We are glad to publish this Alumni contribution. Kelly O’Connell was a student at Umbra during the Fall ’08 semester.
We met 10 years ago, can you believe it?! I distinctly remember the nervousness I felt getting ready to meet you – to get on my first ever solo airplane ride, to leave my family and friends for what was at the time the longest stretch I’d spent away from home. I didn’t know anyone that was going to be there with me to experience all the new things I knew you’d introduce me to. And remember that ridiculously large suitcase I brought with me?? Yes, the one that was big enough for me to crawl into which weighed damn near equal to my body weight. Good thing I’ve learned a thing or two about packing light.
So many things about our friendship were serendipitous. I never actually felt like I chose you as a destination for my semester abroad. I’d told people that perhaps I wanted to go to Ireland because of the apostrophe in my last name, or maybe to Italy because I’d heard the food was so delicious. When my advisor told me about you, I knew it was the place for me. Like most of the best decisions I’ve made in my life, you just felt right – like something I was meant to experience. Something that didn’t so much feel like a choice but rather a necessity. I hesitate to call it destiny because that sounds so cliché, but ultimately that’s what I’m getting at. It took me years to convince my parents that moving to you for 4 months was a good idea. They thought I was crazy. They deeply worried about my safety and all those other things that parents worry about. And yet somehow, they said yes. I like to think they knew deep down that I was meant to meet you too.
I remember sitting on my bed about a week before I left, tears streaming down my face, asking my mom if I was doing the right thing. I was SO scared. But you kept calling my name and I kept believing that everything would work out. I knew that if I met at least one friend, all would be okay. Immediately you introduced me to Gina, my lively, curly haired, southern Cali roommate. I quickly realized that she would be the meaningful friendship I had imagined in preparation for my semester, and my anxieties subsided. As classes started you introduced me to Katy from Pennsylvania whose warm-hearted nature can light up a room, and who is still the smiliest friend I have to this day. And then there was Whitney from Colorado who is one of the strongest women I know and who helped me realize how strong I was too. Together these women gave me the confidence I needed and have relied on since to advocate for myself and the things I want in this life. They’ve taught me how to love myself for who I am and not for who other people expect me to be. They helped me shine as an individual away from all the people and things I knew about the world up to that point.
Before I left for Italy I never knew what I wanted to do with my life (or should I say my career). I was studying to be a teacher because I love children and it seemed like an okay fit for me. And then I met you, Perugia, and you gave me a taste of what else was out there in the world. With you as a home base, I visited 11 countries in 4 months! In retrospect I think we can both agree that was a bit excessive, but you made it possible for me to see more of the world than I ever thought I’d see. You instilled in me a deeply rooted passion for exploration which has since brought me to 19 more countries, and counting! You taught me to be curious about new languages and to ask interesting questions of the people I met from places and backgrounds that differed from my own. And truthfully, I still don’t know what I’m doing with my life. What I can say for sure though is that I’m living the life I want to live largely thanks to the person I became while spending a semester with you.
Perugia, you changed my entire life. You made me question every single decision I’d made pertaining to my future up to that point. You pulled me outside of my comfort zone in countless ways. And if I’m being honest, the person I became after meeting you has let some people down over the years. Becoming a world traveler has come between me and some meaningful relationships, and to the people I’ve hurt along the way, I am sorry. But what you demanded of me in terms of challenges, you returned to me 10 fold in love. You introduced me to some of the best friends I’ve ever known who are still in my life today. Not to mention the fact that every friendship I’ve made since then has had some connection to the traveling world, and without whom I cannot imagine my life. You gave me my first dose of the utter joy I now experience every time I visit a new place. Because of you I experienced my first miniscule European apartment, my first full conversation in a foreign language, and my first international romance. Most importantly, you taught me that the most impactful way to learn about myself and the world is to go out there and experience it. To eat new foods, to talk to locals, to laugh, to dance, to play, to try, to wonder, to wander, to ask, to flounder, to fail – and ultimately to be myself no matter the circumstances.
From the deepest depths of my heart, thank you for forcing yourself into my life in the way that only fateful experiences can.
All my love,
Umbra Class of Fall 2008