A Semester Abroad: My Story

Updated: Apr 28

The day every study abroad student dreads more than anything, departure day. As the day is rapidly approaching, I can not help but reflect on the most transformative four months of my life. I am about to leave a semester of country hopping, friendships that will last a lifetime, and calling a foreign city home, but I am leaving with so much more than just souvenirs. I am leaving with lessons from studying abroad that have forever changed how I move throughout the world. What you learn from studying abroad is highly personal, and this is my story to tell.

As a woman who falls in love with every culture I see, I initially had no idea of where I wanted to study abroad. Any second of free time I had, I was scrolling through hundreds of programs in dozens of countries, and I did not know how I was ever going to decide. While researching programs, I always seemed to come back to Florence: the simplicity of the Tuscan culture, the perfect location, and the astonishing beauty of the city reeled me in. It did not take long for me to decide on Florence being my new home for the next four months! After many weeks of frantically tapping through Duolingo, watching the Medici on Netflix, and learning the difference between penne and rigatoni; the day finally arrived. On January 16, I left home. I felt grown up, but also so young at the same time. I was full of energy, beaming from ear to ear, and ready to take on the world, literally. I was so ecstatic, I think there were fireworks coming out of my seat. When I landed in Italy, the most transformative experience of my life began.

There are simply not enough words to describe every feeling I have felt, every realization I have had, or places I have seen during this past semester. Every hour of every day has written a new page in the story of my study abroad journey. The pages of my story tell tales of lessons, joys, hardships, celebration, astonishment, and culture shock, which is everything I wanted out of my experience abroad. It was not always as picture perfect as it may have seemed, but it was everything education should be: thrilling, exhausting, and challenging. My personal growth did not come from the gorgeous places I saw or the exotic foods I tried, but instead, it came from when I was uncomfortable, scared, and overwhelmed. Although it is impossible to discuss everything I learned while abroad, these are my biggest takeaways.

I learned to love what I do not understand.

I distinctly remember not being able to use a single appliance in my apartment for the first few weeks, weighing my fruit at the market wrong, and butchering the Italian pronunciation while I was ordering at a restaurant. My heart broke a little when I learned of no cappuccinos after lunch and did not see a single person wearing sweatpants in sight, but now, I have learned to love these cultural differences. I can not envision my life nowadays without my moka pot, fresh daily produce, and 4 hour long dinners with my friends on a Friday night. Even when I was confused, overwhelmed, and/or tired, I learned to look around and love where I was, because I worked so hard to get there.

I learned that the grass is not always greener in another country:

While ordering my morning coffee from my favorite cafe one morning, I saw a tip jar that said “Tips for USA, Grazie.” How ironic, I thought, that just a few weeks ago I was working two jobs to be able to live in Florence, and now someone in Florence is doing the same to live in America! For the remainder of the day, I could not get this tip jar out of my head. It seems that no matter where a person is located, they always think there is better somewhere else. Initially, I was worried about going back to America, because I knew I would be heavy-hearted to not be in Italy anymore. After seeing this tiny tip jar, however, I understood my home of 21 years in a completely new light. The quietness I used to complain of at home, became something I longed for as the tourist season brought in thousands of people to Florence. I used to despise everyone knowing everyone in my hometown, but a simple hello from a familiar face back home would dissolve my homesickness. I used to complain of filling my gas tank, but now I would give anything to hop in my little car and go for a long, peaceful drive without having to worry about making my plane on time. After being abroad for so long, I will start living in the moment no matter what location I am in, as opposed to daydreaming of all of the “better” places I could be.

I learned to travel… less.

Upon arrival, I was ecstatic at the accessibility of traveling from country to country. Never have I seen plane tickets so cheap, trains so fast, and countries so close together; it’s a traveler’s paradise... or so I thought. Behind all of the cheap Ryanair flights and insta-worthy Airbnbs, comes physical exhaustion and mental drainage from traveling. I went on fantastic trips, but always found myself coming back exhausted. After my first few weeks of nonstop country-hopping, I felt like a zombie during the week. I slowly started exploring my city less and less, and unconsciously conserved energy for my next extravagant trip. I did not want to spend my semester abroad exhausted all the time, just to say I have been to dozens of countries. Luckily, I realized this early on, and I was able to balance planning trips to the places I really wanted to see, while still experiencing life as a Florentine for the remainder of the semester. My style of traveling is taking the time to understand the place I am visiting, immersing myself in the culture, and leaving with the feeling that I truly experienced the magic of the region. Quality over quantity.

I learned about people.

While traveling abroad, the first thing people notice are the differences between people. In a strange way, however, I started to notice the similarities between people. People in many ways are the same everywhere - the differences are universal. Everywhere I went I noticed people doing what I love to do: enjoying sunsets, laughing with friends over a drink, and reading by the water. In all of my travels, I was surrounded by people who did not speak the same language, grow up in the same country, or believe the same things as I do, but in reality, I can see a little bit of myself in every place I have visited. I have seen firsthand the beauty of intertwining cultures and personalities.

I learned to accept humility.

The expectation of perfection is something I have learned to let go while abroad, but this did not come easy. Although I swore to never tell the story, the day I lost my passport was a turning point for me. On my way to Paris, I was giggling with my friends about eating crepes under the Eiffel tower, when I did the unthinkable: I left my wallet on the tram. My wallet, which had every important document you could possibly imagine, was nowhere to be found. This was any traveler’s worst nightmare. When I realized my wallet was gone, my stomach dropped and I was in complete hysteria. The police officers could not understand me, I could not find the tram I was on (which I thought I knew like the back of my hand), and I was all alone. That day, I felt I had failed. I thought to myself, how could I be so useless in the city I call home, especially during an emergency? I put so much pressure on myself to make sure every aspect of my study abroad went smoothly, that when it didn’t, I could not handle it. This day was the ultimate lesson of humility. I messed up big time - and that is okay! I failed to realize the roadblocks I hit were not as enormous as I convinced myself they were. Once I surrendered to the perfectionist expectations, I had a much more fulfilling experience abroad than I could have ever anticipated.

I learned to be alone.

Anyone who knows me, knows I have always been free-spirited and self-sustaining. I have always considered myself an independent person, however, studying abroad showed me how much room I had to grow in developing my confidence. I used to think a person was born with or without independence, but after four months abroad, I have achieved an entirely new level of self-reliance which I proudly developed on my own. I left all of my friends and family, my school of three years, and the comfort of a familiar lifestyle to travel thousands of miles away - not knowing a single soul on this side of the world. My loved ones were no longer just a few minutes away to come rescue me. Any problem that arose seemed to be ten times more difficult than back home because I had to deal with everything on my own. Although scary, this feeling of being alone enabled me to grow significantly as an individual. I gained confidence in knowing I was able to go wherever my heart desired, making big decisions without consultation, and living in a foreign country by myself. The fate of my study abroad experience was solely in my hands, and it was up to me to make it everything I had ever dreamed of.

To study abroad, you have to be strong … really strong. It is a mental challenge, full of constant ups and downs. Beneath the excitement, I was terrified. I came to Italy knowing it will end eventually, and I made lifelong relationships knowing I was going to have to leave. I absorbed new information, put myself in uncomfortable situations, and learned every aspect of a new culture. In four months, I have completely transformed as a person, in ways more deep-rooted than I could have ever imagined. I am definitely not the same bright-eyed and bushy tailed girl who first arrived in Italy on January 18. The lessons from studying abroad are deep-rooted, and applicable to all of my life’s future endeavors (and I suspect they will continue to be for many years to come).

Would I do it all over again? Absolutely.

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