Without a doubt, one of the best parts of my college experience was studying abroad. I had been lucky enough to take trips with my family before, but studying abroad was the first—and so far, only—time that I traveled outside of the U.S. on my own.
I didn't think about studying abroad when I started college. If it happened, cool, but otherwise I was just as happy to stay home. “I live in New York," I told myself, arrogantly. “It’s the greatest city in the world. People come to see me, not the other way around."
But, when my college program strongly encouraged me to travel abroad, I ended up choosing a study abroad program in Florence.
I've always been proud of my Italian heritage, so it was a natural decision. I had been to the city once with my family but there was an appeal in going with friends at an older age. The three-week program (called “The Italian Renaissance") offered a survey of 14th-century Italian literature with a study of figures from this period who contributed to the fields of literature, art, politics, and philosophy.
I looked forward to reading poetry and learning about art. If I made a few friends, that would be cool too.
In hindsight, my program ended up being so much more than I could have ever expected—thanks, in part, to a few things I made sure to do.
By writing about where I was and what I was experiencing daily, I reflected on my program down to the most basic details. It was also a way to relive my travels—not just when I sat down to write this article—and recall the ways study abroad helped me grow personally.
Being away from home as a college student is one thing. Having an ocean between you and home is another thing entirely. I had to learn how to navigate a different country, which made for a confidence boost that took with me once I returned home. These days, turning just a few pages of my notebook serves as a reminder of how far I've come.
Journaling also enabled me to take better stock of my unique observations, and compare Florence to New York in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to do just by taking pictures. Sure, pictures can help you remember your experiences, especially if you have a travel vlog like that annoying kid from "Spider-Man: Far From Home" (no spoilers). Whatever the case, journaling as you travel is a meaningful way to memorialize your trip in a way that you can revisit time and time again down the line. You'll be glad you did.
As a New Yorker, I have long known that visiting the Met really isn’t the best or most accurate way to see the city. Don't get me wrong, the Accademia Gallery in Florence is incredible, but some of the best parts of my trip came when I had the freedom and openness to just let surprises happen.
One of my most memorable experiences was walking around an abandoned rail yard with a couple of friends from my program. We had stayed behind after a group activity to explore as others took a train to another city, and were wandering around Florence when we stumbled across a hidden path. Having all Robert Frost at some point, the decision to take the road less traveled came easily. As we explored the surrounding area, we discovered an abandoned, ramshackled complex and entered it, climbing through the basement of its abandoned main building's seemingly bombed-out windows.
Inside, we found seemingly ancient Italian train documents, as well as a group of graffiti artists. We stopped to chat, doing as best as we could with the language barrier. It grew darker, so we returned to the city's main streets and had the worst Chinese food of our lives. I probably should have known that there were better noodles to order in Italy.
That night, when our friends returned from their own travels, we had the best story to share—and we didn't have to buy train tickets to get it. One of the beauties of travel is that it presents you with opportunities you would never consider at home. I would never explore an abandoned rail yard in New York since, you know, gentrification. It's also less believable to when you say, “I couldn’t read the ‘DANGER: KEEP OUT’ sign!" to someone who shares your accent.
While it's a benefit to Americans that English-speakers can be found in most foreign countries, I kind of felt like a jerk for expecting people to help me out in a place where I didn’t know the language. When I’m in Central Park and a tourist comes up to me, they try their best to get on my language level.
If you can, learn a little bit of the language used wherever you’re going. It is not a waste of time—and it shows people that you're trying. And if you happen to be in Italy, don't crowd the sneeze guard at gelaterias while going, “Ooohhhhh, what’s thaaaat?!" Gelato is not that different. There’s just more milk.
Another solid decision I made while studying abroad was to travel outside of Florence with a good friend. We got along well and traveled a lot together. It was comforting to have the safety net of a familiar face while soaking up unfamiliar cultures. These experiences would have been impossible with 15 people wanting to stop and rest, and find snacks every 20 minutes of travel. Don’t feel bad about making plans with one or two friends.
If you are studying abroad for a long time, this split will happen naturally—just like it does in college when you formed a group of friends. If your goal for studying abroad is to take a lot of pictures and try new food, that’s great. If it’s not, don’t feel pressured to do it. I spent a lot of my trip wondering if I should be more excited by deserts and stopping every 45 seconds to take a picture of “an Italian tree!" Pastries and horticulture just isn’t my jam. Personally, I think there should be a limit on how many landscape pictures a person can take (five), but this is just turning into my version of a, “back in my day, there were no cell phones."
This may sound obvious, but it's crucial that you budget more than you think you’ll spend during your study abroad program. There will always be random expenses you couldn't have predicted, plus that thing you “just have to have." Cooking for yourself is a good idea if you're looking to save money. It's also another way to experience a new destination and even feel like you're "living there". In Florence, I went to the grocery store with friends and bought ingredients to make sandwiches that, honestly, I still think about. Oil, arugula, provolone cheese, mortadella, ciabatta bread—some of the freshest food I’ve ever eaten.
It's also important that you plan ahead on the amount of money you'll have to spend during study abroad. Before leaving home, my mom told me to set up a credit card since they're known to be more secure in foreign countries.
At home, I exclusively use a debit card to avoid overspending. It was only after an eight-hour flight to Milan that I learned you can't take out money from an ATM with a credit card. I spent the first couple weeks of my trip waiting for my debit card to arrive in the mail (certainly not the safest way to send it) and putting group meals on my card so friends could pay me back in cash.
Dealing with any bank is annoying. Dealing with a foreign bank is actually kind of horrific. This journal entry of sums it up: “I seem to be the only person not on a mad hunt for gelato. I hate siestas now. The bank is closed and any time I try to get something done it feels like I can’t. It’s irritating. Nice trip so far though."
Listen, I get it. Maybe you want to study abroad to get away from actually studying, but try taking advantage of the academic opportunities of your program, especially when a course relates to your study abroad destination. In my experience, it was so interesting to learn about the Renaissance in the city where it had its start.
My program group became especially tight during group study sessions for the midterm and final. Learning about the Italian writers, artists, and thinkers that ignited the world's transition to modernity was a highlight of my experience, made even more memorable through trips to sites like the Duomo and Uffizi Gallery. The course material made it easy to focus—and I’m really glad that I did.
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