Studying Abroad As a Person of Color:
Hello everyone! I am Kamrie Risku, affectionately known as Kam. I am currently a Senior at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, NC studying Political Science with a concentration in Law and Justice. I also dabble a little bit in the Sociology department from time to time. My family used to live at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, so this is not my first go around in Europe. This time around, I studied in Florence, Italy at Lorenzo de’ Medici Instituto in June of 2017.
My time in Florence, Italy
I always dreamed of jet-setting in Europe and coming back home to brag to my friends about all the new culture I had swallowed up. My Pinterest board is swamped with pictures of the most exceptional European cities and as a millennial, my craving to create an enviable Instagram feed became an overwhelming hunger. So, I gathered up some funds and applied to study abroad in late November. It’s surely not as glamorous as jumping on a plane and taking a carefree week long vacation but this was my ticket to spend a summer under the Tuscan sun.
Fast forward a couple months and I find myself in the birthplace of the Renaissance and a charming travel destination… Florence is as magical as they come. Known to the Italians as Firenze, the streets are literal runways with some of the most casually ethereal people; continuously making me feel underdressed. And if I ever got lost in the vast city, I could look up into the sky for the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, affectionately known as The Duomo. Firenze is filled with knowledge, art, exquisite cuisine and the richest culture.
It was a dream come true to walk up six flights of stairs to study the Italian Mafia everyday and travel to Venice, Pompeii, Capri, visit vineyards and eat some of the best food in the world. I hoped I would be able to gain some confidence, learn about myself and even experience a personal Renaissance. Except this experience did not come without fears. My greatest fear about studying abroad was not the traveling alone, homesickness or being separated from my familiar American customs. My biggest fear was how I looked. I was anxious because I knew that my big curly hair and darker skin would make me stick out in our group. Not to mention that I also sit at even 6 feet tall, I felt like I was sticking out like a sore thumb in our first meeting as a group in February.
Needless to say, I got over it. I got on Google and searched statements like “black girls abroad” and read for hours. I got reassurance from seeing other women like me go out and live in this experience. I wanted to enjoy my time and let’s be honest, the thousands of dollars spent on this trip would not be wasted on fear.
I want to share some tips that really helped me maximize my experience and quickly overcome any situation that I was presented with.
Set goals for yourself
When I received my acceptance notification, of course, I went to Facebook with the good news, but my next step was to think about what I wanted to gain from this time. Goal setting gives me purpose and something to constantly strive towards. So when faced with this difficult situation, I decided to focus on me. This trip was about my holistic growth as a student, global citizen and simply, as a person.
Going back to my Boston trip with Corvias, one aspect that really stuck with me was that I needed to plan and set goals. Moving forward from that, in most aspects of my life, I really focus on what goals I want to accomplish and this situation was no different. For example, I wanted a new sense of self-confidence from traveling alone. I also wanted to come back willing to be more flexible and a go with the flow type of person. Having these goals helped ground me in the understanding that this experience was for me.
Accept the reality of things.
Unfortunately, prejudice is everywhere. Until we figure out a way to heal the hearts and minds of mankind, going abroad will not help you escape it. That doesn’t mean it will plague your experience. In Europe, racism is different, more subtle and not usually directed towards Americans. Rather African and Middle Eastern immigrants who were settling in the cities are the targets of weird looks and offsetting comments. This undeniably bothered me. Even in our orientation, we were told to avoid these people and that they created most of the problems in the city. Not once did any of these people give me any trouble.
Most of the time, Italians would repeat popular American rap lyrics around me or call me Rihanna. While at first that left a sour taste in my mouth, eventually I realized that the comments were mostly misguided and often led to nice conversations about how I was just Kam, not Rihanna. As a Black American, I was not often the direct target of racist remarks. I can’t speak for everyone but most days people just stared at me. Not surprisingly, most of the insensitive remarks came from my classmates and other American students. If you are traveling with Americans, you most likely won’t escape that culture.
Find a friend, seriously
Initially, I almost dropped out of my program. Meeting the group of students I would be traveling with left me feeling a little anxious. In our group sessions, we were asked a series of questions to get to know one another better and many participants had entirely different motivations for the trip. That left me with just a handful of people I felt like I could have something in common with. So, in our group sessions, I listened to other’s thoughts, questions and concerns and found the person who I thought I could click with the best.
This was an extremely intimidating task but for some reason or another, everyone is looking to make friends. It took me about a month of meetings alongside some social media creeping to find my friend. I wanted to achieve badly enough. I would deal with the uncomfortable situation. I found myself a great friend by sending a friend request on Facebook and following up with a message. We ended up being roommates and spent nearly all our time together!
Laugh it off and don’t be afraid
In the span of five weeks, there were a few times where I felt uncomfortable and misunderstood. There were also a handful of insensitive remarks but in the end, I seriously had to laugh it off. For instance, there was a time I went out with a few friends and the waiter seriously hovered over us. We were the only people of color in the restaurant and it was obvious that we were getting treated significantly worse. Our waiter even went as far as to stand over us while we counted out my money and yell “Hurry up guys! Just give me my money.” There were other Americans in the venue, so we knew that it was not a prejudice towards American customers.
As frustrating and humiliating that type of situation might be, we knew that we were going to pay for our food and drinks and we had no intention of dining and dashing. So we walked away and coped with our embarrassment by mocking the waiter. Which turned into an all night of laughs and storytelling at the next venue.
My roommate and I would unpack some of the incidents and occasionally I would text my friends from back home. I also ended up meeting a couple of black girls who were also attending the Institution and had similar experiences. But in the end, we were there for a good time and nothing was going to stop that.
In the end, I got over my fear of being misunderstood by actually experiencing some odd interactions. Thankfully, I planned ahead of time how I would cope with potentially negative situations and I developed a necessary support system. When I returned to Raleigh, I spent a good amount of time reflecting on my experience and I have no doubts that I really took advantage of this opportunity. I shook a lot of my insecurities away by putting myself out there. Ironically, because our travel group was so big and I was pretty unique looking, everyone in the group seemed to remember me. By the end of the five weeks, I had actually made a lot more friends (and Instagram followers) than I initially anticipated.
Not only did I walk away with pretty solid grades and memories to last a lifetime, I learned some much about myself that I will carry with me forever. Needless to say, I will be looking to plan my next trip abroad in the near future. I believe everyone should study abroad if given the opportunity.