Ten Years Since Florence: A Retrospective on Study Abroad

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Kate in Budapest

Ten years ago today, I was studying abroad in Florence. For the past several months, I’ve been thinking that my 10-year study abroadaversary would be a great opportunity to look back at that special time.

Studying abroad is one of the best decisions I ever made and by far the best thing I did in college. It was the catalyst that led me to a life of travel, and I think part of me knew that.

At the same time, I look back and I am appalled by some of the experience. Here’s a retrospective of my first long-term travel experience, in a time before smartphones and wifi.

View over Florence

Florence is a study abroad mecca, which is both good and bad.

Florence is a small city, a very popular tourist destination, and home to more than a dozen study abroad programs. There was us (Fairfield University, my alma mater), there was NYU, there was Syracuse, and there was the University of Richmond, whose students wore shirts that read “Va F*ckin’ Bene” and had a meal plan that gave them three-course meals in several restaurants.

Being in a study abroad mecca was good in some ways — we met SO many friends from the other schools — and bad in others. A few years ago, I was talking to a guy who studied in Parma — another Italian city I love, but a small place without the same study abroad community, and he only had a few English-speaking classmates. He met so many locals, but felt lonely and starved for interaction with fellow Americans; he also didn’t travel outside Italy, as Parma wasn’t as well-connected by air.

I reaped the benefits, like weekend packages that brought us direct to backpacking hotspots like Interlaken, Switzerland. But I know I didn’t spend the bulk of my time interacting with locals, which is how I thought it would be.

Gender Imbalance in Florence

There was a massive gender imbalance.

In our Fairfield program, we had 40 girls and eight guys. That was fairly standard for the other programs throughout the city.

Why? I’m not sure. Women tend to outnumber men at universities in America, and I think the Fairfield breakdown was about 58% women, 42% men, at least when I went there, so that could be one factor.

But is study abroad so much more popular for women than men? Or does Florence appeal to women more? Perhaps it’s a bit of both. I knew far more girls who studied abroad than guys, and most of my guy friends at Fairfield who studied abroad went to Galway or London.

Santa Croce Girls

Most of the memories are from my apartment.

When choosing housing, I requested an apartment with lots of roommates rather than few roommates. That was a smart decision and one that affected my whole semester.

I ended up in an apartment of nine girls on Borgo Santa Croce, steps from Basilica Santa Croce in the heart of Florence’s historical center. We had the best location by far — most people in our program were several blocks north of Piazza San Lorenzo, much further from the action.

The nine of us spent all our time together. We partied together. We traveled together. We went out for gelato every day. We celebrated our roommate’s 21st birthday with great fanfare and a homemade crown. Everyone knew everyone’s business — there were few secrets in our house.

That said, I was always the odd one out, which did hurt at times. But as years passed and I grew more mature, I realized that as an introvert, I’ve always gravitated toward spending time alone, and there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s how I’m wired. I didn’t show up to Florence with built-in friends; I didn’t happen to make a lifelong best friend while there.

We were all friends, we all cared about each other, and I treasure the beautiful memories we made, yet there was something that separated me from everyone else. But at the end of the semester, that didn’t matter. On the day we moved out, we held each other in the street, sobbing.

Santa Croce Girls

We were hit on by men constantly. CONSTANTLY.

I had no idea how intense male Italian attention was until I got to Italy. It. Never. Stopped.

When walking through a market, every vendor would call out to us. Guys walking past us would hiss, “Ciao, bella,” if we were alone. Worst of all was in a club, where we would literally be grabbed every few minutes. I would walk through a club shaking my arms just to keep guys from grabbing me.

Was that because we were 20 years old? Or that we were obviously tourists? Or that “nice Italian girls” don’t go out to clubs, so they make up for it by going after the Americans instead?

All I know is that I go to Italy once or twice a year nowadays and I don’t get hit on nearly as often as I did back then. I talked about it here — it might be because, well, I’m older and not quite as fresh-faced as I was back then. Or maybe it’s that today I know how to blend in better, or I mostly stick to lesser-touristed places where foreigners aren’t targets in the same way that they are in Florence.

Santa Croce Apartment

I can’t believe we drank as much as we did.

Did we party? NONSTOP. All of us were 20 and as you can’t drink in the US until you’re 21, we were like kids in a candy store.

There were specific clubs we went out to different nights of the week (Maracana on Wednesdays, YAB on Mondays, Space Electronica and Dolce Zucchero on the weekend). To this day, hearing “Get Busy” by Sean Paul, “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” by Jay-Z, “Get Low” by Lil Jon, “Yeah!” by Usher, “In da Club” by 50 Cent, “Tipsy” by J-Kwon or “Naughty Girl” by Beyonce take me back to the dance floor at Maracana.

Our apartment was pregame central. People came over for Beirut (beer pong) tournaments and “Frizzante Flip-Cup” (flip-cup with our favorite sparkling white Frizzantino wine).

In addition to that, there were backpacker bars that encouraged binge drinking. The worst one was called Faces. It smelled like puke and it was all-you-can-drink for 10 euros. They even gave you your own personal bottle of champagne when you walked in.

In Florence, it was common for us to black out at least once a week and to puke fairly often. We had one night that we later dubbed Sh*t Show Night, during which five out of the nine of us threw up at/outside Faces; four of the nine of us hooked up with guys; one threw up while hooking up, couldn’t find her shirt, and walked home with her jacket zipped up over nothing and her bra in her pocket; and a friend of ours had to be dragged home a mile and a half by the hood of his sweatshirt.

(The next morning was hilarious. Our most sober roommate put us to bed, took off our shoes, put trash cans and bottles of water next to our beds, and made us pancakes. Thank you, A.)

At the time, it seemed normal — this is what students did in Florence. But looking back, I’m aghast. It was such a dangerous level of drinking and I’m thankful that none of us ended up in the hospital or worse.

That Night in Nice

Men took advantage of us.

On more than one occasion, local men took advantage of our youth and inexperience.

On a weekend trip to Nice, our table of six girls decided to order half a liter of red wine and half a liter of white wine at dinner. It was a modest amount and that was all we needed. This wasn’t going to be a party night.

Well, we started talking and joking with our waiter, and he brought us a complimentary liter of red wine. Then another. Then the chef came out. The waiter and chef flirted with us, brought us free dessert, and kept the wine flowing.

By the time we left, we had each consumed a liter of wine and I had made out with the chef. Gross, I know.

The aftermath? Several of us puked all over our hotel rooms that night.

I’m not placing 100% of the blame on the men. We should have known when to stop. But we were young and had little experience drinking legally. They should have stopped serving us.

Boy-Crazy in Prague

It was a boy-crazy semester.

Almost everybody studying in Florence was single. A few had “taken breaks” from their significant others, intending to resume their relationships when they got home.

The result? It was a free-for-all. With all the different university programs, we had a lot to choose from. Hookups were constant. One of the running jokes was that one of my roommates kept hooking up with guys named Mike, so we privately referred to them as Mike 1, Mike 2, Mike 3, and Mike 4.

My first kiss in Florence was a week into the semester, sitting on a bench in a park on the banks of the Arno. It was so romantic, I nearly died.

Being in that apartment of nine girls made it so much better. There was always a new boy to talk about.

Kate Ballet Class

Studying wasn’t really a priority.

Are semesters abroad supposed to be easy semesters? At my school (Lorenzo de’Medici Institute), almost every class was a joke. I would do my Italian homework in the few minutes before class and still aced every course I took. I even took ballet!

There were two exceptions, though — art history and studio art. The school had a great reputation for its art program. I took a class on Italian Baroque Art (an offbeat choice, as Florence is the city of the Renaissance) and it required more work than the rest of my classes put together.

A few years later, Fairfield ended their partnership with Lorenzo de’Medici Institute. Courses are now through Florence University of the Arts.

Kate and Simone

I had that stereotypical hot Italian professor.

On the first day of Italian class, he walked into the room and we were stunned into silence. He was young, dark, impeccably dressed, and devastatingly handsome.

Our class was 16 girls, no boys. We stared at him as he introduced himself as Simone — see-MO-nay — then said he needed to get something and would be right back.

As soon as he left the room, we began SQUEALING. All 16 of us.

Simone became the object of our affection for the whole semester. Every day, he wore a perfectly coordinated, expensive-looking outfit. Even when he wore athletic wear, everything was red and white, down to the “Criminal 84” emblazoned across his shapely backside.

One night shortly before the end of the semester, I was walking through Maracana and shaking off the male hands that grabbed my arms as I walked by. But then one hand grabbed my arm and wouldn’t let go. I turned to him, ready to scream at him.

It was Simone, a big grin on his face. “I am no-ot like the-em!” he sang out.

“SIMONE!” I shrieked. This is your chance, I told myself. I kissed him on the cheek, then grabbed my camera and threw my arm around him, taking a selfie of us.

It’s one of my favorite souvenirs from Florence.

Santa Croce Party Time

Facebook was introduced during that semester.

Facebook was rolled out to a large group of universities, my university included, in October 2004. We were instantly obsessed!

I remember the first wall comment I ever wrote, to my friend: I’m still reeling from Prague — I can’t believe we drank straight through until 5 AM!!! Those British Boys were HOTT!!!! :-D”

And the first comment ever on my wall, which she wrote in reply: and ps you missed the british guys when they started getting naked at the hostel.”

Some things never change.

Girls at the bar, Florence

I did not know what a kebab was until I got to Florence.

When I tell my European friends this, they laugh their heads off. But kebab shops aren’t nearly as common in the US as they are in Europe. (Though you see them a lot more often today than you did 10 years ago.)

I still remember when I first saw a kebab shop — “Is that a shaved lamb? Shaved lamb sandwiches? That’s so weird! Get me some of that shaved lamb!”

Also, there was a kebab shop across the street from our apartment that opened at 1:00 AM. I repeat — it OPENED at 1:00 AM and stayed open until around 4:00 AM or so. Definitely different when you come from Boston, a city that shuts down by 2:00 AM!

Swiss Fondue

Western Europe is a very expensive place to study abroad.

I worked long hours waitressing at home and banked just over $4,000 over the course of the summer. I ran through all of it. I even had to get a credit card advance to cover my last two weeks.

When you’re living in Europe for four months, it’s presumably the only time you’re going to do this, so you want to take every opportunity you have. In Europe, and especially in Italy, something amazing lurks around every corner. We went out for dinner at nice restaurants all the time, we traveled all over Europe, and of course, we partied.

After coming home, I talked to a friend who had studied in Beijing. He had spent less than $1,000 over the course of his semester. I was instantly jealous.

Kate Paragliding in Switzerland

I was adventurous — but not adventurous enough.

I threw myself off cliffs twice in Switzerland. I climbed a ladder in a club and kissed a mannequin on the butt. I went to Budapest for the sole reason of seeing the white chocolate statue of Michael Jackson.

But I didn’t travel on my own. In fact, the closest thing I did to a solo trip was to take a train from Pisa to Florence by myself, coming back after my mom and sister left from the airport there.

Out of the nine of us, only one of the girls spent time traveling alone, and I remember thinking how odd it was. “Why would she want to do that when she could travel with her friends?” I thought.

I feel like if I had had the blogs and online resources of today, I would have spent so much time traveling on my own. I didn’t even consider traveling alone until I was 22 and out of college.

Santa Croce Girls in Paris

I almost didn’t go.

During my sophomore year of college, I decided to apply to be an RA (resident advisor, or someone who manages a floor in a dorm). Being an RA would give me free room and board, but I would have to spend both semesters on campus, so study abroad was an impossibility.

I don’t know why I did that. I had been looking forward to study abroad since high school and was desperate to study in Paris.

Then I didn’t get hired as an RA. It was a huge shock. Even the ladies who worked in the housing office were flabbergasted.

The minute I got my rejection letter, adrenaline charged through me. I could still study abroad. Fairfield didn’t have a direct program in Paris, and applying would take a long time, but they did have a direct program in Florence. If I applied right away, I could make the cutoff for the fall semester. I ran around campus, gathering transcripts and letters of recommendation, and was accepted into the program less than 24 hours later.

And I did get to go to Paris after all! The nine of us planned to meet up there during our continent-hopping fall break. I loved being the group’s tour guide, navigator, and translator — though I was dismayed to be speaking what I later dubbed frataliano.

One-cent Wizzair Flight

So much has changed in ten years.

Here is what life was like in Florence 10 years ago:

I didn’t bring a single device that plugged in. We had no wifi in our apartment. Internet access was only found in internet cafes. The one exception: my Italian cell phone, which I rented once I arrived.

I actually used a film camera. In my apartment, only two of the girls had digital cameras. I went digital shortly after coming home.

The biggest tour groups were Japanese. Every day, I would have to cut across Piazza della Signorina, Piazza della Repubblica, and Piazza Duomo to get to class. Every day, I would fight my way through crowds of Japanese tourists. Ten years later, the Chinese are the new power players in Italy tourism, especially when it comes to luxury.

The exchange rate was worse back then. It was about $1.50 to a euro. Today, it’s about $1.25 to a euro. A seemingly small difference, but believe me, it adds up.

I once got a flight from Milan to Budapest for one cent and one from Budapest to Paris totally free. Good luck ever finding a deal like that again! As you can see from the photo above, those flights were empty.

Girls in Capri

Few of my study abroad classmates travel internationally today.

Let me be clear — I don’t regard that as a bad thing, and I don’t look down on anyone for not traveling. Everyone has different priorities and everyone quantifies happiness differently. My study abroad friends have amazing lives — they’ve gotten married, had babies, moved to cool cities, and work fascinating jobs today. I don’t expect anyone to travel as much as I do.

But I am surprised at how few of my study abroad classmates have returned to Europe since then. A few of them have returned to Europe, some going to Italy for their honeymoons, but the majority of them stick to the US and the Caribbean.

That semester lit a fire underneath me. I was a creative writing major at Fairfield, and every story and poem that I wrote for the rest of college revolved around travel. I made my first trip back to Florence 15 months later, then returned again three months after that.

From that point, travel was everything to me. And a few of my study abroad classmates are the same way, some of them working in the travel industry today. I’m just surprised that there aren’t more of us.

Out to Acqua al Due

If You Plan to Study Abroad

If you’re considering study abroad, or if a loved one of yours is considering it, here’s what I recommend:

Know what kind of study abroad experience you want to have. Studying in a popular destination like Florence is very different from studying in a small city with few foreigners or an English-speaking destination where you study alongside locals. There are also big differences between having your own apartment, sharing an apartment with fellow students, living in a dorm-like environment, and staying with a host family, as well as the location of the housing.

Those factors are just as important as the destination you choose. Don’t discount them.

Be very cautious about drinking. If you’re American and under 21, it’s easy to get swept up in the sudden freedom and extensive party opportunities. If everyone around you is partying hard, it’s so difficult to avoid it. Please be extra-careful about alcohol. Keep asking yourself, “Do I want to be more out of control than I am now?” and if not, have a water instead of another drink.

Consider taking lighter coursework while abroad. Most of what you learn is going to be outside the classroom. It’s worth saving up your electives for when you’re abroad. Try to keep Fridays or Mondays free of classes so you can more easily take weekend getaways.

But take courses specific to the destination. Both my class on Italian Baroque Art and my class on the history of Jews in Tuscany were incredibly valuable to learn on-site. My history professor’s father was the only Jewish child on the island of Elba during the Holocaust. That added so much to my experience.

Spend time with locals, not just your fellow students. My favorite way to meet locals it to join the local Couchsurfing group and check the calendar for events.

Earn as much money as possible the summer before and be prepared to spend it. For most of you, living abroad will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so get ready to enjoy every minute of it.

Did you study abroad? How do you feel about it today?Studying abroad is one of the best decisions I ever made and by far the best thing I did in college. It was the catalyst that led me to a life of travel, and I think part of me knew that.  At the same time, I look back and I am appalled by some of the experience. Here's a retrospective of my first long-term travel experience, in a time before smartphones and wifi.

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90 thoughts on “Ten Years Since Florence: A Retrospective on Study Abroad”

  1. It’s my five year study abroad anniversary this year! I spent six months in Paris and I still look back on them as the best six months of my life. While I was already into traveling (I had gone to Turkey the year before and India the year before that) it made me want to be an expat and live permanently overseas. I ended up doing my master’s degree in London, which was a great decision, but sadly I couldn’t extend my visa permanently. Maybe one day I will have another opportunity to live in Europe again!

  2. This fall is my 4 year anniversary of spending a semester in Rome, and let me tell you- I can SOO relate to many things on your list …especially the drinking and partying. But still to this day I had some of the most incredible times of my life-memories that I cherish. I unfortunately haven’t made it back yet but I know someday I definitely will! Anyone I talk to that is even thinking about study abroad probably thinks I’m the crazy study abroad lady b/c I instantly say “YES you should study abroad!!” lol. Thanks for the read – brings back many great memories

  3. The gender imbalance is a Romance languages thing, I think, and it spreads to the culture. French suffers from it less, but Italian and Spanish courses at most universities are almost totally female. A straight guy studying Italian is a very rare specimen indeed. The cliches about Italian living definitely appeal more to women than men, so it makes sense they’d be more likely to study there.

    Also, I spent three years studying Italian at uni in the UK and a year in Milan, and not ONCE did I get a hot Italian tutor. I feel like they should refund my tuition fees or something…

  4. 1. You look very Italian, and since I’m guessing your wardrobe has matured a bit since then, that’s probably why you don’t get hit on as frequently there anymore — you no longer look like an easy target! (I was told by several tour guides that I look Italian when I was just there — that’s why I tell myself I rarely got hit on. 😉 )

    2. I wish I’d studied abroad in college. I had a family-related interruption and had to quit school for a while, which ended up being for the best (I think), but I still wonder how different my life might be today had school panned out the way I’d thought it might.

    3. If I had school to do over again, I’d go to the University of Richmond! (3-course meal plan dinners?!)

  5. As a professional who works in the field of international education allow me to get a bit professorial here… you are correct in that, in general, fewer males study abroad than females (no matter the destination). That is partly rooted in historical context – it was seen as the ‘girly’ thing to do, stemming back to when wealthy females would go do their grand tour of Europe (however, that is becoming less of a reason nowadays). Partly it is due to the college portfolio of male students – it is very challenging for men in fraternities, leadership roles on campus, or athletes to take time to study abroad (yes, the same is true for women in similar positions). Finally, it comes down to academics. Men are more prevalent in the STEM majors – sciences, engineering, maths – majors which tends to have very strict curricula and in which it is hard to find a study abroad program that will fulfill the requirements. Luckily my field is dedicated to serving those students and, in time, that will not be an issue (hopefully!).

  6. I studied twice a semester abroad. I thought that one wasn’t enough, so I went again 🙂 First I studied in Spain and after in Germany. It was very good for my language knowledge for sure.
    And the good thing was, especially in Spain, there were hardly any other exchange students and so I had much more contact with the locals. I got to learn their culture, food, parties and habits.
    I cannot recommend it more to spend time with locals over other exchange students. At least if you want to learn something about the local culture and of course language.

    It was definitely one of the best experiences I have ever had.

  7. I can’t believe you still remember the names of the clubs you went to – haha!And how empty that plane was! Those were the good old days when you could get an entire row to yourself 🙂 I also got swept up in the drinking freedom when I studied abroad in London… live and learn I guess!

  8. Not quite the same but when I was 19, I set off on my first overseas adventure from Australia to do a 35-day camping tour of Europe with Contiki. After a 30-hour flight I landed in London, realised I didn’t know a single other person on this side of the world – and felt amazing! Needless to say chaos ensued and I have some amazing memories. But once was enough 🙂

    And like you, it confirmed what I already knew, I wanted to travel. And in the 18 years since then (wow – that makes me sound old!) thats what I’ve done.

    Appreciate your honesty in this post.

  9. I never studied abroad, though it’s something I always wanted to do. I wanted to go do a study abroad year in England and then didn’t. And then I wanted to go to Grad School in England – and then I didn’t.

    And then I wanted to move to Europe and didn’t.

    And then I wanted to travel around South East Asia and didn’t.

    And then one day, finally, I decided I wanted to move to Paris – and I did.

  10. I studied abroad in Germany during my junior year of high school. I lived with a German family and my experiencenwas much like the guy who went to Parma. I was 17, I barely spoke Germany, and I was very lonely. It was a difficult year but I learned and grew so much. I went on to study German in college and still visit my host family every couple of years. The experience changed my life and inspired me to do the travel the way I am now.

    When I was visiting Germany this summer I took the opportunity to head down to Torino to visit some of my friends that were doing a college semester abroad very similar to what you describe. It was fun, but a majority of the time I felt like I was at an American frat party in a different country.

    Looking back knowing what I know now I’m so happy I had the experience that I did, even if it was much more challenging.

  11. And let’s not forget, it takes 20-40 minutes for a drink to show up in your system. So if you’re not drunk yet, don’t take another drink. Wait…

    1. Also, I tried the WHOLE TIME in college to study abroad. First time, my GPA was too low (bad freshman year). Then I didn’t get a needed scholarship. Then I transferred schools, and missed all those deadlines. Then it was time to graduate. uggggggh I tried so hard for so long…. *sigh* But now I’m starting grad school and I can do an international field course! <3

  12. This is my 7 year study abroad anniversary and I still say it is one of the (if not the) best things I decided to do in college. However, almost immediately upon completing it my wishes for the experience if I could do it over would to be braver, to stay longer, and to do some solo travel. But I think I needed that trip to make me a more confident traveler. I still travel internationally, but not nearly as much as I’d like.

  13. Thank you for your post! I feel that I can really relate to what you experienced in Italy. I studied abroad between my junior and senior years in South Africa. I don’t regret it one bit, but I because the trip wasn’t anything like I was expecting, I went back less than six months later to really dive into the work.

    During my experience, we were paired up with a nongovernmental organization (NGO) in a small village, and we were tasked with assisting that organization while writing a research paper on the topic of our choosing during the study abroad tour. While this sounds like a great experience (and it was!), we definitely spent more time drinking, traveling, and goofing around rather than helping the NGO. I blacked out numerous times during that trip (yes, we partied with our professors, who were our chaperones), made some decisions I am not proud of while in Cape Town, and felt that my work only hindered that of the organization I worked with.

    That being said, I wanted to re-live my study abroad experience with less partying and more helping. I returned to the same organization less than six months later and became the co-coordinator in country of the organization (working with a woman I met on my first trip). It was the experience I wanted from my study abroad, but I think that having both experiences allowed me to enjoy the country in two different senses. During my study abroad, I was surrounded by people and always had someone around, and I came to value that and spent a lot of time drinking with friends. That was great, but returning a second time caused me to value my time alone and to really put my all into the NGO. It was the experience I had hoped for the first time, but at least I was able to visit twice in one year!

    Study abroad programs are truly a great learning experience, and can often be the first time that we are away from our parents and families in a different country. I think this causes us to be a little more carefree (and engage in dangerous behaviors like binge drinking), but also teaches us a bit more about ourselves and how we will act next time we are abroad.

  14. This was such an interesting read, Kate!
    Sometimes I can’t believe that it’s been over three years since I left for my own semester abroad in Lisbon, Portugal. And comparing it to your experience it’s crazy to see how different my experience was: I was studying abroad during my Master’s meaning I actually needed good grades in the classes I was taking and I was older than most of the other students (especially the Americans). I partied quite a bit, but I didn’t go too crazy, because wild parties and booze weren’t such a novelty to me at 24. In general, I think I was a little more grown up (in a good and a boring way) about my semester abroad: I moved into an apartment with two Portuguese young professionals to improve my language skills and make Portuguese friends and sometimes deliberately chose talking to my boyfriend on Skype over going to yet another party.
    And regarding money: The ERASMUS program is pretty much the best thing the European Union has ever come up with — I didn’t have to pay any tuition fees (neither at home nor in Portugal) and had a monthly financial support plus additional study abroad financial aid. I really can’t recommend ERASMUS enough: If you’re a European student there’s really no better way to have an intense but comparably cheap study abroad experience!

  15. This is such a good post about studying abroad. It’s such a unique experience, and really difficult to envisage unless you’ve actually done it. I think it’s really hard to strike that balance between immersing yourself in the local culture and getting to know some other great international students. For me, I found that joining the university choir really helped with that – but then, I was in Melbourne, so I guess I didn’t have any language issues to contend with. (But I also didn’t have the constant preying of Italian men to deal with either, which my friend in Venice did.)

    And I bet it doesn’t feel like ten years ago at all. It really surprised me when I realised it was over 3 years ago that I left Australia. Where does the time go to?!


  16. lol way to be honest about your and your friends’ partying ways! what a fun read, I was hooked. I didn’t study abroad, just did trips in the summers backpacking & remember FB posts like that “omg met the hottest british guy” blah blah! lol

  17. Great reflection, Kate! Thanks for sharing. Two years ago, I studied abroad in Madrid, Spain for a year, and now I work with the company that I studied abroad with, API, and I love it.

    You made some great points about your abroad experience – it makes me think of mine. Being in a big, cosmopolitan city in a Spanish-speaking country meant that you had students searching for all different types of abroad experiences. I personally wanted immersion, but my double major narrowed down my options; ideally, a smaller city/town would’ve been better, but I had a great experience that balanced between a crazy semester and a language-learning experience. I chose to live with a host family for the year, I took most of my classes in Spanish and I interned with a Spanish company during my second semester. Spain taught me so much about myself, about others and about the world. And, like you, it lit a fire beneath me. I took a Travel Writing class during my senior year and that influenced my love for writing, documentation and reflection. Now, I’ll be teaching English in Colombia next year through a program my company offers, and I’ve applied to Fulbright (again!). I think this post is foreshadowing for me – I can see myself reflecting on study abroad at many different abroadaversaries. I’m planning on making it back to Madrid, but I’ve also become enchanted with what the rest of the world has to offer.

    BTW – there is a gender gap in study abroad in general: More females study abroad than males.


  18. I love this post! I’d actually been hoping to hear more about your study abroad experiences.

    I studied abroad in Buenos Aires five years ago and had MANY of the same (embarrassing, drunken) things happen on a pretty regular basis. It’s amazing that we made it through without any real issues, but I agree that my time there sparked my passion for travel (and food, oh the food).

    BUT a really awesome thing that happened to me was living with a Mexican girl, a British girl, and a Canadian guy in an apartment we found on Craigslist. It was an incredible international experience and we became really close. Just last month I travelled to Mexico for my Mexican roommate’s wedding and built a whole trip around it. Even though we hadn’t seen each other since BA, it was like nothing had changed and I got a really authentic look around Mexico. I feel like study abroad opens up crazy doors like that.

  19. I didn’t study abroad in college and it is pretty much my only regret. I hope my daughter has the chance to go somewhere and live for a time before all her grown up responsibilities click into place.

  20. I studied abroad three times in University–twice in Germany (Berlin and Munich), and once in Beiijng. Since I was out of state it was a LOT cheaper for me to study abroad than just pay actual tuition… so that’s what I did! My school has one of the highest percentages of study abroad students in the US, and I’m so so happy that I studied abroad. It pushed me to move across the world!

    That being said, study abroad was also known as “party abroad” at my school. There was one program that went to Tahiti, haha.

  21. Ahh this article gave me such bad wanderlust. I always dreamed of studying abroad in my third or fourth year of university, but unfortunately, that’s no longer a possibility for me. I’d planned on studying liberal arts all through high school but now I’ve decided to go to nursing school instead, and because of clinicals and the heavy course load and all that, I don’t think a semester or year abroad is a real possibility for me anymore. Hopefully I’ll get a summer abroad though, and I can always be a travelling nurse when I get out of school 🙂

  22. I loved reading about your experiences! I always wished to study abroad in university, but was held back by financial struggles and anxiety issues. I moved to Korea to teach English following graduating and felt that I was able to experience some of the youthful, study-abroad lifestyle in that way. However, I still feel the pang of jealousy whenever I read about it!

  23. Fantastic post, Kate! I studied abroad for my last semester of college in fall 2010… at Lorenzo de’Medici in Florence, as well! It completely transformed my life. And, like you, I almost didn’t go. I went with my two roommates from college in Upstate NY, and one of them was really the driving force behind getting the three of us to go — I hadn’t really considered it. I know now that she only wanted us to go so we could help fund her trip, but she was the planner… she got us a private apartment, separate from school housing. She planned the first two months of our weekend trips, which I now admit were pretty incredible. She even had us eating on a budget of 7 euro/day–for three people! Our diet consisted for crackers and Nutella for weeks. I still can’t eat it to this day! I learned that semester that an experience like that can make or break a friendship. That girl, sadly, I probably will never speak to again, and the other is my very best friend — we were MOHs in each other’s weddings.

    I just wish I had been more involved in the planning of trips — and even in choosing the study abroad location, since I still to this day don’t know why we ended up in Florence! (Not that I didn’t grow to enjoy it). My biggest regret is how ungrateful I was through the whole thing. I kept a simple blog while I was there, and posted every single day without fail. I read through all four months of posts recently, and was absolutely appalled by my behavior. I didn’t party much or meet lots of nice Italian men (my fiance, now husband, probably wouldn’t have approved!), but all I did was complain! The first weekend I was there, we went to Cinque Terre, which I remember as one of the single most exquisite places I’ve ever been — and all I wrote about was how hot it was, and how I was dying from a million mosquito bites. I just want to kick my younger self, and say, “You’ll remember this as the single best time of your life. Stop complaining and enjoy it, already!”

    After I got home, I was done with college, and realized I no longer wanted to work for the local newspaper. I had fallen hard for travel, and wanted to surround myself with it. I worked in PR for a tourism office for several years, and now I work for one of the largest tourist attractions in Upstate NY. I still don’t travel nearly as much as I’d like but I get to go to some great places for work (like TBEX every year) and we take advantage of every single vacation day. It was at TBEX Toronto that I realized I needed to be part of the travel blogging community, so my husband and I launched our own blog and started planning for a yearlong trip around the world, something we hope will happen in the next couple of years. My ultimate goal is to be a group tour guide, helping people discover the authenticity of a new place. All that because I studied abroad. I didn’t travel much before that, but there’s something about seeing 11 countries in 16 weeks that really leaves an impression on you. I wrote a post several months ago about the impact study abroad had on me: http://www.byte-sizetravel.com/2014/01/how-my-study-abroad-changed-my-life/

    Thanks for the post, Kate! Glad to know I’m not the only one who remembers study abroad as such a great experience, but is completely mortified by they way they behaved! At least for me, realizing how much I missed while I was complaining has made me appreciate my travels so much more now.

  24. What a great post Kate – one of the few online that I read the whole thing. This year is my 14 year study abroad anniversary. I lived in a castle in Scotland for a semester with 100 other people. It was amazing. I wrote a post about why everyone should study abroad and you have some really valid points here. I was the only one out of my group of friends who did study abroad and to this day all of them say that not studying abroad is one of their greatest regrets.

    You’ll make a great ambassador to study abroad for the White Houes.

  25. I feel like my study abroad experience was very similar! I went to Paris for one quarter (my university was on the quarter system and not semester), and while being able to travel and live in another country was an invaluable experience, I kind of wish that I had done things differently. Studying abroad was probably more difficult actually than it was fun, but I feel like I grew up a few years during those 3 months. My program was also one where I was with other students from my American university instead of a full immersion into a French university- so it was really hard to meet locals. I also was 20 years old and in my full-blown party girl mode, not understanding the concept of moderation in drinking. I actually wrote a post on my blog called “How Not to Study Abroad,” which is actually quite similar to your article!

    P.S. I love the honesty in your blogs! It makes traveling seem like a real, human experience and not just 100% paradise. For example, I sometimes felt bad about not enjoying my study abroad experience because it’s always sold to people as being “The Best Experience/Most Fun You’ll Ever Have.” People tend to ignore the difficulties and downsides of it. However, my study abroad experience has actually increased my desire to travel more and live in another country- but just to learn from my mistakes and do things slightly differently!

  26. Ahh… to reminisce on the mistakes of our youth… I’m also in my 30s and cringe when I look back on many of the (poor) decisions that my friends and I made! That said, those mistakes and experiences make us who we are now, so no regrets! Great post, Kate – it made me smile and think of my own foolish antics! 🙂

  27. You have brought back so many memories with this post! I went on a study abroad program in 2009, but I knew I want to do it since I finished high school which was in 2005. It wasn’t my first time abroad, it was the 3rd time actually. I partied like crazy with all Erasmus students I’ve met. I loved it so much that I extended it for another semester and then one more. Originally 6 months turned into 1,5 year, which was half of my BA program 🙂 I did go back to live close to where I studied, just one year later and ater doing my South America trip, but it wasn’t the same. I have changed so much. I wasn’t a party animal anymore. I

  28. I studied in England and it was one of the greatest experiences of my life, and it’s definitely the reason I travel so much 7 years later. I always smile when I look at old photos and recall all the memories I shared with my friends both in England and all over the continent!

  29. Great post Kate. You really brought the time and place of your Florence experience to life with an honest and insightful perspective. You have a talent for storytelling! I’ve been following your blog for a while now, and my favorite posts are ones like this where you capture a vivid story about a place or experience.

    I didn’t study abroad in college because I thought I couldn’t afford it, as I was barely able to keep up with my regular college expenses. Looking back, I wish I would have scrounged up the money through extra work and borrowing because the experience is priceless. One can travel later on, but it’ll never have the same level of time, youth and craziness as a college study abroad experience. At 29, I haven’t made it to Europe yet. I’ve been thinking about applying for the English Teaching Assistant program in Spain, but I’m worried about being “that old lady” among a bunch of 22-25 year-olds. My goal for 2015 is to make it to Europe one way or another.

    1. Jenny – Go for it! Apply to teach in Spain! If it’s the auxiliares program, you’re not really “among” anyone, because you come on your own and find a place to live on your own, too. I was the only auxiliar at one of my schools, and in that program there aren’t organized meet-ups or interactions with the other teaching assistants… so you can meet all the 29-year-old Spaniards (or expats of various nationalities) that you want! You have total control over with whom you spend your time. If you have any questions, feel free to email!

      1. Thanks Rebecca! I decided to apply for the auxiliar program in Spain for next year. I took a look at your blog, I am also a Badger alum. Small world. Go Bucky!

  30. I really enjoyed this post, Kate. I studied abroad from 2009-10 in Madrid, and it opened my eyes to travel, and definitely has changed the course of my life. (I went back and taught English there after graduating, and most recently spent a year living in Korea).

    I’ll never forget our study abroad coordinator telling us about when she studied abroad in Madrid in the ’90s, before email and internet were a thing. She became fluent so quickly, since she wasn’t exposed to the English that we are now with blogs, emails, skype, Facebook etc. It’s true though, that the experience and immersion is distinct in this day and age, with computers.

  31. David -- from the park bench

    Dear Kate,

    As an avid reader of your site, and despite the fact that I haven’t seen you since Firenze 2004, I not only enjoyed your piece immensely, but feel quite honored to be immortalized as the guy you made out with on the park bench (you were referring to me, right?!). Given all your incredible travels in the years since, I am frankly amazed that you would remember that. Your uncanny recollection of all the other wonderful details that made that semester in Firenze so special and enjoyable is also enviable….Maracana!!! YAB!!! I have thought back on that time often; it’s wonderful to see how you have parlayed that semester into such an enriching and unique career for yourself. Thanks for bringing me back there.

    All the best,

  32. LOVE this post so much!

    I just finished my study abroad year in France and I’m currently in China studying mandarin. Being in China is so different that what I lived in France, I usually day dream about my time there and wonder if I will ever get over it. It was the best year of my life so far.

    Even though it’s 10 years since your experience, I can relate to so many things in this post (like the boys and the drinking :p ).
    I love your blog, you are such an inspiration ! 🙂

  33. My ten year anniversary of study abroad is right around the corner, too, and I’m going to visit my host family this weekend. In the past decade, I’ve moved back to Spain, become fluent in Spanish and am now marrying a Spaniard – funny to think that my life would be worlds different if I hadn’t gone! This was, as you mention, before Facebook and smartphones, and I’m glad for that – I truly found friends (many of whom I still speak with) and we didn’t have to compete with twitter or whatsapp. I also chose to study abroad in a smaller city so I’d have more exposure to Spanish, and think it was the absolute best for me. Now I cringe when I hear other English speakers in Seville only speaking in English!

  34. 40 girls and 8 guys, what a lucky bunch of guys! 😛

    Studying abroad really is such an amazing experience. I did exchange to Spain in high school but missed out on study abroad in Uni. A real regret!

    I can see what people who go to quieter towns mean when they say that they crave interaction with people from their own country – it’s really hard not having any deep levels of conversation when you are constantly communicating in a foreign language (that you are not very good at).

  35. Haha, the boys, drinking, and debauchery in general reminds me of my early college years, minus the study abroad part. I always dreamt of studying abroad, but I would have had to take out yet another student loan to do so, and decided to wait until after graduating to travel. Theoretically cheaper that way? I’m not sure.

  36. I laughed the entire way through this because it is almost identical to my study abroad experience 5 years ago, with the exception of film cameras and therefore plug-in devices. I loved my study abroad experience, and it’s one of the reasons I’m living abroad as an expat in Spain now. When leaving to study abroad, I envisioned intermixing with plenty of locals, but other than my host mom and her family, I mostly spent time with other Americans studying abroad. There are only 4 other people from my study abroad program that have traveled abroad again–at least from what Facebook tells me. Thank you for sharing this, Kate!

  37. Loved this post! I could really relate to it! I too studied abroad back in the day, but in Amsterdam, and so many of your experiences were similar to mine! Living in a dorm with a bunch of girls who went everywhere together, insane partying, even kebab. And like it did for you, that year abroad fuelled an obsession with travel that eventually led to working online and a nomadic lifestyle.

    Incidentally, I am in Rome at the moment and I can tell you that the gender imbalance amongst foreigners remains. In fact, about 50% of the foreigners I’ve met seem to be women with spouses who are either Italian or resident in Italy.

  38. Thanks for this article, many of those questions have crossed my mind, I wouldn’t say I’m the talkative type. I did a short Florence traveling trip and I enjoyed that time…. but it also made me ask myself if I was ready to go for a long time, and it’s easy to make excuses to postpone it. I will definitely check ur blog ;)…

  39. Wow what an incredible experience. I always wanted to study abroad, although we really don’t have as many opportunities in New Zealand, and alas, I’m still on my “gap year” six years later haha. Florence looks amaaazing.

  40. I didn’t get a chance to study abroad until graduate school. However, when I DID get to go, I was paid (small, grad student stipend) to live in Paris, which made traveling soooo sooo much easier! I think that by being older I also took advantage of the opportunity to learn the language and interact with locals more than I would have as a college student.

  41. I applied to study abroad in college but didn’t get in–granted, it was to go to the Royal Academy of Music in London for a year, which is like applying to go to Juilliard for a year. It turned out to be the right choice to stay on campus. But I did win a grant to study in Paris a few years ago, and that was one of the most formative experiences of my adult life. I’m an opera singer and there is a distinct possibility of my traveling abroad for work in the future (I mean, here’s hoping!), and I feel like spending a whole year living and studying in a foreign country and a foreign language prepared me incredibly well for that. No matter how difficult rehearsals or performances or voice lessons get here at home, the upside is always, “At least it’s in English!”

    And I think the most exciting part of it is that I know Paris incredibly well. I’m not even sure I know Chicago (my current home base and the city where I went to college) as well as I know Paris. I didn’t have much to do besides my voice lessons and one or two other commitments when I lived there, so when I was done practicing and studying for the day, I would hop on a bus or a train and get off in an area I’d never been to before. I remember one day early in the year, I got on the train and went to Ménilmontant, because in my History of Film class in college we had watched a silent movie named after that area. There wasn’t anything exciting there, but it was in walking distance of Père Lachaise. This one time I went to sing for a woman who was looking for a soprano to do some Bach chamber music, and I accidentally discovered Parc Buttes-Chaumont. Having the time and the freedom to explore a city like that is an incredible luxury that I’m not sure I’ll ever have again.

    Now I’m all nostalgic! I’m going to go back and read my old blog from that year. 🙂 Thanks for posting this, Kate!

  42. Hello, Kate!
    You have a great blog and this is wonderful article about study abroad. I planned study in Europe couple years ago but some problems change my life. Now I am travel around the World and write about my trips only on Russian language but hope one day make blog on English. I was in Florence it’s a fantastic beautiful city with great architecture. Thank you!

  43. This brought back so many memories of my time studying abroad in Rome in 2009 🙂 Thanks for helping me to remember some of the best months of my life so far. It was a blast to read about your experiences!

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