Skip to main content

Uncertainty Abroad


Frater Ave Atque Vale

By Alfred Lord Tennyson

Could uncertainty on study abroad be a major feature, not a bug?
Illustrations by Andrew Lyons

Row us out from Desenzano, to your Sirmione row!
So they row’d, and there we landed—“O venusta Sirmio”
There to me through all the groves of olive in the summer glow,
There beneath the Roman ruin where the purple flowers grow,
Came that ‘Ave atque Vale’ of the Poet’s hopeless woe,
Tenderest of Roman poets nineteen-hundred years ago,
‘Frater Ave atque Vale’—as we wandered to and fro
Gazing at the Lydian laughter of the Garda Lake below
Sweet Catullus’s all-but-island, olive-silvery Sirmio!

Many see the curated externalities of a study abroad on an Instagram feed: familiar photo spots, group adventures, new insights, food discoveries. But for John Talbot, BYU professor of English and director of the study abroad to Siena, Italy, disruption is intentional and uncertainty should be considered a programmatic skill set.

“Uncertainty is both a bad and a good thing. Too much of it can ruin a learning experience, but not enough of it destroys the opportunity,” Talbot explains. “Something about being part of a study abroad entertains uncertainty as a virtuous principle”—as a major feature of the program, not a bug.

Of course nobody wants to participate in a program in which everything goes wrong—missed flights, lost luggage, closed museums, canceled tours. If these add up into a long list, such a program might be considered a failure. Yet for Talbot, “some have habituated to Western cultural practices that make uncertainty a horror.” When enough is unknowable, students raise their defenses. It may even prevent them from fully entering into a sense of open-ness for learning.

A better approach involves some structure, planning, and design but also allows for a certain level of uncertainty in the confidence that it enters into unprogrammed things. The same thing happens in a book or a classroom discussion. Talbot muses, “Where will this class lead us, not based on a lack of structure or faculty incompetence? There’s a vague thrill that something interesting might happen.”

We’ve faced a year of question marks. There’s been the big, terrifying uncertainty: Will the virus hurt someone I love? Will my industry survive? Layered on top is this daily volatility, which psychologists say can also have a big impact on our bodies and minds. Will my toddlers’ daycare class shut down? Will my internet flake out this morning? Where am I supposed to work if this storm takes out my power? . . .

We’re equipped to deal with occasional doses of uncertainty. . . . But chronic uncertainty leaves us no time to recuperate.
Rachel Feintzeig, “The Keys to Dealing with Chronic Uncertainty,” Wall Street Journal, March 21, 2021

Observing Abroad

Professor Talbot sends his students wandering the streets of Siena with a rudimentary assignment to see what they discover when they’re not looking. It adds an element of improvisation. Talbot relates: “One day, while walking along the Via Cecco Angiolieri accompanied by fifteen students, I happened to notice a door open that I’d never seen before. We entered, leading us into a medieval castle that was owned by a contrada, one of the local societies to which citizens of Siena have belonged since medieval times. We soon bumped into one of the locals, who happily showed us around the castle, allowing us to see treasures that ordinarily no outsider would ever see. We explored the subterranean chamber for two hours. That kind of experience—taking your chances with an unexpected opportunity—is such a big part of study abroad. My job as director is to create conditions where you experience ‘I don’t know what this is . . .’”

A study abroad can be a great place to observe the diversity of student attitudes toward uncertainty. Some see it as an affront while others discover the value of it—and that’s why these students go on a study abroad in the first place.

Coping Abroad

A great deal of effort goes into making programs safe by anticipating itineraries, reporting on crime, and ensuring support for logistics, health, and safety. But for Talbot, study abroad involves “actual peril,” evidenced by the chaotic character of Italy. “Rome is a dangerous place, and it is a good thing for students to be aware of and experience an element of risk,” he says.

Once, after lecturing at the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill, Talbot organized student breakouts in which they wandered around and pursued whatever seemed interesting. After- ward, the group was supposed to meet outside the Coliseum metro station. (Timing can be tricky with a group of students exploring ancient sites.)

Two of his students failed to return. It turns out one of them had lost her cell phone in the Roman Forum, a vast expanse that is usually crawling with tourists. The local police showed little interest in helping them find it, but the students themselves took the initiative, fanning out across the forum and approaching locals for help, until they eventually found an administrator in a local office who made some calls and helped them find the missing phone. Talbot says, “It ruined our schedule, but in the process our students had a very real-world, unplanned experience, meeting Italians and working with them to solve a problem.” He sees faculty advisors as leaders who must constantly be unruffled and plan for these types of contingencies. “After all,” he says, “spontaneous changes in the itinerary are what students remember most.”

Improvising Abroad

“In good teaching, if you have a secure foundation, you can allow yourself to begin to explore uncertain territory, where unplanned experiences lead to real learning,” says Talbot. “A faculty director can torpedo this as easily as a student if they are inflexible or resistant to the idea of genuine experience. Each must rely, on some level, on the value of the unforeseen.”

As one example, Talbot relates how the group improvised when their church experience suddenly became uncertain. “In sacrament meeting on our very first Sunday in the little branch of the Church in Siena, the stake president announced that the branch was permanently dissolved, effective immediately,” Talbot recalls. “We hadn’t had any previous warning. What were we going to do for church?”

Catullus 101

By Gaius Valerius Catullus

Multās per gentēs et multa per aequora vectus
adveniō hās miserās, frāter, ad īnferiās,
ut tē postrēmō dōnārem mūnere mortis
et mūtam nequīquam alloquerer cinerem
quandoquidem fortūna mihi tētē abstulit ipsum
heu miser indignē frāter adēmpte mihī
nunc tamen intereā haec, prīscō quae mōre parentum
trādita sunt tristī mūnere ad īnferiās,
accipe frāternō multum mānantia flētū.
atque in perpetuum, frāter, avē atque valē.

Carried through many nations and over many seas,
I arrive, brother, for these wretched funeral rites
so that I might present you with the last tribute of death
and speak in vain to silent ash,
since Fortune has carried you, yourself, away from me.
Alas, poor brother, unfairly taken away from me,
now in the meantime, nevertheless, these things which in the ancient custom of ancestors
are handed over as a sad tribute to the rites,
receive, dripping much with brotherly weeping.
And forever, brother, hail and farewell.

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.

We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.
Arundhati Roy, “The Pandemic Is a Portal,” Financial Times, April 3, 2020

Not unlike many others during the pandemic, the group held its own sacrament meeting. They had to figure out how to make it work, but the result was a meeting in which everyone in the program could talk. It even lasted longer than usual.

The group was also able to explore how other faiths worship by respectfully attending services in local cathedrals and churches, including the Valdesian Branch, the protestant sect from which the first Latter-day Saint Italian converts were drawn in the nineteenth century. In addition, they diverted budget funds to travel to Florence, where they attended the ward there three different times to see what it was like, revealing something new.

Talbot considers including a range of unprogrammed time as well as improvisation as essential, with the latter being more of an attitude. “Faculty know when something is interest- ing. They can drop everything and just go for it,” says Talbot. “To live in the tension of the schedule and opportunity is fun. It’s one of the many things that justify the study abroad experience.” This mirrors the tradition of the “grand tour” in the style of Henry James, whose account of his first tour in Italy exposes and cultivates direct experience with the great sites.

Lit Gets Real

Classes afford another visceral opportunity for students to grapple with planned uncertainty. As a scholar of ancient Latin literature and Roman culture, Talbot teaches a class on the influence of ancient Roman writers on modern English poets. One such source of inspiration was the Roman Catullus from Sirmione, who wrote a poem reflecting on the beauty of his native Lake Garda in the north of Italy and another mourning the death of his brother. Nearly 1,800 years later, Alfred Tennyson, still mourning the death of his own brother, arranged a tour to visit the place Catullus had described so beautifully.

Upon arriving at Lake Garda, Tennyson boarded a boat from Desenzano to the middle of the lake, where he composed an entirely new work based on the rhythmic beat of the rowers who sang a song. “This English poem was a response to the Roman poem,” Talbot says. “So I asked my students, ‘Should we see if we can recreate Tennyson’s journey, taking a boat across Lake Garda from Desanzano to Sirmione? It could be a disaster. We could get stranded.’” The students opted to go, and Talbot required one more thing: they had to memorize the poem and then recite it in unison upon the lake.

“I had no idea if it was going to work,” Talbot remembers. “But after a memorable experience crossing the lake, we arrived at a local hotel to find the very poem we had learned in class carved on the wall with a bust of both Catullus and Tennyson.”

In the end, Professor Talbot sees great value in taking such risks while studying abroad: “To the extent that uncertainty is foreclosed upon, students lose opportunities to grow. With a reasonable level of uncertainty, students learn flexibility and grit. When things go wrong, they can roll with it—and a shrewd director can create conditions when this is more likely to occur,” resulting in increased interactions across the host country, numerous academic bene- fits, and life experiences that stick.