Embrace the Unfamiliar: Study Abroad Alumna Maria Valeria Guerrero

Maria Valeria Guerrero studied abroad at JCU in Spring 2023. She is a senior at the University of Notre Dame, majoring in Economics and Global Affairs, and minoring in Italian and Anthropology.

Tell us about your background.
I was born in Pasto, Colombia, and moved to Orlando, Florida when I was ten years old. After going to public school in the United States, I decided to pursue my undergraduate degree at the University of Notre Dame. I plan on graduating in the Fall of 2024, after 4.5 years. My academic trajectory changed multiple times and was filled with confusion as I figured out where I could best explore my curiosity and passions as well as nourish my talents. My semester studying abroad in Rome was an experience that helped me to realize what I want out of life.

Maria Valeria Guerrero
Maria Valeria Guerrero

What made you decide to study abroad in Rome at JCU?
The Rome Study Abroad program at Notre Dame sends us to JCU, and I am so glad that they do. I chose to study abroad in Rome because of my Italian minor, my dream to go to Italy, and because of my love for art and architecture. Rome was the perfect place for me to improve my Italian and to experience life and the things I love while being surrounded by history and a warm culture similar to the one I grew up in.

How did you become interested in Italian?
My interest in Italian started at a young age, from romanticizing Italy as a physical place and as a community. My dad is an architect and an artist, so I was always surrounded by architecture books. My dad would often talk about his classical architecture training, and how he dreamed of going to Italy. My parents listened to many Italian songs such as “Volare” by Domenico Modugno or “Parole, parole” by Mina while I was growing up, and I always found them beautiful and was intrigued at how much I could understand because of my native language, Spanish. I knew that I wanted to learn Italian in college as soon as I found out I had a foreign language requirement. The Italian Studies community at Notre Dame was so welcoming and active from the beginning, so after my first class, I was smitten. I see the language of a people as a crucial aspect of their culture, identities, and society. If I were ever to go to my dream country, Italy, I’d have to know Italian.

What did you enjoy most about your courses at JCU?
I loved the courses that were available at JCU. I took an array of classes that covered my interests: Advanced Italian with Professor Berenice Cocciolillo, International Economics with Professor Alessandro Antonelli, Human Rights with Professor Lyal Sunga, and Italian Renaissance Art History with Professor Paul Tegmeyer. I enjoyed the variety of courses that JCU offers, and the wonderful professors who I had the pleasure of learning from. The diversity of the University is not only present in the student body but also in the staff. I found all my professors to be extremely passionate about their fields, and eager to transfer their knowledge and passion to their students.

How did your semester abroad enrich you? Did you face any challenges?
I shamelessly wear a t-shirt with the phrase “Study abroad changed my life,” which my sister gave to me as a joke. Studying abroad expanded my mind to what I see as possibilities for me and my future. Immigrating to the United States at a young age prepared me for the cultural changes that study abroad students must face. I was much more excited to learn and experience the unknown than I was scared to be uncomfortable. My semester abroad taught me to not only enjoy and thrive in discomfort but to actively seek it as an opportunity for growth and excitement.

What is your best study abroad story?
All my best stories start with me having the courage to connect with strangers. I ended up babysitting two Roman kids during my semester in Rome. This happened because I was not afraid to speak my broken Italian around the city, and because I embraced the culture I was exposed to. I was struggling to pronounce “spinaci” (“spinach”) at the gluten-free bakery near JCU, and after a kind woman corrected me, we began to talk about why I was in Rome and at JCU. Now I have a close relationship with a lovely Roman family, and I am invited to come back to their home in Sicily in the summer.

How did you manage to reconcile studying with being a tourist in Rome and traveling to other cities in Europe?
I did not find it difficult to study while also enjoying the city and the wonders of European transportation. Studying and traveling went hand in hand with my learning experience. Finding local coffee shops or libraries to study in made my afternoons full of discovery and learning. Plane and train rides were my favorite places to work on papers and readings for class. My professors and study buddies had the best recommendations on what restaurant to go to for dinner or what country to visit next.

What advice would you give to students thinking of studying abroad at JCU?
Do it! You will not regret it. Make friends in classes, don’t just stick to other study abroad students from your home university. Explore Rome! It is such a beautiful place with so much to discover. Taking classes that you are truly interested in will make school another one of the great things that you get to do during this amazing experience of being abroad.

What are your plans for the future?
Only time will tell. I decided to stay at Notre Dame for another semester to finish my two majors and two minors. I am also planning on conducting research in the International Development field on how parental perceptions of education affect their children’s educational outcomes in Colombia or Kenya. After I graduate, I want to pursue opportunities abroad like the Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) Program, which will take me abroad once again. If that does not work out, I am considering joining the Peace Corps and then pursuing a master’s degree in international relations or anthropology.