I know this much is true: I had to travel 4,600 miles to finally understand it.

Four months ago I was arriving at a very different kind of Hilltop. Nestled on the outskirts of Florence, Italy, I spent four weeks of summer studying abroad with 24 other students at Georgetown’s Villa le Balze. I was fortunate enough to be attending the program with a handful of my closest friends, but at our first night’s dinner there were many faces I didn’t recognize. By the end of our first week, though, we had all become fast friends (a steady diet of pasta, Nutella and Tuscan sunshine will do that to you).

As we grew to know each other better over the course of our time at the Villa we covered all kinds of topics, but our conversations seemed to inevitably turn back to our lives at Georgetown. There was something so easy and familiar about discussing our shared experiences back in the States – on what I’d then come to think of as “The Other Hilltop.” They were the common threads that run through any undergraduate experience at Georgetown: the comforting yet regal look of Healy, the usual jabs at the eyesore alternately known as Lau, even comparing Wisey’s orders was a favorite pastime.

As we navigated serpentine Florentine streets, the Tuscan countryside and Italian culture, our talk of Georgetown made it seem like we hadn’t really left at all. Yet somehow the fact that we were so distanced from all the things we were referencing managed to imbue them with a potency they wouldn’t necessarily have had otherwise. Without the tangible stone walls of campus to ground them, these things we talked about seemed disembodied.

But it was our collective experience of each of them that made them accessible – we were carrying Georgetown with us. We had managed to fashion a kind of microcosm of campus halfway around the world.

This sounds like a simple observation, but the understanding of taking Georgetown with us runs deeper. Our group at the Villa, like any group of college students, boasted wide-ranging interests and passions. Many were involved with things to which I had little exposure myself: We listened as Dave explained the lab research he does as a neurobiology major, as Kylie shared stories about doing the stage makeup for Mask & Bauble productions, and as Lindsay told us about her friends on the club basketball team. I relished their stories because they opened up new windows into Georgetown for me.

Listening to stories of Georgetown as seen through the eyes of these new friends was a feeling that was at once distinctly different and intensely familiar. It was like spending a weekend at a friend from college’s home: someone you know well and have lived alongside, but in this new and unfamiliar context, surrounded by people who have known this person under very different circumstances, you gain a whole new perspective – it’s almost like peeling back layers of their personality. I felt like I was gaining fresh perspective on an old friend.

I’d always known that attending a university as steeped in tradition and history as Georgetown would mean becoming a part of something a lot bigger than myself. I have long been in awe of the heritage Georgetown passes on to its students. What I didn’t anticipate was the give and take – the unique reciprocity that comes with a Georgetown education. Each student who walks this campus inherits his or her own piece of Georgetown and in turn leaves his or her own indelible mark on the university. As students our time here shapes our identities and in our seemingly small contributions we help define what Georgetown is as well. It becomes an innate part of who we are and in this way we take a bit of Georgetown with us wherever we go. It’s so painfully obvious and yet it was never as clear to me as it is now: We are Georgetown – all of us.

And so the stories my friends at the Villa told, the experiences we shared – those are the things that comprise the fabric of the Georgetown experience. Glancing around the dinner table on our last night at the Villa, I was hit with the realization that these people had become the faces of Georgetown for me . it only took me two years and a transatlantic journey to have this epiphany. But truly it is the people I have had the privilege of meeting here that make Georgetown what it is. Certainly that is heightened when set against the backdrop of campus or the Villa, but I take great comfort in knowing that Georgetown can not be restricted to any one location – it is as much a feeling as it is a place.

I know that the sort of experience I had at the Villa is echoed hundreds of times a year through all varieties of avenues, whether it be alternative spring break trips, campus ministry retreats or other study abroad programs: We are lucky to attend a university that boasts so many chances for reflection and the chance to meet individuals you may never have encountered otherwise. But of course I can only speak from my unabashedly biased opinion. To my friends from the Villa: You have all taught me so much about what it means to be a Hoya. You are Georgetown – thank you for that.

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