I left my sophomore year at Duke feeling tired, and it wasn’t just from a lack of sleep. The sophomore slump hit me hard.
I absolutely love Duke, and for the most part, I couldn’t be happier here. But, I was tired of the Duke “bubble”—my day-to-day routine, a social scene that was becoming for me more burdensome than stimulating and the feeling that, for a combination of reasons, I just wasn’t good enough.
From an outside perspective, nothing was ever “wrong.” I have an amazing group of friends, my family is beyond supportive and I’ve never been the least bit concerned about not knowing what I want to do with my life. But I felt a pervasive sense of emptiness, like something was missing. I spent a majority of my sophomore year comparing myself to others, criticizing myself for previous failures or worrying about something in the future rather than enjoying the good things I had going for me.
So I set out for my abroad adventures hungry for new adventures—but also for something more. “I want to find myself,” I originally thought, but then I realized, “I don’t even know what that means.”So I set out to seek a sense of fullness. I wanted to feel whole and present—to absorb all different kinds of experiences and really be there.
I chose to study with one other person from Duke, my friend Katherine, in a quaint and charming town in central Italy called Perugia. The city is famous for basically three things: truffles (the kind that grow in the ground), the region’s unsalted bread and the tourist-infested Eurochocolate festival—four things if you count the Amanda Knox debacle of 2007. A girl who had previously done the program said she loved it because the city felt like home—she had become friends with the local butcher and loved coming back on Sunday after a weekend of traveling. Lucky for me, I can say the same.
I’ve been here for a measly six weeks but have managed to develop three ideals I like to remind myself of on a daily basis. While I don’t think I’ve yet to fully find myself (whatever that means), I think I’m on the road to something good.
1) Be open to all kinds of experiences, especially those that make you feel uncomfortable
The most rewarding, or at least memorable, encounters have been those where I felt like an outsider—namely, trying to speak to a ticket inspector in broken Italian about how I managed to jump onto a practically moving train and why I didn’t have a ticket—or getting yelled at by a woman for having my feet up on my chair as I obliviously devoured my tiramisu gelato. Living in a different country is about embracing a different culture in its entirety but also being able to laugh when the differences aren’t transparent. The world becomes more open to you when you become more accepting.
Number two and three go together.
2) Stop comparing your journey to everyone else’s
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I’ve spent a lot of my life, and not just my sophomore year, envying other people for anything imaginable—their looks, their smarts, their travels, even their serial dating skills. Duke is a very diverse place, but it’s easy to forget and to start making comparisons in an environment where you feel like most people are running marathons or coming up with a cure for cancer.
I’ve been taking a photojournalism class that focuses on individual stories, and its opened my eyes to how different one person’s experiences are from another’s. As humans, we try to make the world smaller in order to feel like it’s somehow comprehensible, labeling people into groups and categories as we see fit. But there are so many stories we don’t see on the surface. I’ve only seen a glimpse of just how big the world is, but it’s safe to say our stories are much too unique to ever make any kind of comparison.
3) Enjoy where you are right now, in the moment
I’ve always been an “anywhere but here” kind of girl, constantly restless—seeking other experiences that I feel I’m missing out on. Even more so abroad, it’s all too easy to get caught up in Facebook photos and Instagram accounts—to think I’d rather be in Budapest while in Paris eating the best croissant of my life.
So I have learned to throw that mindset out the window. There are days when I consciously remind myself that this is my journey and my experience, and it may not be similar to anyone else’s. There are a million places to be, things to see and experiences yet to have, but most important is the one you’re having right now.
Italy is a country that values the simple joys of everyday life—personal relationships, collective dining experiences, the beauty of a glass of red wine. Fullness isn’t about the amount of places you visit. It’s about actually being where you are, the people you’re with and the way you feel. One of the best meals I’ve had in Italy was not eaten in an upscale trattoria. It was a butternut squash lasagna cooked by my roommate and served on a paper plate, which I ate alongside 15 friends in my apartment’s tiny dining room.
Those are moments that fill me with a sense of fullness. But wholeness, I’ve realized is about a balance. It also means feeling homesick and alone, maybe lost or even helpless. It’s me crying at the train station because I missed the last train from Rome to Perugia and won’t make it home for the night or alone on a Sunday night in a five-person apartment.
It’s all about experiences—the good, the bad and the in-between kinds. I’m working on how to embrace them all.
Kali Shulklapper is a Trinity junior. She previously wrote for The Chronicle's news department and is studying abroad this semester in Perugia, Italy.