After reading Richard Slimbach’s third chapter regarding what it means to be a “mindful traveler,” I feel confident that I know now only what it means to study abroad, but also how I can continue to make this Rite of Passage experience even more worthwhile. Slimbach defines a “mindful traveler” as “one who is to approach our field settings with a level of sensitivity and curiosity that raises our conscious awareness of how we affect the social and natural environments we enter and act upon” (Slimbach 74). When I first read this definition, I automatically thought of how broad it was, how multi-faceted it is, especially given the many ways we can be mindful in our global communities. What clarified this mystification for me was how Slimbach further explained this definition by outlining five subcategories of mindfulness: economic, ecological, cultural, social, and spiritual mindfulness. I was able to connect my personal study abroad experience in Perugia, Italy to each of them to truly understand what it means to be a “mindful traveler.” Expanding my understanding of my role as a “mindful traveler” also allowed me to think critically about the definition of a “global community” that our QU301 class created prior to leaving.
Living independently in a traditional Italian apartment this Spring semester has increased my economic awareness. Ever since freshmen year, I have been fortunate enough to have a set place to live, meals to eat, and transportation because of the Room and Board that Quinnipiac organizes for myself and other students to pay. Now that I am living in an apartment with no set meal plan and no shuttle services, I must be more mindful of my spending, distinguishing between my “needs” and “wants.” I am going to be honest: I have never been the best at budgeting. However, now that I have to go grocery shopping, buy bus and Mini Metro tickets to get from place to place, and save money for cultural excursions with friends, I have to “to take practical measures to maximize economic benefits” (Slimbach 84). This is why I created my first financial spreadsheet to keep track of my expenses. It not only keeps my wallet and bank accounts in check, but it also gives me a sense of confidence knowing that I am capable of regulating my own finances. It is comforting to know that I am enhancing my economic mindfulness with every passing day (and dollar), especially since I plan on living in an apartment with my roommate, Emily, in Connecticut this coming Fall. I will be prepared to be more financially aware next semester and the years to come.
Another realm of awareness that links with the economic is the ecological. Slimbach emphasizes how important it is to strengthen “the relation of the traveler to the ecosphere” (Slimbach 89). In Perugia, citizens are expected to sort their trash into four, color-coded bins: the yellow for paper products, the blue for plastic products, the green for organic waste, and the black for miscellaneous waste. Each bag needs to be placed in the proper bins outside of buildings on specific nights. If one does not obey the ecological standards, there is a fine that one has to pay. My family at home, my friends back at school, and I have always recycled, but never this specifically. This new cultural norm has reminded me that “my study or service site is someone else’s home, and that we all share a finite planet with exhaustible resources” (Slimbach 91). Italy is also a very energy-efficient country, especially due to their agricultural industry and current economic recession. These two economic factors take a toll on one’s energy usage, encouraging citizens to be more ecologically aware. For example, we try to save water by taking shorter, cooler showers, we shut lights off whenever we leave a room, and we are limited to only seven hours of heat daily. As Slimbach writes, “the intercultural encounters, together with exposure to a low-energy way of life, will significantly ‘globalize’ the Americans’ thinking and ‘green’ their lifestyles back home” (Slimbach 91). When I return to the States, I will be sure to continue these ecologically mindful practices so I can preserve our environment and our finances.
Slimbach effectively covers what cultural awareness means by quoting Rolf Potts, a student who studied abroad in 2008:
“‘Go slow. Respect people. Practice humility, and don’t condescend with your good intentions. Make friends. Ask questions. Listen. Know that you are a visitor. Keep promises, even if that just means mailing a photograph a few weeks later. Be a personal ambassador of your home culture, and take your new perspectives home so that you can share them with your neighbors.’” (Slimbach 86)
I have never read such perfectly summative pieces of advice regarding study abroad until I came across this quote. The statements that stood out to me the most were “go slow,” “listen,” “know you are a visitor,” and “be a personal ambassador of your home culture.” These pieces of advice stood out the most because they are weaknesses I want to strengthen. My life back in America is always on fast-forward, and I never enjoy the present moment and slow down to take time to relax. I am also not the best listener: I always get so excited to share what is on my mind or to vent about something that is causing my stress that I do not allow myself to listen and learn from others. Italians are very leisurely as they stroll, and arriving to an event 5-10 minutes late is not considered “late.” Given this cultural norm, I have taken the time to embrace it and use it to my advantage by cherishing every day of this study abroad experience, especially since our time here is temporary (and flying by!). I have overheard many of my friends here complaining about cultural differences in public, and I am so appalled by the things they say and the environments in which they express them. Instances like these have reminded me that I am a visitor; I must respect my temporary home and “be a personal ambassador of [my] home culture.”
Thanks to the opportunities that the Umbra Institute has provided me thus far, I have been able to exercise my social awareness. Slimbach explains, “Every intercultural program participant is potentially a bridge between peoples, enabling an empathetic, two-way learning process that can be deeply rewarding for host and guest alike” (Slimbach 87). Every other Wednesday night, I build bridges with other Italian students through a two-way learning experience called “Tandem.” Tandems are local socials where American students from Umbra practice speaking Italian to Italian students, while the Italian students practice speaking their English to American students. In this inclusive environment, we are all able to appreciate each other’s languages, cultures, and company, which, as Slimbach writes, “aspires to narrow the gap between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ strengthening the bond of understanding and legitimate respect between strangers” (Slimbach 87). I look forward to building upon my Italian vocabulary and my network of communitas this coming Wednesday at Tandem #3!
Last, but most certainly not least, is my strengthened spiritual awareness. Commonality between religious beliefs was a major contributing factor while making my decision to travel to Italy. Immersing myself in the country that is the haven of Catholicism helped me cope with homesickness in the beginning of my Rite of Passage experience. My active participation in the religious community here continues to guide my emotions, thoughts, and actions in the right direction. I now have an American friend group from Umbra that I go to church with, and I recently met a group of Italian students who always extend the invitation to us to join them at their parish for weekly Sunday services and dinners. Thus, what Slimbach says is true: “the deep continuity of religious belief among native populations can present us with rare opportunities to discover practical wisdom and vital spiritual resources for cultivating a deeper, richer sense of self” (Slimbach 92). I have never felt so connected to my faith, and the power of prayer becomes so much more evident to me with every passing day here in Italy.
Now that I have thought more critically about what it means to be a “mindful traveler,” I have come to the conclusion that there is one word that ought to be added to our class’s definition of “global community”:
“A global community is a shared living space of interdependent, mindful individuals who are endowed with universal human rights, choosing to act upon them, embrace differences, and work toward common goals.” (QU301 Spring 2016 Class)
For members of the global community to act upon their universal human rights, embrace differences, and work toward common goals, they must collectively maintain their economic, ecological, cultural, social, and spiritual mindfulness.
The picture I have chosen that best describes my thoughts regarding mindful traveling is this silhouette of an individual surrounded by different groups of words. In the beginning of study abroad experiences, one may experience some of the emotions that are depicted inside the silhouette. However, when one takes the time to be aware of all the beauty and cultural opportunities that surround them in their global community, they will be able to appreciate all it has to offer.