Story by communication design major Alexandria Ingvardsen
Italy, it had always been Italy. From the time I was a freshman in high school, I knew I wanted to study abroad and immerse myself in the Italian culture. The over-exaggerated hand gestures, the world-renowned cuisine, the overabundance of ancient history, and the remarkable architecture all pushed me to constantly want to live in Italy. And something about the serenity of the countryside in comparison to the busy streets of cities like Rome really intrigued me.
I had great plans for what my study abroad experience would be like. I knew exactly where I wanted to travel, how I wanted to take pictures, how I was going to make lifelong friendships. My experience turned out to be quite different.
I started my program January 8, moving to a small city two hours north of Rome. Viterbo was utterly enchanting, and the pace of life here was something like I’ve never seen. One moment the streets were completely empty, but a moment later couples walked their dogs, children laughed and ran through the streets, teenagers giggled on the corner smoking cigarettes. It was a small town, but its personality affected me more than any other place I had visited across Italy.
We all loved it there. Maybe not at first, with the overarching fear of the new and unknown and the drastic culture shock I and many of the people in my program experienced. But, nonetheless, we came to love the city. We loved our gorgeous university with its long hallways and Roman architecture. We loved the food, the accents when the locals tried to speak English, the small streets, the bars, the fountains in every piazza, and the history. I think we all even came to love the smell of cigarette smoke. It finally started to feel like home.
We all knew about what was happening in China, reading stories and the articles about this new “respiratory flu.” It seemed like a big deal—but it was in China, so we felt we had no reason to worry.
The first I heard of the virus in Italy was the weekend of the 21st of February. Cases were only in Northern Italy, which unfortunately was where I and several of my classmates were headed for the weekend. While traveling across Verona and Venice, we knew there were cases in these areas but we didn’t focus on that. It was Carnivale! It was like something out of a dream—people were dressed to the nines in glorious outfits, families flooded the streets, and floats were paraded through the city. I saw some people in surgical masks and remember thinking it was rather silly, as we were fine and there were only a few cases in Italy. Little did I know what the next week would entail.
By that Sunday we were back in Viterbo. The next week and a half was a blur, to say the least. One day we were going to classes like normal, being told to wash our hands a bit more than usual, and the next we were told to leave the country as soon as possible. This virus was spreading and University Studies Abroad Consortium (USAC) was concerned for our safety. I left March 2, after long goodbyes and countless tears. It had been 54 days since I landed in Italy. That’s less than half the time I had planned to live abroad.
It’s very difficult to put into words the pain and the experience of having to leave and abandon something you’ve wanted for nearly seven years. I’m still filled with anger and disappointments, and I’m fearful that I will stay that way for a long time. This was our moment to see the world, to become more independent, to travel when we’re young, to fully immerse ourselves in a new culture, and become global citizens. It was cut so short.
I’ve decided not to name the virus. It’s not what I want this article to be about. I don’t want to look back on my study abroad experience and feel fear. I’ve had my panic attacks, and my anxiety about this situation, I’ve cried enough. It was something none of us could control. Instead, I want to reminisce on what made the time I did spend abroad so incredibly humbling.
I met some of the most caring, kind souls on this trip. They are what made my experience. In such a short amount of time, I created a bond with three other students so strong, I know I’ll have these women in my life forever. We all just clicked, it took one trip to Rome and we were inseparable. Having an amazing friend group is something every person strives for. This group of girls made living in a new place not scary for me. They made me feel comfortable and vulnerable, something I am so thankful for.
We drank wine on the steps of Piazzale Michelangelo, took a tour through the Duomo, walked the streets of Rome, and looked upon Juliet’s balcony in Verona. We played Uno until the sun began to rise, listened to “Pocketful of Sunshine” over and over, laughed until our stomachs hurt. We learned new dances, raced in the streets of Florence, and had such genuine conversations that I felt closer to them than many of the people I knew back home.
The people I met abroad will also forever be in my heart and have changed my outlook on life. My heart goes out to all of the families in Italy affected by this tragic pandemic. It’s difficult to watch the news and hear how Italy is being ravaged by this disease. To think that people we met in cafes, at school, at Carnivale, could be among those to grow ill and experience the deaths of loved ones, hurts me. Although my time was cut short, I know they are experiencing a much different kind of heartbreak. In the end, I’m thankful that I left when I did, so that my memories are not tainted. I can remember Viterbo and my beloved Italy for what they are and what they will be again. Italians have such strong hearts and a great sense of humor, I hope soon they too can get back to a normal life.
From this experience, I have learned so much, but most importantly I have learned the value of friendship and how much people can truly affect your life. Although I wish we had had more time to travel and seen more places and to make more memories, I am so beyond thankful for the moments we did have. These girls will be my family for the rest of my life. We’re already planning trips across the United States, our “United States study abroad” as we like to call it. And we plan to get matching tattoos that say “luce del sole”—sunshine.
Although this has been such an unfortunate turn of events, I would do it all over again because of the people I met along the way. To Viterbo, thank you for letting us live inside your walls and witness your beauty day after day. Stay healthy and well, and so will we. We will be back to walk your streets and talk to your charming people. This isn’t the last you’ve seen of us.
Alexandria Ingvardsen is a junior majoring in communication design. This was her first time seeing Europe, and she very much intends on going back. If the opportunity arises, she wants to experience studying abroad again with USAC, which posted an earlier version of this story.
Editor’s Note: By mid-March, Chico State had brought home 113 students who were enrolled in semester- or year-long Study Abroad programs in 21 countries due to concerns about the global COVID-19 pandemic. Program Coordinator Jennifer Gruber said it was an incredibly difficult decision because the students have often been planning for this experience for years, but their safety is always a top priority. While all spring 2020 Study Abroad programs have been canceled, she hopes some of the students may be able to pursue another experience in a future semester.
Meanwhile, Chico State is working to preserve a sense of continuity and community for returning students by connecting them with resources and monitoring their health upon their re-entry. The majority of students are either continuing their Study Abroad course work remotely or they have enrolled in Chico State classes due to the generous support of faculty and staff on campus.