Mars, Meet Earth is a blog written by FSM Ambassador Mars B. while studying abroad. As Mars says, it's all about "getting to know more of the world outside of what I've always known, which is a very small part of everything!" Mars' study abroad was unexpectedly cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic, but lots of lessons were still learned. Mars shares them below!
Mars, Meet Pandemic
Monday, May 25th, 2020 9:51PM
Well. In all of my wild anticipations for engaging with Medieval European Culture, having my trip de-railed by a world-wide pandemic was not one I expected, but I still appreciate the irony. The original aim of this blog was to spread out my experiences abroad and correlate them with the seven life domains that I learned from the Seita Scholars and FSM. I hoped that every month abroad I would have something new to learn, some new revelation that I could share not only with those I love, but with the foster care community. Of course there are many things I regret, because I hadn't known my time would be cut so short. I regret not visiting more museums, or more other cities on my free weekends, or doing more out of class activities with my classmates. I assumed I had more time, and I was allowing myself to adjust more slowly. However, more than my regrets, I have things that I am proud of, things that I don't regret. The most important one, I think, is that I don't regret studying abroad.
MY GROWTH IN THE SEVEN LIFE DOMAINS
I mentioned a lot of my strengths in the finances domain before I left for abroad, but I feel that I should talk again about the importance of savings. I made sure that before I left for Italy, that I made every effort to have my expenses covered through scholarships, grants and financial aid. Although this process took a lot of effort and many hours of researching and filling out applications, it was definitely worth doing. None of us could have anticipated a pandemic shutting down study abroad; there are a lot of things that you can't foresee or plan for. Because I had taken care of my travel expenses to the best of my ability, largely due to the Gilman Scholarship and other scholarships and grants available from my university, I was able to leave myself with a nest egg of funds on my return. If you decide to study abroad, make sure you can afford at least a few months' rent and expenses to protect yourself from unforeseen circumstances. Even if nothing goes wrong with your program, it's always a good idea to leave yourself something to fall back on. Never forget, aside from personal savings, make sure you have and maintain external supports and research what your university or campus programs offer for assistance in times of financial distress.
Something I hadn't considered when going abroad was the differences in academic expectations and process. In Ferrara, my instructors followed a different model of teaching than I was used to, and I found myself feeling frustrated and confused. At home, I function best in classes that work from the ground up: I enjoyed lectures and presentations that outlined what was important to the subject we would be studying before trying to apply that knowledge on my own. Particularly with learning Italian, I was often agitated and (embarrassingly) prone to mini-tantrums while studying, because my Italian professor's style of teaching was to have us try to learn how to utilize new vocabulary or grammar on our own before explaining it to us in class. There was a lot of mental friction for me because it didn't make sense, it didn't feel fair to ask me to use a skill I hadn’t learned yet. I had to recognize that I was in another country, not my own, and I needed to compromise with the new learning environment; I was on someone else's turf, after all.
Another thing I hadn't expected was how much more difficult classes abroad would feel. I knew in *theory* that, yes, some of my time would be spent in class, doing homework, and following a college schedule. However, my study abroad program through CIEE was particularly intensive, and so I felt like the professors were assigning so much that I wouldn't really have the time I originally planned for exploring the city and going on solo walks around the city wall. I was so excited about the "abroad" that I was shocked at how much time the "study" element in study abroad would take each day.
While I was abroad, I chose to do a 'home-stay', which is a system where you live with a person or family that lives in the place you are studying in. My home-stay was with Anna. I was intimidated at first, because she knew 0% English and I knew 0% Italian. Our first car ride after she picked me up from CIEE headquarters was perhaps the quietest and most awkward car trip since I had come out to my dad as queer at 80 mph, highway 131, 2010 A.D.
We did manage to start communicating in small snippets, but my anxieties and struggles with grasping her language was a definite barrier to smoother conversation. However, many words we did not know, and could not for the life of us understand the other. So, at this time, I would like to thank Google Translate for its support in my ability to understanding basically anything said to me while I was in Ferrara. Thank you, Google.
While I lived with Anna, I experienced some things that I wasn't really accustomed to. Consistency. Healthy home cooked meals. Surprises, like taking me to Florence, to the Uffizi Gallery, or a sweater of hers that she thought I would like to take home with me. Fussing over me whenever I tried to leave her house with wet hair, making me come back inside to dry it before I left. For once I didn't feel that I had to mediate family members or hide any facet of myself in order to keep the peace.
Adjusting from that life back to an apartment where I lived alone was like jumping into a frozen lake. I was back home with my partner, Katie, which was likely the only thing holding me together when I came back from abroad. I had been in an environment where I had adjusted to having a mom in my space, fretting over how I made my bed, taking care of the laundry even though I was used to doing it myself, making hot meals that involved honest to god vegetables. I was suddenly in control again, which was nice, but I also mourned my return to full independence.
However, because of my time abroad, I learned some new recipes, even if they weren't super fancy. I created a routine, waking up early and taking long walks like I did in Ferrara, though nothing at home can match how walking on the city's old stones made me feel. I also learned about branching out, socializing with people who would normally register as outside of my comfort zone. That's one thing about going abroad: whatever comfort zone you have, you'll have to push its boundaries. I learned to be less timid about travel, learned to enjoy the spontaneous. While I was abroad I even went on a spontaneous weekend adventure to Verona with some of my classmates.
PHYSICAL AND MENTAL HEALTH
While I was abroad, exercise was necessary and inevitable. I walked or biked to classes four days of the week, and usually went somewhere new in town with my classmates on weekends and after classes. My walking boots truly paid their dues during that trip, and have filed complaints against their overuse. This pattern of walking didn't stop when I came home. I became so restless; my body had grown accustomed to travelling four or five miles a day. Katie and I started waking up at seven AM to go walk in the local parks, and even picked up tennis during quarantine- we weren't very good at tennis, but we had a great time anyways.
Exercising so much was helping my mental health too, especially on The Wall. I've talked about the infamous Wall around Ferrara a lot in this blog, and my heart still aches when I think about it. There is nowhere I've been on this planet that makes me feel the way that wall feels. Something about the air, about the dust of history lingering over the entire length of it- there's something magical about it. In Ferrara I would test myself every day to go down the wall just a little farther than last time, so that every day I went along that path I would see something new, or discover a new spot to write in my journal. No matter how tired I was after classes, I would clear my mind with my boots over old stones.
SUPPORTIVE RELATIONSHIPS AND COMMUNITY CONNECTIONS
I think the best example of the supportive community I built abroad would be from my very last day in Ferrara. By that point, COVID-19 was just starting to close in on Emilia-Romagna, the area of Italy where Ferrara resides, and I chose to buy myself a ticket home. I was disappointed (but, if I'm honest, a little relieved) that I was going home. The one stitch in my side over leaving was that I hadn't yet fulfilled my number one bucket list item that I had sworn to do while in Ferrara: I wanted to walk the entire length of the wall, which surrounds the entire city over a six mile stretch.
I made plans to make the walk myself. When I told my classmates what I planned to do, they decided to join me, so that my last day abroad wouldn't be spent alone. They knew just how important to me Ferrara was, not just as a study abroad student but as a lover of its history. We spent the entire day on our walk, stopping to take pictures and explore the several monuments and curiosities along the route. I couldn't have asked for a better last day; when I look back over the pictures from that adventure, I still feel that warmth I felt knowing that these strangers wanted to be a part of my life, and participate in something that meant so much to me.
CULTURAL AND PERSONAL IDENTITY
Even though I was only abroad for one third of my full program, I engaged so much with Italian culture and had so much exposure to the lifestyle, food, and historical presence of the city. In my first week in Ferrara, I decided to explore the city on my own and came across a festival in town. It was a celebration of LGBTQ+ rights as well as a celebration of the strong Jewish heritage found in the old sector of the city. They did traditional dances to Ferrarese music and collected in the square to hear a speech from one of the leading representatives in Ferrara.
I had, at first, been apprehensive about being openly LGBTQ, but after seeing how celebrated those identities were to the city, I felt more at ease. CIEE, my study abroad program, was also very open and supportive of LGBTQ+ identities, and I never once felt uncomfortable being open with them or my fellow classmates. In Michigan, I tend to live out my LGBTQ identity in general privacy. I tend to avoid going to Pride or putting rainbow bumper stickers on my car because I usually feel a little apprehensive about being "out". It was comforting and encouraging to be somewhere where I didn't worry about it. I was just who I was, without worrying that it would have any bearing on my abroad experience. In fact, I believe that it even enriched my experience.
Overall, I learned a lot about myself, and I learned about how little I knew of others. I used to be more attuned to keeping myself closed off, about being very careful with who I trust, even for small things. I used to always avoid risks, inadvertently cutting myself out of great opportunities to build new experiences and get to know a larger variety of people. But now there's a new aspect of my character that fights those instincts, that pushes me to be spontaneous and strange and to feel adventurous. While COVID-19 may have interrupted that growth I was making abroad, it didn't impede it. I made that first step to be adventurous when I decided to go abroad, but my experiences there have inspired me to try again, to travel back and continue the journey I had started. I'll break out my Abroad Boots, and they'll take me on my journey again... just a little farther than the time before.
Ferris Bueller Has a Point
Friday, February 7, 2020 8:04 AM
Ferrara is a fog-ridden, quiet place. It's air is frigid, it's skies are swallowed by grey clouds, and the colors of the grass and the stone city walls almost match. But I don't mind that- I find beauty in it. My writing is often inspired by such weather patterns. I've been studying this city for years; I run my hands over the sharp stones on my way to class, and my entire spirit heaves a sigh of relief at the sight of the Castello's parapets, and I admire the haunting green of the moat surrounding it. In those moments, I find peace. My hand is connected to all the hands before it, all the way back to the people who inspired me to come here. I feel their ghosts on the moor-like fields, and when I look up into the shadowy windows of the Castello I can see them; for that I love being abroad. But the thing about study abroad is that there is also the "study".
I was in the classroom. That day, for the first time since I had arrived in Ferrara, the sky was a hypnotizing blue and the breeze was soft and everything was warmer and brighter than it had ever been...but I wasn't a part of it. In the class there's only seven of us, so the strategy of making myself invisible in the corner- like I do in some of my classes at WMU- doesn't really work. Engagement is mandatory, and panic is inevitable. My heart felt shut down. I had shot past having an open fit to feeling a dead-eyed, unreachable solitude. I didn't feel like giving up- I didn't feel like anything. I had realized too late that I had left my homestay without my medication, which is always a recipe for a break-down. While the instructor explained how Italian works (while speaking Italian), I was quickly sinking into that
black, sick feeling that I would never get this, and the world would end as we know it.
But then, Ferris Bueller's voice came to mind: "How could I possibly be expected to handle school on a day like this?"
As silly as it may sound, that was a profound realization for me. I felt so trapped, and tired, and overspent; for the past two weeks I had this Italian course for four and a half hours a day, five days a week. But I had forgotten that I'm not sixteen. I am a week shy of turning twenty-three, and I am allowed to just...leave.
This isn't an encouragement for others to skip school, that isn't the message I'm trying to convey. I talked to my instructor, told her I had missed my medication, and needed to go home, but I wanted to make sure that by leaving I wouldn't miss anything terribly important. I wouldn't. So I took my bag and my jacket and walked out. In truth, I probably could have gone back to class after getting my meds, but I didn't.
Walking home, I felt like a new person. I actually registered the warm sun on my shoulders, the cobblestone streets freckled with filtered sunlight through the trees above them. I had forgotten why I came here. I came here to be a historian, and to explore the old ghosts of the medieval era for my research. I came here to be an absolute, unapologetic nerd. Well, almost unapolagentic.
Something you need to know about Italian mothers is, by living with them, you sign yourself up for a lot of change. Anna is not my mother, but halfway home from class I thought, Anna's going to have my head for skipping out. Italian mothers are very intense, especially about you eating enough food (always too much), not leaving the house with wet hair, and not taking spontaneous days off from class. I snuck into the house like I was in high school again, trying to be quiet while my boots betrayed me with the most obnoxious squeaking noise. Anna's T.V was playing loudly in the next room, and I could see her watching it from her chair, focused. I got my bag into my room and left again with my research journal and a ridiculous level of adrenaline, affected by the high of sneaking out of a stranger's house at twentytwo years old.
That day gave me the power to have perspective again, to recognize that although my classes are important there are other things that are more important, like cutting myself some slack and giving my brain an afternoon of rest. That doesn't mean skipping class is always the answer, but that day it was the best choice I could have made for myself. While I crawled into old tunnels along the city wall and took notes on the layout of the old buildings, I got caught on the thought, Why has this been so hard? I knew that this experience would test me, but I never imagined it would be this hard. My first few weeks here have been so much more difficult than I expected, or wanted, for myself.
When you have mental illness, a therapist might help you create your "toolbox". Instead of a hammer, you have medication. A wrench is a stress ball that you keep in your purse. Your friends are the ducttape and modge podge. A screwdriver is breathing exercises, and there's a mess of nuts, bolts, screws and nails that are your comfort foods, distraction activities, T.V. series' that you never tire of, and that one stuffed animal that can steal the stress right out of you. A consistent schedule is like the toolbox itself. I rely heavily on all these tools, not just the hammer.
But when I went abroad, I couldn't bring my whole toolbox with me. I couldn't bring my partner, or my friends, or the comforts of easily accessible comfort food and the dragon-like collection of things that I surround myself with at home. But you can't fit a jumbo comfy blanket, or four months' worth of fire hot cheetos, or the people you love into Delta Airlines size-appropriate luggage. I was so disappointed in myself. I've worked so hard at home to keep the bipolar at bay, to cater the beast without being eaten by it. I use my coping skills, I practice mindfulness, I have learned to manage myself so that I can maintain a happy and consistent lifestyle. What I didn't realize is that every one of those tools has a "percentage". My Things are 5%. My partner and friends are 40%. My consistent schedule racks up to about 25%. My medication, however, only pulls about 30% of the weight. By losing the rest of those
tools I was only working at about 30-35%. I needed to develop a temporary toolbox, one that can just get me through this experience. Tools on discount are still tools.
And taking a day off to have an adventure: free of cost.
January 15, 2020
In the year 1441 a man named Leonello d'Este became the Marquis of Ferrara, Italy. He wasn't meant to be- he was the second-born and illegitimate son of Niccolo d'Este, and had not been groomed for rule. He was first and foremost an academic, but when he was given the charge of Ferrara and its people, he took up the work with benevolence and strength. He was the leader that brought Ferrara, and many of the cities surrounding it, from the Medieval age into the Renaissance. He built universities, made peace between Emperors and Popes, navigated the evils of politics and those who would do anything to achieve greater power- His influence on Italy's humanistic and cultural development is paramount, but underappreciated. As a budding medievalist I have made it my mission to uncover as many truths about him and his world as possible, so that his name can take its rightful place next to the more famous names of Early Renaissance culture. I now have the opportunity to take my mission to its source, my bags packed for a semester-long adventure in his home city of Ferrara, Italy.
Since I'm leaving so soon on January 21st, I'm starting to feel the butterflies in my stomach and the anxieties that accompany them. My full study abroad trip is 117 days. As in one hundred plus seventeen. No matter how I break it down, I get a little sweaty thinking about it. I've never been that far away from my support network, and I've never flown internationally before. I have a lot of thoughts, 60% of which are "Oh my God, I'm so excited!", and 40% of which is every intrusive thought of what could possibly go wrong.
My passion for Leonello's history was my biggest drive to follow through on going abroad. Of course, I've thought about going somewhere across the world, who doesn't dream of travel? But there's so much more to consider than, "Do I want to go?" when you are actually in the lurch of a big decision like this one. I had to ask myself how I was going to pay for it, if I would be able to handle it with my mental illness, and whether or not I could handle being without any of my favorite snacks for one hundred and seventeen days...(the snacks issue pulled a lot of weight in this decision.) However, I've decided my passion for Ferrara's medieval history outweighs my grief that I will not see a single Oreo for four months.
During my time in Foster Care and working with TNFC, I learned about the Seven Life Domains, one of them being "finances". This new adventure certainly pushed my skills in this domain. Once I had decided that I really intended to go, I had to work out how I was going to pay for it, which was daunting. I'm an independent, so it was down to me alone to come up with the money to go. Suffice to say I was able to afford the trip, but it wasn't without effort.
Life Domain #1: Finances
CONSIDERING ALL THE COSTS
Many foster youths, including myself, struggle with finances. Many of us can't call home and ask for help with program expenses or have the means to simply pay for it ourselves out of pocket. The process for us will likely involve a lot of hard work, but it definitely pays off. The tuition for my study abroad program alone was marked at 18,000 dollars. (Please note that the program I chose was particularly pricey- there are plenty of other places to go to that are not as expensive as mine!) That didn't seem so bad, but then I had to factor in fees, food, housing, travel, airplane tickets, and so many other things that didn't even cross my mind. By the end of the add-up the cost estimation was moved to 24,000 dollars. On top of that, I had to consider the expenses of maintaining my life here at home, such as my rent for the next four months, moving up my expense estimate to 26,000 dollars. Usually estimates like these exaggerate to accommodate the most expensive outcomes, my campus coach Peter assured, and he was right.
USING WHAT I HAVE
For my university, I was able to put my regular tuition and federal financial towards my study abroad payments, which covered about half of the total costs. I made sure to utilize all of the foster care programs available to me as well, such as TIP, the Fostering Futures Scholarship, the Pell Grant, and the Seita Scholarship. It turns out, foster care programs and universities want foster youth to go abroad; I learned that going abroad makes a good statement about the programs and universities that support me, meaning more people were willing to help me than I originally thought. Although the price of programs made it seem like the odds were played against me, using my current resources and contacts gave me an easy first leg up on covering expenses. As a back-up I also have my own savings. I decided early that I would only take on study abroad if I knew I could cover all the costs myself, although the goal is to keep my savings for after graduation. It's always been important to me to practice careful budgeting and purposeful saving.
SCHOLARSHIPS AND GRANTS
This process was difficult and sometimes boring, but scholarships and grants covered much of the rest that I owed. The best advice I would give to someone hoping to go abroad is RESEARCH. I didn't like flipping through my university's entire web of tabs to find the scholarships I was applicable for; I get really overwhelmed with things like that. The thing that helped me most was not being shy about asking people for help when I didn't understand something or wanted some tips on where to look for scholarship options. Meeting with my Campus Coach Peter and my study abroad adviser really helped with this part of the process; Peter knew a lot about the foster care angle of financial aid supports, and my study abroad adviser knew a lot about my university's scholarships and grants in different departments that were best matched to my needs. I had a friend who had studied abroad the semester before me, and she pointed me towards the Gilman Scholarship, which took care of a third of my remaining costs after my tuition. I didn't expect anyone to do the work for me, but to have someone sit with me and go through all the information on what I'm applicable for made the process much less painful and more successful.
I made sure to apply for way more than I needed. I have a nice GPA and lots of volunteer experience, but I was still rejected by about 1/3 of the scholarships and grants I applied for. It's hard to not take that personally, but the scholarships I was awarded were vital to my ability to take this trip. The rest of my expenses were taken care of by a generous donation from a friend, and some extra funds provided by the Seita Scholarship Program. I was able to get my abroad trip fully covered with only a small amount of my savings going towards processing fees before my program's start. I never imagined I would be able to achieve a fully covered semester abroad, but now I can rest easy knowing that my savings can still be put towards graduate school.
I'm sure that my experiences abroad will push my experience with all the life domains, and I'm excited to see what I learn and how I develop. Having spent most of my life in the same small corner of the planet, I have high hopes for my introduction to the rest of the world.
So, Mars, meet Earth.
Mars is a Senior at Western Michigan University majoring in Latin and minoring in Medieval Studies. They are currently applying for graduate school at Western Michigan University's Medieval Institute They are a member of The New Foster Care (TNFC) Ambassadors and also a Seita Scholar at WMU. Mars has been researching Ferrara's medieval history for six years, and in Spring 2020 is taking the next step and travelling abroad to Ferrara.
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