Being Black in Italy

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by Yobi Zeleke | IES Milan, Spring 2019

From the beginning of my college career, I knew that I wanted to study abroad. saw countless travel vlogs and Instagram posts from people I didn’t know, and who certainly did not look like me, living their best lives, and I wanted the experience myself. Because of this, I planned early to make sure I would have time to go abroad before entering the B school.  

This is the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, a shopping center and historical landmark in the heart of Milan. I loved visiting the Prada, Gucci, and Versace flagship stores here.

It wasn’t until I actually started the application process that I began to fear the opportunity wasn’t designed for someone like me. I remember turning to Google for everything. I searched for answers to questions related to financing a semester abroad, the academic offerings, the safety in non-diverse countriesand quite honestly if there would be any other black people studying abroad with me. I ended every search phrase with “as a black person” because it felt like all the information I could find catered to the vast majority of study abroad students, which is not constituted by black people. I found that 1) my specific program was actually cheaper than a semester at Emory; 2) I was able to fulfill all the GERs I needed; 3) I shouldn’t be afraid of living in Milan just because it lacks diversity; and 4) LOTS of black people study abroad. Once I realized it was feasible and safe, I didn’t want to live in fear, so I pushed myself to just do it. 

 Living and studying in Italy taught me that studying abroad as a person of color isn’t a barrier; it’s a lens through which you get to see your experience. met some of my closest friends abroad, and we built our relationships on our shared experiences as black students in Italy. I had a small, tight-knit community of BIPOC students in my program that was always there for me to lean on, share my frustrations, and seek out advice and recommendations for fun events going on around the city.  

I couldn’t get over how stunning everything was at the Palace of Versailles! France was by far my favorite country that I visited.

On top of the opportunities to travel around Europe and take classes, I would have never been able to take at Emory (like Managing Fashion and Luxury companies in one of the world’s fashion capitals!), I met amazing locals and fellow study abroad students that sought out the opportunity to learn more about my race and Ethiopian culture. I engaged in several conversations that were uncomfortable yet rewarding. 

Unfortunately, I did have an experience of racial discrimination while abroad, and it was with fellow study abroad students that I considered to be friends. It was unfortunate and difficult, but I recognize that what I experienced in that regard easily could have occurred back home. Because of this, I choose to not tie this specific experience with the fact that I was in Italy but with the fact that there are just some of those people in this world.  

If there is one piece of advice that I would give to any BIPOC student considering studying abroad, it’s to just do it. Do your research and build connections with the people that you can lean on, which for me turned out to be the fellow BIPOC students in my program. It’s scary for everyone, and especially so for people like us, but the personal and academic growth you experience, and the comfort with ambiguity that you gain, is fully worth it. Below, I’ll link some suggestions for seeking out more information about studying abroad as a student of color, so check them out!