Standing Out Among the Sea of Strangers

Halfway through spring semester, I knew for sure that I wanted to go abroad. Even though I knew that religion was an important part of my final decision, I didn’t realize how big of a role it would actually play in my entire MISTI experience. For a little bit of context, I am currently in Italy completing research on various archaeological materials such as Roman concrete and Egyptian pigments. For the first three weeks of my stay, I have been participating in the ONE-MA^3 program (Materials in Art, Architecture, and Archeology) through Course 1. For the next month, I will be staying here in Italy working with the University of Turin to complete research on Egyptian blue and faience, both of which were used as synthetic pigments on ancient artifacts thousands of years ago.

For some background about myself, I was raised Roman Catholic in Southern California. For most of my life, I hadn’t been particularly strong in my religion was never one to openly admit that I was Catholic. But throughout high school and especially once I got to MIT and joined the Tech Catholic Community (TCC), I noticed myself warming up to my religion and being open about it more and more. When I found out that I could study abroad in Italy—the Catholic capital of the world—I couldn’t contain my excitement. I have Jewish friends who had gone on Birthright trips to Israel and Christian friends who had gone on pilgrimages or missionary trips across the globe and that idea of traveling with a religious destination in mind resonated with me. Now that I’ve been in Italy for three weeks, I can say with confidence that traveling to a place of significance to one’s religion is one of the greatest, most educational, and unforgettable experiences one could have. 

The gorgeous view flying into Rome.

Whenever I daydreamed about studying abroad, I always imagined what the destination would be like: what the places would look like, what kind of activities I would be doing, and what kind of food I would be eating. But I didn’t take into account that a huge part of this entire MISTI traveling experience is the actual traveling-to-get-there part itself. Even then, being Catholic greatly affected that experience. I’ve traveled on my own before, but even so, there’s always a slight feeling of unsteadiness whenever I am wandering through foreign labyrinth-like airports, weaving through hundreds of strangers, trying to calm myself from the stress of not knowing where my flight gate is, and struggling to stay alert through the tugs of jetlag. That was basically my experience during one of my layovers on my way to Rome. After saying a couple of prayers and clutching the cross that I wore around my neck while I was lost, I finally found my gate, discovered that my connecting flight was delayed by two hours, and plopped down in the first open seat I could find, dehydrated and frazzled but glad that I was given extra time to relax and regain myself.

After that entire frenzy and having a slight realization of my loneliness amidst strangers, I was nearly over-ecstatic to spot an easily-identifiable Catholic sitting two rows down from me: a religious sister dressed in white and wearing a cross around her neck. Simply knowing that another Catholic was there gave me comfort, and I ended up walking over and sitting beside her. We began to chat, and I learned all about her life of growing up in Italy in a large family, the story of her vocation to become a religious sister (Sister Maria, to be precise), and her experiences of teaching elementary children for years. Besides giving me peace-of-mind at that airport in the middle of my journey, she also gave me wonderful life advice and inspiration for not just being Catholic but also being a passionate person in general. 

My reaction after having met Sister Maria on my way to Italy.

Because I had spoken to her, I also met another student from Italy she had been talking with earlier. With both of them, I learned about Italian phrases and culture as we continued our conversation up until boarding the plane. Before we parted ways, Sister Maria gave me a classic Italian kiss on the cheek and a bright, encouraging smile before heading off to her seat. I remember leaving that encounter with such an optimistic state of mind, thankful that we had crossed paths and even more grateful that I was able to make a memorable, religious connection with someone who stood out among the sea of strangers and welcomed me into her company like I was a long-lost friend. I expect that the situation is similar for other religions with people wearing accessories relating to their religion, whether it be varying images dangling from necklaces or specific types of headwear. If I hadn’t been Catholic, I would have sat in that airport seat for hours, not speaking to anyone. It made me realize how something like religion can bring people together of completely different ages, coming from varying backgrounds and entirely separate parts of the world within a minute of meeting one another. All of this can happen in foreign places, and overall, it encapsulates a human experience that I now find to be completely beautiful and inspiring.

Sister Maria shared some of the Montessori programs that she taught.

Sophia Mittman is a member of the class of 2022 studying Materials Science and Engineering. This summer she is completing archeological field work research in Italy as a part of the ONE-MA3 program.