Student Voices – How I Made the Perfect Study Abroad Experience for Me, and How You Can Too

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IES Abroad
February 23, 2021

Since studying abroad in Italy on the IES Abroad Siena - Study in Tuscany program in the Fall 2018, Liv Baker has been eager to share what building blocks future IES Abroad students need to build their perfect study abroad experience. She recently graduated from Claremont McKenna College with a B.A. in International Relations and Italian Studies. Aside from developing her proficiency in a handful of foreign languages, Liv enjoys studying Italian literature, singing opera, and making gnocchi.

Read on to get Liv's expert take on how to create the perfect study abroad experience to fit your goals.

If you’re reading this—one thing is true, you’re thinking about studying abroad, and it’s a dream you want to make a reality. Whether that’s today, next semester, or next year, I applaud you. While there are always a few brave souls ready to try something new, it’s not uncommon to feel anxious about studying in a new country. Trust me, I know how it feels—I was in your shoes a couple of years ago looking for the insider scoop for the “perfect” study abroad experience.

Now I can’t say “bibbidi bobbidi boo” and wave my magic wand over your head to give you the perfect experience, but I can do you something better. I hereby present you, a shiny silver platter, the pieces you need to make your experience perfect for you. Spoiler alert: it all starts with building a strong foundation. Without further delay, here are the building blocks on how to make your perfect study abroad experience.

Consider Your Location and City Size

Here is your first building block in making your perfect abroad experience: consider study abroad destinations that fit your agenda for why you want to study abroad. Choose the option that will most perfectly help you achieve your study abroad goals.

We all have a takeaway that we want from our experience abroad and mine was to develop my Italian language proficiency. To reach my goal, I needed to dive into the deep end, so I picked a small town in the Tuscan countryside as my study abroad destination. I wanted to challenge myself to get out of my comfort zone of relying on English as safety net, and Siena (though it still has a certain amount of tourism due to the Palio, a competitive bi-annual horse race between different contradas or divisions of the city) was the ideal choice for me because it catered less to tourism than some larger hot-spot Italian cities. For me, fewer English speakers meant more opportunities to practice my Italian. More opportunities to practice my Italian meant more authentic interactions with the locals, as well as a deeper understanding of Siena and its rich culture. So, choosing Siena as my host city fit into one of my principal goals of acquiring Italian proficiency and becoming a part of the Sienese culture.

Since my goal was to become proficient in Italian, I chose Siena as my destination, but I also made a conscious effort to seek out authentic experiences when traveling to other European cities, where I faced even more of a language barrier. For example, my best café experiences were never the first ones off the train station, but the ones down the street tucked in the ally because they typically catered less towards tourists. I encourage you to identify your goals before choosing your host country and host city. Let your goals sit in the driver’s seat and let them drive you towards your destination.

Consider Your Housing Accommodations

This brings us to the second building block in making your perfect study abroad experience: consider housing that fits your study abroad goals so that you can gain the most from your experience. Housing is a foundational piece to consider in building your perfect study abroad experience. Keep in mind that the goals that lead you towards a certain housing option are not necessarily the same as those of the next study abroad student, and that is okay. In my program, I was the only student of 17 to choose to stay in a host family. Seeing that all the other students were housed in apartments together, I was initially worried that I would miss out on a lot of activities with my peers. But in the end, I was incredibly proud of myself for choosing housing that fit my goals and I learned that a handful of other students wished they had given a homestay a try after hearing about my experience.

My drive to improve my Italian proficiency led me to choose a homestay. Though there were some parts of living in a homestay that could be challenging, there were far more that ultimately made it the most rewarding part of my study abroad experience. My host mamma, Paola, did not speak a lick of English and I arrived in Siena with only one semester of Italian under my belt. That’s right, you can get a homestay and not be anywhere near fluent. Granted, Google translate was always a communication safety net, but I constantly sought other means to overcome the language barrier and communicate with Paola.

I’ll admit I did not become fluent in Italian, but I did become fluent in using hand gestures and managing my tone to communicate more effectively. Paola had hosted a handful of students before, most of whom did not speak any Italian at all, so she was patient and well versed in non-verbal communication. We still had some miscommunications (like the night I unknowingly ate cow brains: lesson learned!) but we also found beautiful ways to communicate and get to know each other, like by belting out Italian opera songs at the top of our lungs from the windows of her apartment.

When I was deciding between an apartment and a homestay, my initial thoughts focused on what it would look like, how big it would be, and where it would be. I found it helpful to take a step back and refocus on my overarching goals for study abroad. If you are like me and acquiring proficiency in the native language is at the top of your list, living with a homestay may be the most effective way to improve your language skills. If you want somebody to study and go on adventures with (from grocery shopping to traveling on weekends), living with fellow students may be your answer. If you fall somewhere in the middle and want to improve your native proficiency but also build strong relations with your peers, living with peers and a native resident assistant may be the way to go. Whatever you choose, I encourage you to find additional ways to engage with the local community, such as participating in activities organized by the locals or studying in the local library. Regardless of what your goal is, use your abroad accommodations to see your goal through.

Pursue Your Interests Abroad, but also Make Room to Explore New Ones

I now present to you the third building block for making your perfect study abroad experience: seek out your interests abroad and allow new interests to seek you out, too. Be open to pursuing new experiences and seeing where they take you. To achieve my goals, I not only found new things I enjoyed by saying “yes” to new opportunities, but I also found ways to pursue my existing interests abroad.

There was something that I did in the United States that had always been a big part of my life that I wanted to bring into my experience abroad: swimming. As a collegiate swimmer, one of my study abroad goals was to stay in shape for the upcoming swim season. So, I made it my mission to actively find a way to swim in Siena. Finding a local pool to train in was easy but it was not enough, because I realized I was missing my team as well. My next goal? Finding a team to train with. One day at the pool, I introduced myself to the local team’s coach in my broken Italian and asked if there was a team I could train with. Without hesitation, he invited me to stay for practice. Though I was training with middle and high school, not college-level, swimmers, it still added a whole new layer to my experience, and I would not have changed a thing. Seeking out my interest to swim ultimately kept me in shape, introduced me to several new friends, and taught me Italian swim lingo, circling back to my goal of developing my Italian.

Opportunities will not always fall into your lap, but sometimes putting in a little effort or asking a question (even if it’s in broken Italian!) will get you a step closer to the study abroad experience of your dreams. For example, after class one day, my classmates and I crowded into a corner of Siena’s piazza to watch Michael Bay direct a car chase for his film “6 Underground” (starring Ryan Reynolds, Dave Franco, etc.). We stood about 40 meters from the extras on the set, including three nuns staged in front of the café that the cars would “crash” into. I decided to ask a crew member if I could apply to be an extra, so he escorted me to the casting director’s office. Though this opportunity ultimately fell through because I could not miss that much class, pursuing it made for a great story and gave me the confidence to seek out other cool opportunities like competing in an open-water swim competition in Liguria. Pursue your interests and don’t give up if an opportunity does not work out perfectly, because the next one might fit your goals even better!

Start building!

Now that you have your major building blocks, you are ready to throw on your (metaphorical) hard hat and toolbelt and get to work on crafting out the rest of your dream semester. Since you have a strong foundation, maybe the deep end of study abroad won’t feel so deep after all. As a swimmer, I’ll end with a pool metaphor: some may dive straight in, others may need to take the stairs, but what truly matters is that find a way to get to where you want to go. Study abroad is just the same, so approach it in your own way and tailor it to your own goals. Only you know what will make the experience perfect for you, so be confident in personalizing your experience—make it your own and own it.

Do you want more advice, reflections and stories from our students? Check out the IES Abroad Blogs or contact an Ambassador who has recently returned from an IES Abroad program.

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