Insights about International Experiences from an American Living in Italy
Mary Beth Benbenek started her career with an undergraduate degree in political science, followed by earning a master’s in European history, and then completed a PhD in Italian Renaissance history. Her first experience living in Italy was during a summer language program as an undergraduate. She then came back to Italy for 3 years of research, and returned to work in Italy most recently with her Italian husband and son. Obviously, Italy is an important part of her life. She kept pursuing degrees that led her back to Italy, and is now Italy is her home.
Mary Beth (l) and Sydney (r)
She worked in Torino for two years most recently, and now is living in Rome raising her bilingual son. Although her son was born in the U.S., he was one of the reasons for her return. She and her husband realized how expensive it is to raise a child in the U.S. Being so familiar with Italy, she moved back because it is so family-oriented. Italy is known for its family values and accommodations for children. Children are welcome anywhere in Italy, therefore making it easier to raise a child in here. She found schools are much cheaper than in New York City, where she and her husband had been working. In Italy, her son attends a state sponsored preschool that stresses international integration and language and offers a very flexible drop off and pick up schedule to accommodate working parents.
When we spoke in Rome this March, Mary Beth shared that living abroad is enriching, as it forces you out of so many comfort zones. The first words Mary Beth used to describe international experiences were enriching and exciting. She has gone from being a student to a researcher to a working professional to being a parent in Italy. She said each international experience has been different, and each more challenging, as each involved more responsibility. She stressed that interaction with local people is what teaches you the most. A large part of making an experience memorable and successful is having strong connections with people of a different culture. Learning about differences and similarities in lifestyle causes you to grow and reflect on what is great and not so great about one’s own culture.
Mary Beth is currently a higher education consultant, and described differences between the work culture in the United States and Italy. She finds one of the main differences is that in the United States best practices prevail because they are the most efficient and effective. In contrast, in Italy personal connections are incredibly important. Who you know is mostly how you advance in a career. Also, people identify personally with their work in a strong way, what you do defines who you are in Italy. Mary Beth felt work ethic and accomplishments are rewarded more in the U.S. than in Italy.
Mary Beth learned from a rock climbing mentor to adopt an “attitude of acceptance” - and apply this to her work situations in Italy. She said you have to be flexible as you encounter new challenges and have to problem solve. She felt the reward is that you develop an important skill set, which then helps you work through issues in other cultures. She found that an attitude of acceptance is personally helpful when working internationally. Mary Beth thinks those with international work experience need to market the special skill set they’ve developed when applying for new jobs. She feels these experienced workers have insight that someone who hasn’t worked abroad doesn’t have. Mary Beth also pointed out that certain types of international professions require you to seep more into the culture than other jobs. For example, professions that involve art, culture, or academics don’t force you to develop as strong a skill set as someone in business. She feels business people have to consider markets and therefore have to get into the mindset of the local people.
To be successful in another country, business people in particular must know what life is like, for it could be very different from what is considered normal in your home country. In the workplace, business people often want workers from within the country, people who are already familiar with local customs and language. For Mary Beth, each of her international experiences required her to immerse herself deeper in the Italian culture. Mary Beth’s main message is that everyone – especially young people - should go abroad, for personal as well as professional growth.
As I was interviewing Mary Beth about how international living, travelling, and working have a made a difference in her life, I watched her interact with her five year old son. He chatted with her half in English and half in Italian in the same sentence. I realized how lucky he is to be learning two languages so naturally, and how hard it is for me to learn a new language in an English speaking country and school. Immersion in a language is the way to go. Understanding other languages also teaches one about other cultures and customs.
I have had some international travel experiences and the more I see and do, the more curious I become to explore more of the world.
Sydney Kahl is a member of the Youth Travel Blogging Mentorship Program.
Photo courtesy and copyright Sydney Kahl