Reflection Before Graduation: What To Take From Study Abroad

Guest Blogger: Kenzie Pittman

With my Graduation nearing, I can’t help to think back at each semester as a student at U of I. One semester in particular that comes to mind is the Fall that I spent studying in Verona, Italy. Before my study abroad trip, I had never been out of the country. It was definitely scary, and was going to be a challenge taking, on a new language and culture in Italy.

What I wanted out of my study abroad experience, however, was a challenge. I wanted to try a new language, and expose myself to a totally new culture, and Italy was a beautiful place to do so. I remember being out in Verona practicing my Italian to the best of my ability. It was tough at times, but it made my learning experience that much better. I wanted to learn more about their culture, art, history, and that’s what the classes in my program provided me with. I took Italian, Art History, Painting, and Photography. The curriculum was a lot different than what I was used to at U of I. I hadn’t taken a painting or art class since I was in middle school, but I learned so much from my amazing instructors in all of my different classes. They were so qualified and so passionate about what they did, and it made me excited to be in class every single day. It was such a hands-on learning experience, because not only did we get to learn in the classroom, we got to learn out in the city of Verona and in other cities nearby. We would actually get to see the things we were learning about. The classes I took really opened up my eyes to the arts and my appreciation for them. There is so much history and beautiful architecture in Italy, and it was totally new information to learn and take in.


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As I look back, I cherish my time in Verona for many reasons, in addition to my classroom experiences. The challenges I faced made me stronger, and the people I met made my experience wonderful. My broader view of Italian culture and a completely new country was exhilarating, and I promised myself to cherish every day there. Since then, I stick to that motto even back on campus, and as a soon-to-be graduate. One of the greatest things I noticed while in Italy is that they live their lives with such happiness. They appreciate their friends and socialize for hours, just loving the company of their loved ones. My experience in Verona taught me to do that, and for that I am grateful. I was so fortunate to have the opportunity to live in Verona for a semester. That happiness doesn’t have to leave your study abroad experience.

It can be taken back with you and practiced in your everyday life.
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So as you think about studying abroad and what you want out of it, remember to not let it pass you by. Cherish every day, and take every day as an exciting learning experience.

Appreciate the company and the culture around you, and you will come back with the most rewarding experience of your life.

 

Overcoming Reverse Culture Shock

Guest Blogger: Ruchi Tekriwal Before applying for a study abroad program, I researched every option and picked the one that best suited my needs. Before arriving to my host institution, I read everything from books to blogs about Morocco to get a basic understanding of the culture. While I was abroad, I enrolled in multiple language classes to better communicate with my host family, of which no member spoke English. Along every step of the way, I was reasonably prepared and I knew what to expect. What I was not prepared for was coming back home. The first few weeks after returning from abroad, I was hopelessly nostalgic. Every little thing reminded me of my time abroad, the friends I had made there, and the strangers that had come to be my family. I didn’t know that a semester apart would create a distance between me and my friends. I didn’t know that Arabic classes would no longer be as fulfilling. And I didn’t know that from that point on, I’d have a permanent itch to return abroad, to the Middle East, to speak a language other than English on a daily basis. Of course I planned to return abroad after graduation, to study Arabic in the Middle East and maybe even work there…but that didn’t help with the three semesters I had left to graduate. Three long semesters, during which I was filled with a longing to somehow reconnect with my time abroad. Image When I returned from abroad, I applied to be a Peer Advisor in the campus Study Abroad Office. I liked the idea of being constantly surrounded by study abroad talk and the chance to mentor students before their term abroad. More than a year after returning from abroad and in my third semester of working at the Study Abroad Office, I can say that this was undoubtedly the best decision I could have made. Through this position, I have been able to revisit my experiences abroad and constantly reflect on them and interpret them. Although studying abroad is very important, realizing and analyzing its effect on yourself is just as important. Because I am in constant contact with the study abroad process, I am always rethinking my opinions about my own experience and challenging my original conclusions. One year and two and a half months after leaving Morocco, I am still learning from it. I can’t imagine an experience more powerful than that. If you have returned from studying abroad, or will have in a few months,

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I encourage you to think about what your feelings will be and how you will cope with them. Whether you apply to be a peer advisor, join International Illini, or continue on your own, make sure you take the time to reflect on your experiences abroad, how they changed you, and how they will effect you in the future.

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How Strangers Become Family: Cross-Cultural Connection

Guest Blogger: Alissa Dappas

When it comes to learning a new language, there is only so much a student can get out of lectures and exams.  To truly become proficient, conversation practice is essential.  As a Spanish minor, I knew that my study abroad experience had to include as much language immersion as possible if I ever wanted to become a confident Spanish speaker.  To achieve maximum language immersion, I decided to attend the study abroad program in San Joaquin de Flores, Costa Rica because of its approved Illinois Spanish-credit classes and most importantly, because all students in the program had to live with a host family.  Although I was extremely nervous about the concept of moving in with strangers for four months, I now consider my relationship with my host family to be the most rewarding aspect of my semester in Costa Rica.

Throughout my time spent abroad, my host family was my strongest and always-available support system.  No matter what the situation or question, they were the people I turned to for help or guidance.  I was lucky to live with a very caring host mom, Patricia, host dad, Ronald, and two younger host sisters, Diana and Priscila.  Each member of my family took time to get to know me personally and as the semester went on, I began to realize that I really did consider them to be part of my own family.  There was never one specific moment that made me come to this realization; I think it was simply a bunch of small things that built on top of each other.  For instance, my host mom and I were normally the only ones around for breakfast, so every morning, I would begin my day by having a conversation with her while helping prepare the food, eating or cleaning the dishes. hostfam1 When my host sisters came back from school, we would play cards together or I would teach them how to do cartwheels in the backyard.  We often bonded by talking about things we had in common (a mutual Harry Potter obsession was a hot topic) and laughing at my funny pronunciations of some words.  After dinner, my host dad was my go-to person when I wanted to learn more about the Costa Rican government or general Latin American politics.  He always seemed to know a bit about both sides of any story and usually knew more about the events or debates going on in the United States than I knew myself.  So within this one family unit, I came to know each person as an individual and because of this, I learned more than I ever previously imagined I would.  Besides being able to practice my Spanish with a group of people I was comfortable with, I was also able to create lifelong bonds and gain family members that belong to a culture different from my own.

host fam            Looking back, all four months with my Costa Rican family summed up to one huge lesson on the importance of time spent together as a family.  Culturally, this is where I saw the greatest difference between the United States and Costa Rica.  Although many people would argue that the idea of a strong family unit is still very important to most Americans, it would be hard to deny that the family dynamic in the United States is not influenced by parents’ work schedules, sports practices, tutoring, videogames, fast food dinners, etc.  In Costa Rica, time spent together comes before most other obligations.  And from what I’ve heard and read, it seems like this importance on family time is a central part of Latin American culture as a whole, and not just in Costa Rica.  No matter my host parents’ schedules, they always made time each day to make a meal together and sit down as a family for dinner.  Most days, the dinner was usually followed by a game played together or a conversation that carried over from the main meal to dessert or coffee.  host sisterIt was during these dinners and late-night conversations that we would discuss our days, hear about any problems my sisters were having at school or learn news about the extended family (who happened to live in all of the surrounding houses).  During these moments, I learned more about life and the values of Costa Ricans and my family was able to learn about my life in the United States.

Slowly but surely, my new family impacted me in such a way that I now actively try to apply their family-centered, peaceful mentalities to my own life back in the United States.  Not only did my Spanish conversation ability improve, but living with a host family also reopened my eyes to the more important things in life and that above all, the relationships that we have with our friends and family should come before everything else.

Technology Abroad: Put Down the Phone and Live!

Guest Blogger: Kenzie Pittman

I left for my semester abroad to Verona, Italy with my iPhone, but with no intention of using it.  I had no particular plan set up to make it cheaper to use, I simply turned off my data so as not to be charged and that was that.  I had it with me for the sole purpose of music, occasional photos, and in case of emergency on my flight to Europe.  I have friends who went abroad after me, and asked for my advice on what plan to get while abroad or what to do about their IPhone.  I simply suggested not to use it, to embrace what is around you, and to connect with people from home only on your laptop in the comfort of your residence abroad.

Technology is a key part of our society today; most of us use it daily.  Between texting on our iPhones, our social media accounts, email, etc. we are all engaged in our devices daily. But while abroad, I think this constant use needs to change.

I’ve seen many people study abroad since I have returned.  I have scrolled through countless Instagram photos, tweets, and Facebook posts. which are most likely from an iPhone.  I am not going to post about what people are doing wrong here; instead, I am going to post about what I did and what worked for me.

421600_10152090482680237_919353786_nI had an Italian phone that was ‘pay as you go’ and just a tiny little flip phone.  I had an Italian number, and the contact information of my resident director as well as the other girls in my program.  We were able to fill it with Euro and text each other, call each other, and for general safety.  This was all the contact I needed while out and about in Verona, or traveling.  My iPhone was left at home, so that I wouldn’t lose it and so that I didn’t use it.  There was really no need for it.  I found myself so engaged in my surroundings and truly appreciating what I was taking in around me.  Studying abroad is a once in a lifetime opportunity, why do I need to spend it on my Instagram looking to see how many likes I got on a picture of the Eiffel Tower?  People who study abroad are clearly leading a more interesting life than those in Champaign. They know that, you know that.  Instagram and social media accounts are not meant to be looked at daily when you are supposed to be having the time of your life.  The only time I was on my Facebook, etc. was when I was sitting in my apartment not doing anything.  That’s the time when you want to connect to friends, family, and even post your pictures to Facebook from your camera.  I did that, in addition to occasionally tweeting, but I didn’t ever do it unless I was in my apartment.  This made sure that I wasn’t focused on anything else but taking in my surroundings while I was exploring during my time abroad.  Yes, I wanted to show people my pictures so they could see what I was doing and for my own records.  But there is no need to do this on your phone while walking around.

Posting to social media and being engaged in your phone is definitely part of our society.  But when you go abroad, change that.  It’s liberating to actually just soak it all in, without showing anyone at the moment.  Then, when you get back to your apartment, host family, or dorm, you can show them to the people you cohabitate with!  It’s just all about enjoying what you’re doing at the time.  Social media, our iPhones, etc. distract us from what’s around us.  Studying abroad is the perfect opportunity to put the iPhone down and truly engage in your experience.

Overcoming and Learning from Challenges Abroad

Guest Blogger: Cristina Valdez 

Before leaving for my study abroad journey to Sweden, I was feeling like any other student: excited for the new adventures and yet a little nervous for what was to come. My itinerary had two connections, the latter was at Heathrow Airport in London, U.K. After landing at Heathrow, I would take a direct flight to Stockholm which would finally deliver me to my host country. But, things didn’t go exactly as planned.

We landed early in the morning in London, and I woke to see the airport runways covered with snow. I could sense the panic in the travelers around me. Something was definitely wrong. I exited the plane and hurried through to find my gate, but once I arrived I was told that ALL European connecting flights were cancelled. This meant that over 400 flights were scrapped because of one fluffy inch of snow. It was unbelievable!

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At this moment, I knew that I would have to face this unexpected challenge head on. I found an airport agent who told me I had to go to the 5th floor re-booking center so I could be put on a new flight. When I got there, I was astonished. There were hundreds of people waiting in line, and the line wrapped around the entire floor.

Then, I remembered some words I was told during my Study Abroad Pre-Departure orientation: “things may not always turn out as planned, but you can do your best to have a rewarding experience while abroad.” This motivated me, and I got in line, hoping for the chance to get on a flight to Sweden.

The day passed slowly, and it was nearing closing hours. I was one person away from the front of the line when it was announced that the re-booking center would be closing until 5am the next morning. I was extremely disappointed, but I had to look at the bright side of things. The airline provided me and fellow passengers with mats and blankets, dinner, and free internet, so I took the opportunity to contact my family via Skype. Hearing their comforting words helped me renew my self confidence.

Despite the circumstances, I encouraged myself and I had a certain faith that I would be in Sweden the next morning. Night passed quickly, and by 8am I was finally re-booked on a flight directly to Stockholm. I made it to the Stockholm airport just in time to catch a bus to the Uppsala city center. There, I randomly met two other Danish exchange students who showed me around and took me to the housing office where I picked up the keys to my room.

Upon my arrival, I had a moment of realization. I had the opportunity to live in a different country and experience its language and culture to the fullest. After two long days, and countless hours of jet lag, I was finally in Uppsala and I was finally studying abroad.

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Now, I look back on those first two days and feel grateful. Though the circumstances weren’t ideal, they taught me that if I could overcome those challenges and uncertainties, I could tackle anything my study abroad semester threw at me.

Perseverance, confidence and support through uncertainty are important qualities that are developed and reinforced while studying abroad. Now, I am always confident that no matter what flight gets cancelled, or where I have to spend the night, I can remain calm, encourage myself and know that I survived that night on a yoga mat at Heathrow airport and everything turned out just fine.

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Guest Blogger: Ruchi Tekriwal

Nested in the heart of the Rif mountains lies a tiny gem of a city called Chefchaouen. The population of the city is smaller than the student body at the University of Illinois! Despite its small size, this city is famous for its cobblestone medina, its split pea soup, but most of all, it is known as the blue city of Morocco. All the buildings in the old town, or medina, are whitewashed and decorated with bright blue accents. Doors grommeted with brass studs line the narrow alleyways. Instead of the usual French, shopkeepers approach in Spanish, selling their crafts to whoever walks by. Many call it the most beautiful town in Morocco. I had a chance to visit this charming city on a group excursion with other students from my program.

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Chefchaouen is also well known for its handicrafts and artisanal workshops that sell goods not available anywhere else in Morocco. Woolen blankets, beaded tapestries, hand-woven carpets, and painted ceramic ware are visible at every turn in the winding medina. However, I was able to experience these shops in an entirely new way. The director of our program had arranged workshops with craftsmen in the city so that we could work with them in their studios to see how they made their goods. We could choose between painting, carpet weaving, brass work, and leather craft. Along with one other student, I chose to work with brass because I knew next to nothing about this art. I entered the tiny shop that was filled with plates, sculptures, and jewelry. There were small tea sets and large hands of Fatima, a symbol representing blessings and protection against the evil eye. The shopkeeper and his son greeted us both, and quickly started instructing us on making a brass medallion. I sat on a small stool and awkwardly balanced my circular piece of brass on the tiny work surface. With a hammer and a pick, the shopkeeper showed me how to make a border around the edge of the medallion. His lines were smooth, curving perfectly with the metal and mine were crooked, disconnected, and uneven.

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Using different chisels and picks, I made a border and a design on my medallion, ending by clumsily engraving “Morocco” and “Chefchaouen” on the medallion in Arabic. This small feat took me about an hour and a half to complete. Other students from my program had laced bracelets out of leather, made paintings of the city, and woven a brightly patterned rug. It was amazing to see how these artisans made their products and how much work went into each piece! This experience also made me realize the uniqueness and effort behind every handcrafted item.

I treasure this memory from Morocco because it is so different from anything else I did, or even from what most students get to do. I was able to be a part of this city by working with shopkeepers and participating in the craftwork it is known for. How many other people can say they have worked in an artisan’s workshop, engraving and polishing brass?

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STUDYing Abroad: What You Don’t Know About Learning in Your Host Country Can Hurt You

Guest Blogger: Cristina Valdez

If you’re anything like me, you can’t afford to spend a semester abroad taking classes that only fulfill elective requirements, which is why I chose to study at Uppsala University in Sweden, for its offerings of communication and political science classes. Most of the classes they offered, in terms of subject matter are very similar to the United States and include areas like integrative biology, computer science, social sciences, humanities and others. Yet, when comparing the set-up and organization of classes, this Uppsala greatly differs to that of Illinois.

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At Uppsala University, exchange students are scheduled to take only one class at a time. Yep, you heard it! Instead of struggling through five classes that meet multiple times each week, at Uppsala you focus on only one course for 4-5 weeks at a time. Though this type of learning method may sound convenient and easy, there are some important factors to consider such as exams, assignments and the learning style.

The learning style in Sweden is very relaxed and independent. Classes are usually small and students can develop close relationships with professors. Typically, classes are discussion based, but you’re expected to work twice as hard outside of the classroom.

A good example of this was my Swedish Politics. The class lasted four weeks and we were assigned two books to read. The class met two times per day, two to three times per week, often times with a discussion seminar on Thursdays. Now, here comes the shocking part—as opposed to American academic institutions where students are assigned multiple quizzes, papers, exams throughout the semester, this class only had one final exam at the end of the class period that determined our grade. But, the discussions I participated in, where students voiced their opinion with the guidance of the professor, really represented the strong point of the learning process.

This type of class organization, you can imagine, allows the student additional time for personal and academic adjustments. But with this added “free” time, comes a heavy responsibility to be independent and self directed enough not to fall behind in your studies. Keeping up with readings and participating in class discussion are the key to success. Reading two entire books the night before the exam won’t be an easy or successful task for anyone, thus time management is extremely important. Other friends who have studied in the European region have had similar experiences. Though their course schedules might not be the same (taking one class at a time), they still may only have one final exam at the end that is the make up of their entire grade.

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In contrast, other locations such as Australia or New Zealand have a class and homework schedule similar to that of the United States. Students may have class for at least 5 hours per day, and then have a long week of finals at the end of the exam.

No matter the learning style you prefer, just know that academic learning varies greatly by study abroad program, and not knowing what kind of learning environment you’re walking into or how to be successful in it can hurt you in the long run. But remember the mantra, that adaptability, even through challenge, is what’s most rewarding about studying abroad.

Unsure of what to expect at your host institution? Ask your Study Abroad Advisor for details!

 

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