
“I didn’t come here to find myself. I came here to be reminded that the world was bigger. That more people are kind than aren’t; more people care than don't; that more people will like you than won’t. That there are always new experiences to be had, new ways to be uncomfortable, and new places to run. But to do anything big in life, you have to treat each little moment, each person, with respect and an open mind. That is what I am taking home with me from LUC.''
I think it takes more than leaving home to figure out who you are — it also takes the strength to come back, to be uncomfortable, and to answer tough questions about what’s familiar. That’s how we develop real empathy, the kind that allows us to see ourselves in someone completely different. Going through the trials of being foreign, being a stranger, and then meeting people experiencing the same thing in a place you always thought you knew so well — that is growth.
Being a friend to the international community at the University of Richmond this semester has allowed me to bring my story back where it belongs — home.
I am not the only one. Sixty percent of UR students study abroad here — a spectacular statistic for a school of 2,800 undergraduate students. Every one of us who lives this experience has a responsibility to see it through, to carry it with them back on campus and not leave it behind. Being a mentor, friend, or supporter of international students is an incredible opportunity to do just that.
Never convince yourself that your story is not worth telling or that nothing about your experience is any different than everyone else’s. Remember, “A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike.”
You don’t have to run far away to see yourself grow. Real growth is what you take home with you — what you see in the mirror, and what you take a moment to see in the place you call home.