New Friends and Cultural Understanding

Written by juliabernstein March 18, 2024

Time flies when you’re having fun! This statement is truer than it seems, and I cannot believe I have been in Italy for half the semester already. Needless to say, as we reach the height of the semester, these recent weeks have been very fun for everyone with spring break planning and new friendships developed during the Open Minds Project. Going into my semester, I did not really know what to expect with the Open Minds Project. Surprisingly, I enjoyed the cultural exchanges and new things I learned during the week. I even ended up with some new friends! Read on to learn more about my Open Minds experience.

What is Open Minds?

The Open Minds Project brought together a group of Italian high school students and CIMBA study abroad students. The goal was to learn more about our cultural and communication differences through an immersive cultural exchange. We learned all about these differences and other fun things about our visitors. It was one of the most valuable and rewarding weeks in Italy so far.

What did you do in Open Minds?

During the week, we had visiting Italian high school students stay on campus with us. They attended our classes, dined with us, and participated in various activities set up by CIMBA. At first, I was skeptical about the activities as I previously experienced similar activities back at home that proved to be a bit lackluster. However, the staff did an excellent job of planning them, and you could tell everyone involved really enjoyed being a part of this program.

In the classroom, we introduced ourselves and learned about the differences between American and Italian schooling. One interesting thing I learned was that Italian high school goes on for five years instead of the traditional four years in the U.S. In Italy, students choose from three different tracks of high school when starting out. One of the shocking things I learned was that Italian students have to take a huge exam at the end of their fifth year to graduate high school. Learning about the differences in the education system between the US and Italy was interesting, especially since we never really stop to think about how student life is in other countries. During these classroom discussions, I learned about the Italian students’ cultural norms, discussed what they plan to do in their futures, and gained a deeper understanding of how life in Italy is.

What did you like most about Open Minds?

Having the Italian students stay on campus was not only fun (as we had other people to socialize with after classes), but it was a great time for us to learn more about each other outside the classroom. I personally enjoyed learning Italian card games and teaching them about American card games in return. I bonded with a few of the students over things we had in common such as favorite music artists and other shared hobbies like art and caring for plants. I learned that they listened to various American music genres, which honestly came as a shock as I love heavy metal bands and did not expect many Italian students to listen to heavy metal. I got to share my heavy metal concert experiences with them. I found a few good friends as we shared not only a love of music but also precious house plants and animals in our lives.

What was one Open Minds activity you enjoyed in particular?

The final and coolest thing this week was a communication game we did. During this game, CIMBA students and the Italians students were divided into eight teams and split into four groups per room. Each team faced a wall and were told to work together to 1) build something out of Legos, 2) make sure it was the same design for all groups, and 3) not look at the progress of other teams.

At first, we all began building different things in our own groups before one of us spoke up and asked the other groups in the room what we were all building. After getting on the same page, we decided to build a car and began speaking out each time we placed another lego piece so that everyone can place the same piece step by step.

One of the challenges was being able to detail what piece we used and exactly how we used it as this took a lot of effort. Just as we got a smooth rhythm going, we were told we could no longer using color words which challenged us to call every color something different. Red became lava, yellow became sun, green became grass, and so on. Gaining a new rhythm was great until all the American students were told they couldn’t talk until instructed to. This left the Italian students being the only ones able to communicate. Eventually the American students could talk again, and we finished our Lego car builds. However, at this point, we were unsure if all our car designs matched. The moment of truth was going back into another room with everyone and seeing all but one of our cars matching perfectly. This was one of my favorite exercises we did this week with the Italian students because we got to understand how easy it is to have gaps in communication across cultures.

Final thoughts

I feel we all learned from each other and as the Italian students left, I had collected a few phone numbers to stay in touch and really felt like I had come out with a deeper level of cultural understanding. I would say that this was an experience I never thought I would have and that it is something I would recommend to anyone who can have an experience like this.