“You girls speak Italian, right? Because Annamaria doesn’t speak any English.”
My roommate and I looked at each other in shock. Not five minutes earlier, we had been bonding over our mutual lack of Italian language experience. Proficiency in the language was not a requirement for the study-abroad program that we are enrolled in — though I am living in Florence, my studies are centered on art history and not on Italian. I had already planned to take an intensive beginner’s Italian course throughout the semester, but somehow, with what I was now beginning to realize was an all-too-naive and America-centric mentality, I had simply assumed that my host family would speak at least some level of English.
As I followed my host mother to my new home, my head still fuzzy from jet lag and arms aching from the weight of my suitcases, my thoughts already had begun to spin into disappointment and worry. How on earth would we be able to communicate? I had so hoped that living in a home stay would allow me an inside peek into true Italian daily life, an invaluable, once-in-a-lifetime chance to be immersed in a wholly new culture.
Yet now it seemed that such hopes would be impossible. How could my homestay become anything more than just a place to sleep at night, if we couldn’t even understand each other?
We Yalies often have issues with communication. Though disappointingly few choose to study abroad, the struggle for mutual understanding also underlies many of our on-campus concerns. Time and time again, I have heard my classmates lament their struggles to truly connect with others, to have meaningful conversations with their peers. This lack of mutual understanding is also present on a larger scale on campus, as the recent clashes between the undergraduate body and the Yale administration show.
Perhaps no example is clearer than the swirl of controversy surrounding the selection of Yale’s newest president, Peter Salovey, which took place last fall. The lack of effective communication between the selection committee and the undergraduate body lead to widespread frustration, protests and a string of failed attempts at student input forums. The reception to the committee’s decision, and to the beginning of President Salovey’s tenure, has thus far been largely positive — though in many respects it is still too early to tell. The underlying campus unrest about the handling of the selection is only just beginning to dissipate.
And now, as Mary Miller’s resignation will soon bring about the search for a new dean of Yale College, the Yale administration and the student body are poised to clash once more. Already, student activists and organizations have begun to speak out about their hopes for the next candidate, and to raise concerns about the lack of a student voice in the selection process. Many have clearly explained just why student input is so important. But it is equally important to realize that unless we are able to effectively communicate our concerns to the administration this time, we will make no more progress than we did when pushing for representation in the appointment of President Salovey.
It has now been two weeks since my roommate and I moved in with Annamaria — and it’s been an amazing experience. We don’t have fluent conversations, by any means, but the house is almost never quiet. Speaking in a mixture of English, Italian and mispronounced Spanish, often with the help of a pocket translation dictionary (and a lot of sign language), we’re able to cobble together a sort of working language. Getting across a specific idea is never easy, and there are often moments of frustration when the worlds of an Italian grandmother and two American college students could not seem more distant. But we are all committed to making ourselves understood, and in the end, we always find some way to make it work. And the results — spending dinner listening to Annamaria reminisce about her childhood in a small seaside town, learning the art of sailing from her father — are more than worth the extra effort.
Effective communication isn’t always easy. It takes patience and persistence. Both sides have to participate fully, to agree to put their full effort not only into sending their message, but also equally into receiving and comprehending the response. Whether we’re trying to form friendships with our peers, or make our voices heard to the administration, we need to remember that successful communication is never a given. As we approach campus challenges both large and small in the upcoming months, we must focus not only on the message itself, but also on how it is being said — and what the other party is saying in return.
Only through successful communication will we be able to see real change.
Emma Fallone is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .