Monday morning, 7 a.m., California. Emma wakes up, washes her face, has breakfast, and runs out of the house, in the cold weather of December, late for classes. In the same exact minute, Luca in Italy has just had lunch with his family and is getting ready for soccer practice in the afternoon; while Mia, from Argentina, is sunbathing at the beach, enjoying her summer time and struggling with the sunscreen and the sand in her hands.

Same moment, same day, three different lives, in three different parts of the world, of three different kids with their own projects and dreams. We don’t choose where to be born, which family we want to grow up in. And it’s so unfair how much this influences what we become and the opportunities given to us.

The background we grow up in determines our definition of “home,” of “normal,” of “beautiful.” We don’t even realize how many differences are in the world until we experience them on our skin.

Before I left for the U.S., I read books, watched movies set here, studied the language and the culture; I was craving seeing this place. I was so bored of the same landscape everyday. I wanted to try something different and put myself out of the comfort zone. More than one person discouraged me about the exchange program. Making up the school work once I come back, being so far from family and friends, facing dangers and bad moments alone. “You can do it later” was the excuse most of them used.

I have to be honest, the idea scared me a lot too. I didn't even get to pick the area or family that I wanted to be in: Alaska, Hawaii, Texas, no clue. And all these fears and frustrations for a possibly big disappointment. So why did I decide to do it? Why did I think it wasn't a waste of time?

Because I felt something was missing. I felt like I was reading just one chapter of a book. I wanted to know the entire plot, to see if that chapter was the best or the worst one. I wanted to discover the real me, challenge the young and dreamy Giulia, take the risk of a big failure, or the credits for the best time of my life. At sixteen years old, we have to make so many big decisions for our future, and we have no idea how it’s going to turn out.

It’s ironic how much of our existence depends on those few years and how fast we have to turn into adults, without any past experience in the field. It’s important to not waste them, and I had no idea if traveling was the right choice to make.

Now, after six months here, I can say to that little girl, “thank you.” I’ve learned so much, and describing it in two pages is not even possible. I became independent, learned that the only person I can count on is myself. People aren’t waiting for you to feel comfortable with the area, with the language. If you are not open to different kinds of people, able to not judge before knowing somebody, and to be a risktaker, nobody is worried about you being left out. You are the director of the movie, and it’s your responsibility to make it work.

In difficult moments, you cannot just wake up like in a nightmare, you cannot scream, “I want to go home” until it comes true. You have to deal with it, find a solution. And it’s not that easy as it sounds. Sometimes you feel trapped, and weak, regretting the moment you signed those papers with your parents. But it’s in that moment that the rational part of your brain, the one hidden because somebody else always helped you so far, comes out, telling you that you can do it, and why you are there. In that instant, you realize something changed, that having a great experience doesn’t mean to never cry, but to grow and change. And you don’t care about that problem you were upset about anymore, because you are aware of how much stronger you became.

Disappointments don’t surprise you after a while, because you learn how to face them. Your time becomes so precious to you that it isn’t worth it to spend it whining in your bedroom.

Traveling as a teenager is the best way you can become an adult. It’s like being born again, in a new place where your name doesn’t mean anything: a white paper to write a new life on.

Traveling doesn’t mean forgetting your home or forgetting your origins. Traveling means appreciating way more what you took for granted until now. You get to see some differences that you didn’t even notice before, understanding deeply what it means being Italian, or American, what are those characteristics that change with the area.

At the same time, how similar are humans, how emotions don’t change with the continent. I realized how small the world is and how important it is to discover it completely.

I’ll come back and I’ll leave again, I’ll look for what makes me happy with tenacity and spirit of adventure around the world, reading all the chapters of that book, thinking about my hometown just as a starting point. Or maybe I’ll come back and I’ll love it so much that I’ll stay there for the rest of my life, being more aware of the entire picture, rather than just a detail and knowing which parts to improve to make that detail fit better in the painting.

• Giulia Ciarlantini is an exchange student at Mount Shasta High School from a little town called Porto Recanati on the coast, in the center of Italy. She wrote the piece above as part of her senior project and contributed the following about herself:

“I’m the oldest child in my family, and I love my two little brothers: Lorenzo, 14, and Luca, 8. They are both active and noisy, but with them I never get bored. I’m a talkative 17-year-old, ambitious and dreamy. My Italian high school is specialized in history and philosophy, and I’m attending now the fourth year abroad. I’ve always liked trying new experiences and meeting new people. I love languages and cultures, and America is my dream since I was a child. That’s why I decided to do the exchange program. The Italian agency that I am with is WEP, while the American one, the area representative, is called ISE. I arrived here on the 16th of August 2017, and I’ll leave in June 2018. I’ve been lucky with the people I met and the amazing family that’s hosting me. There are all girls in the house: Cheri King, my host mom, and her two daughters, Angelica Kelly and Jennah King. They are so sweet and made me feel at home since the first day.

“I love writing, and my dream job is becoming a journalist or broadcast news analyst. I’m a really straight forward person, and I like giving my opinion on things that surround me. I’m curious, and I’m looking for new things to learn all the time. My other big passions are piano, dance and painting. I’m in love with any kind of art in general, and I’m looking for a job where I can be creative and express myself completely. That’s why I’m doing journalism experience as my senior project.

“Plus, doing it in a different country allows me to get to know more about it, learning deeply culture and language. I’d like to travel in the future, and this is helping me to be more aware of where I want to spend it.

“America is the land of opportunities, so I think I’m in the right place!”