Wading in Discomfort: A Reflection on Language Immersion

SONY DSCPerfection is not important. The message is.

I am sitting in a cozy kitchen in Perugia, Italy, a plate of biscotti in front of me, when I hear these words. As part of an optional project for my sociology class, I am in the midst of my first weekly visit with a local Italian family to discuss our class topics – Catholicism, immigration, and the Italian education system, to name a few. Progetto Famiglia, or “The Family Project” as it was called, was intended to further illuminate these issues by providing us with perspectives from Italians themselves. On this day, however, I could not focus on the philosophical significance of the project – I was preoccupied with my nerves. Speaking Italian at an intermediate level, I found myself struggling to keep up with the rapid-fire questions and explanations coming from the other side of the round wooden table. How frustrating, I thought, that someone like me – a writer, a deep conversationalist – cannot express how I truly feel. Picking up on this, Clelia, my Italian “mother,” smiled and uttered a phrase:

Perfection is not important. The message is.

Clelia then provided further explanation. You may not understand us, she said, but we will work together, and understanding can be achieved through creative measures. (She jokingly produced wild hand motions to prove her point.) Our journey together is in the process, and we cannot worry about being perfect. We will get there.

It clicked. From that moment on, I saw intercultural communication as an exciting challenge, a way to explore the nuances that are impossible to grasp in surface-level interactions. To get there, I had to step (no, leap) over the border separating comfort from discomfort. Unfortunately, I live in a culture that in many ways resists the uncomfortable. Working with U.S. American students abroad, this became all the more apparent. I cannot blame them, though – I just missed being part of their generation, one largely accustomed to widespread access to technology and social media. But what happens when students find themselves in situations that cannot be “translated” on an app? Will they engage?

As a former psychology major, I have read extensively about the fixed mindset vs. the growth mindset. As opposed to the view that intelligence and skills are inherently “fixed traits” in each of us, the growth mindset instead emphasizes that dedication and perseverance are the keys to developing character and gaining knowledge. In a world of standardized tests and class rank, many students are left believing that they “are who they are” in terms of skills. Perhaps we as international educators can advocate for the growth mindset as a way to support students and encourage community engagement abroad.

How? It starts at pre-departure. In addition to discussing logistics and packing lists, let’s discuss flexibility. Let’s discuss resilience not as an inherent trait, but as a muscle that students can continuously strengthen in the face of obstacles. Let’s allude to how these characteristics prove valuable in a career and in an increasingly interconnected world. After all, decision-making and problem solving are relevant skills long after a semester abroad. While it can sometimes be hard for students to conceptualize these ideas before they have lived out a study abroad experience, talking about character may provide food for thought for when those teachable moments do arise.

Intercultural communication is a puzzle – with every interaction and conversation, a picture begins to emerge as the pieces fit together. But culture is largely individual – no two people are alike, and every piece is shaped differently. We can only start to see a broader picture after trying different combinations. Italy challenged my worldview and quickly dispelled myths that I had previously believed to be true as an Italian-American. Had I not chosen to wade in my discomfort, I would not have learned about regionalism, dialects, and family traditions firsthand. I would not have formed the rich friendships that characterized my semester. Living abroad fostered my appreciation for a unique kind of education, one less concerned with “facts” and more focused on the journey. I learned that growth and understanding, not perfection, mold global citizens and effective communicators. This is the mindset that I hope to pass on to my students – all thanks to Clelia’s wisdom.

I got the message.

mariapapapietroAbout the Author:  For Maria Papapietro, what began as an undergraduate semester abroad in Perugia, Italy evolved into the realization that the world of International Education is her happy place. She holds an MA from the School for International Training Graduate Institute, and recently returned once again from Italy where she worked advising American college students at her former school. Two stints overseas taught Maria the importance of study abroad as a continuous journey of growth, something she aims to emphasize to her students. Thanks to a disturbingly accurate memory, Maria never misses a birthday and can recall quotes from books she read years ago. In her free time, you can find her practicing her Italian slang, documenting life in the form of her largely unpublished (for now) journals, and combing the beach for heart-shaped rocks.