Approaching the end of an incredible semester, I have done so many things, it is hard to remember them all. With the countless famous sights I have seen, history I have packed into my brain, and astonishment I have felt walking the cobblestone streets of Europe, you’d think it would be hard to pick a favorite thing.
However, for me, choosing the experience that I cherish the most comes easy. Being able to serve at ANT — a local nonprofit organization that provides home care and prevention education related to cancer — has impacted me the most significantly.
I participated in this active citizenship experience through a class at my university abroad. I was assigned to a local non-profit association in Florence and required to dedicate 10 hours per week, as well as submit a reflection paper summarizing what I learned through serving.
I performed tasks like assembling boxes to put hazelnut spread in, adding the ANT logo and tying a bow on top, adding ribbons to buckets to transform them into flower pots and placing price tags on items intended to be sold at the local market as a fundraiser for ANT home care services. These tasks seemed menial and are tasks I would usually steer away from doing in the United States because they sometimes feel like a waste of time.
Even though I knew the organization I was assisting is dedicated to treating local cancer patients and their families, at the beginning of the semester I felt a certain disconnect from ANT’s mission. I was not sure how the tasks I was performing were really helping people and did not have a passion for the repetitive tasks I was requested to complete.
These feelings turned around completely when my professor challenged me to brainstorm how to increase my involvement. I studied the English version of the organization’s website and set up interviews with people involved in different roles at ANT to dive deeper into the culture. Hearing the perspectives of three people who have each been affected by cancer in some way transformed the work I was doing and prompted a sense of value and belonging to the Florentine community.
I interviewed an ANT doctor who treats multiple patients each day who are in their last two or three weeks of life. I was astonished by his positivity and dedication to ensuring the best for his patients and their families. His words reminded me that no matter how bad life can be sometimes, a positive person in the midst of a dark time can provide hope for a better tomorrow.
I also interviewed a man who lost his wife to cancer this past July. His perspective was especially touching because of how he turned great loss into motivation. He said, “I lost my purpose after my wife died. It wasn’t until I started coming to ANT that my thoughts changed. I do repetitive tasks just like you, but am surrounded by these uplifting people. They keep me going.”
The thing that has stuck with me throughout this experience and I will take home to share is the thought that it doesn’t matter how much time or money we give, the most important thing is that we give what we can and we gift it from the heart. Pursuing activities we are passionate about can serve as a channel through which we learn the most important things about ourselves and create bonds with other people. It was incredible to be greeted by these smiling people each week who were fascinated by my thoughts, perspective and native culture.
American students are abundant in foreign cities and if someone asked me for my advice before departing on the semester of a lifetime, I would tell them this:
Get involved in the community you choose to live in for a few short months. Ask the staff at your school if there are any local organizations in need of a helping hand or if there is a volunteer placement that matches your interest areas. You will get sick of museums and will have taken photos in front of so many famous places, they will all start to run together.
However, if you dedicate a few hours each week to a community organization and pause to reflect on how your time spent there teaches you things applicable to the grand scheme of your life, you capitalize on an incredible opportunity different from most study abroad students. Learning through service in a foreign country is a unique way to challenge yourself, learn new things, create memories and discover relationships that will last a lifetime.