Alumni Jessica Benmen Temple Rome

You Get What You Need (Even When the Pope Doesn’t Follow You Back)

The blog I kept while a student at Temple Rome was a love letter to the city, chronicling the quirks and idiosyncrasies of a charmed semester. It was full of hope – for mastery of Italian, for a private audience with the Pope, for a cinematic, Lizzie McGuire Movie style romance – and I think it accurately reflects the prevailing sense of delight and appreciation I felt most days in Rome (even if my best friendship with the Pope never quite materialized).

Reading the blog back a few years later still reminds me of how magical a time it was, but also how peculiar – it was a time that was simultaneously characterized by an unprecedented hyperawareness of my own limitations, matched with an equal measure of unwavering determination to forge my way and adapt. Suddenly, accomplishing daily activities of life required feats of linguistic acumen, cross-cultural interpersonal negotiation, and a healthy sense of humility when I inevitably stumbled. And so I voraciously accumulated vocabulary, emotionally steeled myself against Italian brusqueness, and forced many unsuspecting taxi drivers to make small talk with me. Re-learning how to communicate with people at the age of 20 was odd and humbling, but also thrilling.

By the time I finished my semester in Rome, I was determined to further my intercultural education, confident in my ability to thrive in unfamiliar environments, and full of Lizzie McGuire Movie references that I refused to acknowledge were becoming perilously antiquated. I returned to the US scouring international job boards, anxious to get back to Italy. As I quickly learned, the easiest way to find employment in a foreign country as a 21-year-old English major with dubious work experience is to get a job teaching English, so that’s what I did. My Italian was still a work in progress, and I’d never actually taught before, but I reasoned that my winning combination of English expertise, love for Italy, and sheer force of will could only spell success. Suffice it to say, my semester teaching was not the unmitigated triumph I had anticipated. Navigating life in Italy directly, without Temple facilitating my cultural exchange, proved much more challenging than I had expected. Temple had given me a sense of autonomy and independence during my time in Rome, all the while quietly smoothing out some of the rougher edges that come with transitioning to life abroad. It was subtle enough to miss while it was happening, but very striking when it was absent.

Also absent, I was astounded to discover, was an intuitive gift for teaching that I had assumed would miraculously emerge upon being deposited in a classroom for the first time. Perhaps this wouldn’t have come as such a surprise if I had taken advantage of Temple’s opportunities for teaching internships at Roman high schools, but alas. So I finished the semester and returned to the states again, newly humbled, and musing about the challenges that had colored my two stints in Italy. During my time in Rome I was confronted with cross-cultural deliberations every time I went outside, but I was also able to take refuge in the comfort of my own apartment, with friends who could relate to me, while operating in the familiar structure of student life, and with the Temple support system ready to prop me up if needed. During my time teaching, however, I lived with families whose lifestyles I had to acclimate to, with no one my age to befriend, while working a job that I struggled with, and little more than my own resourcefulness to rely on.

Needless to say, the two experiences left me with quite different takeaways. Living abroad is always an exercise in pitting your limitations against your own ingenuity, in a way that is variously empowering/demoralizing, and almost always self-illuminating. My time in Italy as a student fostered a deep sense of boldness, determination, and curiosity, and when I returned as an adult, I learned about the structures and support I need to succeed both personally and professionally. Perhaps most formative, I discovered an abiding passion for international education, while also coming to terms with the fact that this enthusiasm did not translate to classroom prowess. Since then, I have been lucky enough to find a job (in an office, rest assured,) that allows me to create study abroad experiences for the next generation of students. I can only hope that between the highs and lows they unearth the same self-knowledge, and perhaps most importantly, that they have more success than I did in sparking a friendship with the Pope.

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