I never thought I would live abroad in a place where I’d walk unfamiliar streets, not know a single person and didn’t speak the language. However, the thought always sounded inviting. A new place where I could reinvent myself. Somewhere I could exist with no preconceived notion of who I was or who I had to become. It was a blank check, a new beginning, and a door I chose to open. If you’re wondering if studying abroad is in the cards for you, there’s only one way to find out. Here’s my story on how I ended up studying abroad in Viterbo, Italy.
The Hotel Holidays
Growing up, studying abroad was never on my radar. My only focus was soccer, and I lived and breathed the sport on and off the field. It was a place of community and a positive outlet that kept me out of trouble. But it wasn’t easy.
My parents were divorced and lived in two different towns. The commute to and from training was an hour and ran well into the night. I had the same routine every weekday, and on the weekends, I had games or tournaments. During the height of my career, I missed Thanksgiving four years in a row for the same tournament. I rarely saw my extended family because I always traveled, and I spent holidays in hotels. But I did love it.
I had three different soccer seasons: high school in the summer and fall, the Olympic Development Program from winter through summer, and my club season, which ran through both. It was year-round soccer. When I turned 12, my focus shifted. Instead of enjoying soccer, staying active and making friends, I was showcasing myself in front of college coaches as a top player in the state.
It was now a full-time job. It was a way to go to college for free on a full-ride scholarship. It was a way to play professionally and make my career. It was showing up three hours early to practice to train and then going to regular practice to train for three more hours. It was private practice with my coach in the summer. It turned into anger when I didn’t play well and tears when I knew I had disappointed everyone. Soccer became a way to put my mark on the world, and I chased the reward of being better than everyone else.
The First Crisis
My partner also played collegiately, but her story is much more positive than mine. I realized that it wasn’t the sport that broke me; what broke me was the simple fact that I didn’t want it. Growing up, my father always told me to play like I wanted it. Like I wanted to be the best and like I wanted to get a full-ride to college. I did. I got my scholarship and accepted my offer letter to Oregon State University.
When I got there, the cycle started all over again. My first year was excellent, and I had family helping me navigate it. I fit in easily because I was an athlete. However, that’s also when I started to question everything about myself. What did I want to do with my life? Did I want to play professionally? Did I enjoy all of the parties? The drinking? Was this all life had to offer?
I always knew who I was when I had soccer: I was an athlete, a hard worker, and a determined student. But who was I without soccer? The thought was terrifying. No one told me I could do something else or be someone else, and I never asked because this is who I thought I was supposed to be. When everyone cheered for me or told me I was a great player, it created the image I thought would bring me happiness and fulfillment.
Around the age of 12, I started having feelings for girls. I became aware of my feelings in high school and realized that I wasn’t normal. In 2010, gay marriage wasn’t legal, no one used pronouns other than him and her, and all of the bathrooms were strictly “men’s” or “women’s.” It’s no wonder I grew up thinking homosexuality was wrong.
No one I knew was gay. In college, I had a few teammates who were openly out, and I often talked to them about their stories to find inspiration or an answer to my own questions. I hated myself for what I was.
During my freshman year I sought counseling because I was depressed. I couldn’t accept this part of me, and I thought my family wouldn’t be able to either. I started failing classes, soccer became a burden, and I was miserable. I needed a fresh start. The pressure from soccer, school, and not knowing my own identity pushed me to dark corners, becoming unhealthy. Eating disorders, mental stress, emotional breakdowns, and physical exhaustion pushed a lot of players to the edge. I wasn’t alone. But I didn’t want to live like this anymore. When I realized this, I decided to make a change.
The Decision to Go to Viterbo, Italy
I attended one study abroad convention at school with my best friend. I wanted to get brochures and see the reality of studying abroad. My family had no idea. I found the cheapest program, but it wasn’t offered at my school, so I made the rash decision to quit soccer my sophomore year. It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make because it meant leaving behind the last nineteen years of knowing who I was. It was emotional. I cried to my coaches and my teammates. When I told my family, it was quickly followed by, “also I’ve decided to study abroad, and I leave in a few months.” At the same time, I also came out as gay to everyone.
The next few months flew by. I transferred to Portland State University to study abroad for one year in Viterbo, Italy. I was accepted into the program, applied for my visa, and left several months later for an unforgettable year that set my life on a new path.
What I’ve realized now, is that anyone could study abroad. I had little savings and no plan. I picked Italy because it seemed the most romantic and welcoming. What I didn’t realize was how much studying abroad would impact my life. Soccer taught me valuable lessons like teamwork, determination, time management, and commitment. But studying abroad gave me acculturation, confidence, wanderlust, and independence. Soccer gave me my backbone in life, but traveling around the world and bonding with strangers, fumbling over words I’ve never used, and getting lost in the lines of a metro map gave me my heart. It gave me an identity that I love.