Studying abroad with a hearing loss was never a dream of mine. I took Spanish all throughout high school. It was reasonably easy for me, but the idea of residing in another country to live the language sounded extremely challenging.
My high school teacher told me I had a gift for learning foreign languages. The compliment was so thoughtful. I chalked it up to him just being nice and encouraging to keep me interested in learning Spanish. The irony is I am hard of hearing and learning a language requires attentive listening.
Once I got to college, I signed up for a bunch of science classes. I never thought about pursuing anything else until one day my dad suggested I try learning Italian. I thought, “Sure, why not?” My Italian classes went swimmingly. I liked that they gave my GPA a little boost. I kept advancing to the next course over time until I found myself in a classroom surrounded by people who conversed in Italian freely with the professor. When she asked me a question, I froze and muttered “Non lo so.” (“I don’t know”) I chatted with another girl in the class and asked her how everyone spoke Italian so well. She said she had studied abroad in Florence, which made all the difference with her speaking skills. Studying abroad seemed to work for other people, but I didn’t think it would work for me.
I told my dad about the tough class with all the fluent speakers and he told me I should study abroad. What?! I couldn’t imagine being so far away from everything I had ever known. Furthermore, my dad suggested I do the six month full-immersion program in Bologna, Italy. Full-immersion meaning once I landed in Bologna, I would have two weeks to start making phone calls to local Italians to find a place to live. Excuse me, what?! I hate talking on the phone; what makes you think I can do it in another language?! Full-immersion also meant I would be enrolled as a student at l’Università di Bologna, taking courses and attending lectures with other Italian students. I thought I would feel much more comfortable doing a shorter program where I could live with other Americans. I spoke with my academic advisor about it. She said, “Go to Bologna, you are ready for it.” Gulp.
For the first time, I started thinking about how I would feel if I looked back on my life and realized that I didn’t try things because I was too scared. This thought really pushed me to go for it, and boy am I ever glad that I did.
“For the first time, I started thinking about how I would feel if I looked back on my life and realized that I didn’t try things because I was too scared.”
Read more: 7 advantages of traveling with hearing loss
I was nervous and excited to go. However, my hearing aids were a big concern for me. I’d be way too far from my audiologist and doctors. If something happened to my hearing aids, I would not be able to function. Even if I was in America, having broken hearing aids for six months would make my life ridiculously harder. I couldn’t imagine how it would be in a foreign country. With all of this in mind, I made sure to do two things: bring my old hearing aids with me, and mass purchase hearing aid batteries from Amazon before leaving. I was sad to leave my family behind, but I was also jittery. When the plane began descending over Italy, my heart leapt out of my chest. Somehow, it felt like I was coming home. I was so happy to be there.
I bet you’re wondering how that apartment searching process went. I’ll tell you, it is very easy to find apartments online. However, the listed methods of contact were usually by phone. Sometimes if I was lucky, people would request to be contacted via text on WhatsApp. I could take my time translating messages and responding effectively. However, the majority of the time I had to call.
Here’s how those phone calls went:
Them: “Pronto.” (“Hello.”)
Me: “Ciao! Mi chiamo Ashley. Sono una studentessa Americana. Devo trovare un posto per vivere per sei mesi. Ho visto che il tuo appartamento è disponibile.” (“Hi! My name is Ashley. I’m an American student. I have to find a place to live for six months. I saw that your apartment is available.”)
Them: *Telling me about the rent, bills, location, etc.*
Me: “Che?…….. Che?………Che?……. Ok grazie! Ciao.” (“What?….. What?……. What?…… Ok thanks! Bye.”) *Hangs up having pretty much no clue what they were telling me*
I spent approximately 10 minutes mentally preparing myself for each phone call. Everyone I talked to was incredibly nice and understanding. They repeated themselves for me and tried to understand my broken Italian. I was frustrated that it was so hard to understand anything, especially since it was super important information regarding money and where I’d be living for the next six months.
On the last possible day of the two-week time period, I found a place to live. It was a great location with three students my age. I was so proud that I had conquered my phone fears in another language! The next hurdle I had to jump was getting to know my roommates. I knew talking to them would be the best way to improve my Italian, but I was nervous. Because of my hearing loss, I get nervous about botching a conversation if I can’t hear or mishear something someone says.
The first few days were spent solely trying to get myself to sit down and chat with my roommates. Then I finally took a deep breath and knocked on my roommate’s door. I heard a, “Si” (“Yes”) from the other side. I put a big smile on my face, pushed open the door, and asked the question I had practiced a thousand times in my head: “Posso studiare con te?” (“Can I study with you?”) He looked at his computer, looked at me, looked back at his computer, shrugged and said, “Ok.”
I sat by him at his desk and started asking him all kinds of questions using the phrase I’d learned in my first Italian class: “Ti piace…?” (“Do you like…?”) I asked if he liked rock music, funny movies, video games, and on and on. I was just excited that I was finally practicing my Italian with a native speaker. Our conversation was as smooth as it could be at that point. There were often times that we couldn’t figure out what the other person was saying so we used good ol’ Google Translate to help. This roommate became one of my very best friends and I still keep in touch with him to this day.
I feel so lucky that I had the privilege to live in Italy for six months to be immersed in the culture and surrounded by the incredible food, people, and sights. I think I was meant to come to Italy because it was meant to lead me to an incredible person who, despite our language barrier and my hearing loss, was meant to be one of my best friends. The challenges I faced as a hard of hearing person in a foreign country gave me so much confidence that when I came back to America, I felt like there was nothing I couldn’t do.
Did you study abroad? Why or why not?