"The Best Four Months of My Life" - Tips, Tricks, and Bits of Advice on Studying Abroad
This blog post was written by Rachel Bergan, our Intern Queen Intern and a senior at the University of South Carolina. Rachel spent the Spring 2012 semester studying abroad in Florence, Italy. For more information on studying abroad, you can check out her personal blog and follow her on Twitter @rachel_bergan.
It is beyond impossible to fit my study abroad experience into the length of one blog post. I mean, how could I compile the best, most exciting, thrilling, and eye opening four months of my life into just a few paragraphs? I will try, however, by covering the essentials – the tips, tricks, and bits of advice that will make your study abroad experience everything that it is meant to be and more. If you are considering studying abroad for a semester, a summer, or even just a winter session, do it. You will never, ever, have another experience like it again. These are just a few tips to help you get started on your journey:
Choosing where to study: There are several factors that impacted my decision to study in Florence, and you need to decide based on what is right for you. These are several parts that played into my decision when choosing Florence as my host city, and they are factors that I believe you should consider as well:
•Do you speak the language? Now, I am next to hopeless when it comes to learning a language, so this was not much of a deciding factor for me – but it is definitely still important. I did not know how to speak Italian the only Italian that I knew before I left for Florence was “ciao,” “pasta,” and “gelato” (and I really wish that I were kidding). However, I had a feeling that picking up phrases of Italian would come easier to me than say, French would. However, if you have been studying Spanish or French for a few years, maybe you would consider going to Spain or France. It really depends what your preference is – to know a bit of the language before you arrive and learn to perfect it, or to go in not knowing the language and learn it as you go. Either option is perfectly fine. A bit of advice that I will give, however, is to learn at least a few phrases of the language before you leave the states; it will make it much easier for you when you are trying to adjust, and the locals will appreciate it.
•Do you want a big or small city? I attend the University of South Carolina where there are 27,000 students, and I LOVE the big school environment. However, when I chose to study in Florence, I was really drawn to the idea of being able to walk anywhere in the city that I would need to go in less than 20 minutes. It was so nice being able to walk everywhere (especially after eating endless bowls of pasta and gelato on a daily basis) and not have to rely on public transportation.
•Can you take classes that will transfer back to your home university? I am a fashion major, so it was important to me that I could find fashion classes or fashion schools in Florence that would count towards my graduation requirements in South Carolina (and what better place to take fashion classes than in a fashion capital?!). If staying on track for graduation is an important requirement for you, work with your study abroad office to ensure that you are choosing a university where you can take classes that will count towards your degree.
•What type of food do you like? Now I know this might sound a bit ridiculous, but you will be living in this country for four months, so it is very important that you like the food! In my opinion, I couldn’t go wrong with four months of pasta and gelato (minus the fact that my jeans didn’t fit when I came home – but that is beside the point!), but depending on your food preference you might be inclined to choose a different location!
Be Proactive: I’m not going to lie, when you first apply to study abroad it can be an overwhelming experience. The study abroad office will be filled with different catalogues from programs and universities located literally all over the world that you have to choose from. However, if you are proactive in the process it doesn’t have to be so daunting. Once you narrow it down to 2-3 locations (I narrowed my options down to Italy and Spain), it will be easier to be able to sort through all of the packets and find a location, program, and host school that is right for you. Here are a few tips to help you along the way so that you are not scrambling at the end: •If you do not currently have a passport, take care of that ASAP. I was rushing all over the place when I was home at one point because my passport had expired, and I ended up having to pay to expedite a new one to me so that it would arrive to my program on time with my application. •Don’t save the application until the last minute. While I do know of a handful of people who gathered up all of their materials and got their application in with just a few days to spare, I don’t recommend it. If you accidentally forget to submit something, or if something is submitted incorrectly, it could jeopardize your chances of studying abroad. I applied to my program VERY early (about 3 months before the due date), which made it less stressful when it came to making sure that all of my documents had been received.
Planning Your Weekend Trips: Ahh, in my opinion the most exciting part of studying abroad: travel! Traveling in Europe is SO accessible, and if you do your research you can get great deals on trips (airlines like Ryan Air have flights to certain destinations for as little as ten euro!). There are various forms of transportation such as planes, trains, busses, and boats that can take you all over Europe. Unfortunately, no matter how hard you try, it is unlikely that you will have the opportunity to make it everywhere you want to go, as there are only so many weekends in a semester. My best bit of advice would be to write down everywhere you want to go, and number them in order of importance. Book your top 3-5 trips first. This will give you an idea of which weekends you still have available for the other trips that you would like to take. After booking our important trips (Springfest in Munich, the Amalfi Coast, and Barcelona), my friends and I sat down with a calendar and started plugging in the rest of our weekends with the other destinations that we wanted to get to. While it is definitely possible to book trips as you go, I wouldn’t rely on that for your “most important” trips. Also, make sure you do spend a few weekends in your host city. If you travel every weekend, you are likely to miss out on the events happening in your city, and are unlikely to get the full experience. Remember, you chose your host city for a reason – enjoy it!
Another recommendation that I have for traveling is to utilize student travel companies. Bus2Alps is a company that I traveled with numerous times throughout the semester; they lead trips to destinations all across Europe, and depart from Florence, Rome, Barcelona, and Prague (but you can still participate if you are in another host country!). You pay for the trip cost and they take care of providing transportation, accommodations, several meals, and usually a tour or some type of activity. The guides are enthusiastic, recent college graduates who all studied abroad and are familiar with the destinations you travel to – they know the best sites to visit, restaurants to eat at, and clubs to party at – and are some of the friendliest people I have ever met. They truly want to make your entire study abroad experience amazing.
As a Campus Ambassador for Bus2Alps, you can use my discount code, RBERG, to receive a 5% discount on any trips that you book!
Save, Save, Save! This is pretty self-explanatory. Europe is expensive, and while it seems that travel is relatively inexpensive, it definitely adds up. I traveled nearly every weekend and spent a nauseating amount of money. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t take back a moment of my experience for even a penny, but you have to realize that studying abroad is an expense. This is the part where I am going to say to do as I say and not as I do. I am terrible with budgeting, I am an impulse buyer, and I definitely couldn’t resist that European fashion. However, you should really try to make weekly budgets for yourself so that you know how much you can spend on food, traveling, shopping, and anything else that you plan on doing each week. Determine in the beginning how you would like to spend your money; I chose to spend it on traveling, some of my friends spent it on going out to eat multiple times a week, and some chose to spend it on shopping in the leather market. No answer is the right one; you just need to determine what is right for you.
Living Situations: Now I’m not trying to scare you, but living conditions in Europe can be less than glamorous. I live in off-campus housing in South Carolina, where we are downright spoiled: I live in a 4 bed, 4.5 bath house, with walk in closets, a full laundry system, and a community with two pools and two fitness centers. I was in for a serious reality check when I walked into my apartment in Florence. I had to walk up four flights of stairs (which made it pretty entertaining when my roommates and I tried to lug our 50 pound suitcases up them) with six other girls in an apartment that was about 1,000 square feet. We were literally living on top of each other. Your “closet” will likely be smaller than your freshman dorm room closet, the floors will likely be marble (read: freezing), and it is unlikely that you will have heat or air conditioning. Again, I am not trying to scare you, but this is what living conditions are really like in Europe, and it is all part of the learning experience. I learned to go four months without a toaster, microwave, or oven; we literally cooked everything on a stove that we had to light with matches (which made it pretty entertaining when I returned home and tried to light my stove with a kitchen lighter). But you learn to love your little European apartment, the child-sized Ikea beds, and the fact that you occasionally have to sleep in every layer you own to stay warm during the winter. While the living situations were definitely not glamorous at times, I got through it and so will you! I now consider Via Isola Delle Stinche, 1 my second home, and would give anything to get to live there again for even another week.
It really is difficult for me to put into words the amazing experience that I had overseas, and it is something that everybody should get the opportunity to experience. Never in my life did I imagine that I could travel to over 20 cities in five different countries (Italy, Spain, Greece, the Czech Republic, and Germany) in a matter of four months. I rode a gondola through the Grand Canal in Venice; danced on tables and drank “the greatest beer in all the world” in Germany; ate traditional Greek gyros while watching a Santorini sunset; signed my name on the Lennon Wall in Prague; and danced until the sun came up in Barcelona. I learned to speak a few phrases of semi-convincing Italian, and ate 1,000 bowls of pasta (followed by 1,000 cups of gelato). I learned so much about myself and grew up in ways that I never could have imagined; and made amazing friends and memories that I know will last a lifetime. If you are considering studying abroad you need to take advantage of the opportunity. Trust me, it is something that will change your life forever. Firenze, you will forever hold a special place in my heart.
I hope these tips and bits of advice prove to be helpful in your study abroad journey. Please, if you have any questions, feel free to reach out to me – you can find my contact information and further study abroad information on my personal blog.