September 16, 2008
By Linda Senecal '09
(Intercollegiate Center for Classical Studies, Rome, Fall 2007)
Congratulations to you all! You are now officially women of the world! You've survived your adventures abroad and have returned to us at Mount Holyoke no doubt wiser, braver and assuredly more confident. You've just spent the last year or months of your life encountering remarkable people, engaging in once in a lifetime experiences, trying all sorts of new things, and being exposed to new viewpoints and perspectives. You've performed the amazing juggling feat of simultaneously advancing your academic studies while integrating yourselves into a foreign culture - which is no easy task, really! Through all of these trials and adventures, you have undoubtedly learned a great deal: about the world we live in, about your academic interests, and most importantly, about yourselves. I suspect you will each go on to recall your unique experiences abroad as - even if they weren't always pleasant - immensely enriching and undoubtedly life changing.
So here you are! Women of the world! Back in South Hadley! Again! ... Now what?
Coming back after such a powerful, self-defining experience may prove difficult. I know when I came back to my home in Massachusetts, and back to Mount Holyoke and my home here, something felt different, or "off." But it wasn't that the things I had left behind had changed - no, actually, they were surprisingly the same! My family, still the same three people they were when I left them; my house utterly untouched; and even my dog was the exactly as I remembered her four months ago. And likewise, life at Mount Holyoke felt relatively undisturbed as well. All of my favorite professors were still here; my fellow classmates, still plugging away at their studies; and the buildings, as we all know, timelessly rooted in their fixed spots. There was a new system at Blanchard! ... But that's not really the type of change we're talking about here today.
It seems to me that change occurs slowly in a stable environment: and my fellow students at Mount Holyoke, though they had undoubtedly changed during their Fall semester, seemed very much the same as they were when I left. It felt almost as if the experience of learning abroad had quickened the pace of my own growth, and my stay in Rome sort of like "Miracle Grow" for my psyche - all of those intense moments of adventure, and exciting chances to learn new things had essentially "grown me up." And it makes sense, too: difficult times have a way of augmenting the rate of personal growth. And let's face it, study abroad is no walk in the park!
As an Ancient Studies major, I'm used to the quiet life of the scholar: a little like Goethe's Faust, I too have my desk, my books, my little lamp and the general hum of peace and quiet to accompany my leisurely quest for knowledge. But life in Rome was like a 24-hour academic triathlon! The program I participated in focused on field studies rather than in-the-classroom learning, which I had been used to. I had to figure out - and fast! - how to balance books, rain boots AND my sense of self, all at the same time, which was difficult: especially the rain boots! The combination of studying and learning, experiencing a new culture, and ultimately "flying by the seat of my pants," had an indescribable impact on my personal growth. I was forced to question my identity every day, comparing myself to the people and world around me; and I was forced, also, to question my academic knowledge, when confronted with the physical reality of a world I had understood until then only through history books.
I didn't fully realize how much I was growing while I was in Rome, but the changes felt undeniable when I came home. I felt like a new woman, and yet, the whole world I had left behind when I boarded that plane back in August had somehow remained frozen. But something was different. Life just didn't FEEL the same as it did when I left, despite its unchanged appearance. After giving this strange feeling much thought, I finally came to this conclusion: no, my world hadn't changed very much - but I did! I had changed in it.
After my academic experience abroad, I was a stronger, more confident woman: I felt not only more secure on a personal level, but also as a student in a demanding academic environment. Suddenly, raising my hand in class was no longer the painstaking task it once was - I felt quite certain that I did actually know something about Roman history (at last!) - after all, I'd seen it with my own eyes! And filling leadership roles, too, suddenly felt natural and worthwhile. I had learned a great deal about myself and my studies when I was away in Rome, as I'm sure most of you have in your respective travels, and it was this change that had forever altered the world I knew. I was different, undoubtedly so, and realized what's more, that with this new growth in me, I had gained a new responsibility to my community as well.
We have all been blessed with the unique opportunity to learn in a foreign setting: the outstanding chance to deepen both our educational understandings AND our personal sense of self. Now what do we do with it? That's up to you, of course, but at least let this thought fill your mind for an instant: you are stronger and wiser; real "women of the world." Now, what do you want that world to look like?
I know it's a bit of a cliché on campus, but still I think it's a message that bears repeating: Gandhi said "be the change you wish to see in the world." Share your knowledge with others; share your confidence with others; bring the strengths you've earned through your struggles abroad BACK to your home, BACK to Mount Holyoke, and wear them proud! You've earned your stripes out there! Living and learning in a foreign culture is no easy task! And you've all survived it - we've all survived it! - now show us here, those of us who haven't had the chance to experience so much newness at once, show us what you've learned, and show us who you've become. That to me is what the "coming home" experience is all about.
You are all changed, and if your experiences upon returning to Mount Holyoke are anything like mine, you may find yourself feeling like you are the only one who has: but being alone has never been an indication of uselessness; and your voice could not possibly be wasted on this campus. So show us, now, who you are, and what you've learned out there. That I think is the duty of the privileged: share your gifts with the world, and make it a better place; and help the world to grow, just as it helped you.