Visa Crunch

Studying Abroad: Takeaways From First-Time Traveler

By Maiah Deogracias

I won’t claim that I’m a well-travelled international adventurer because that simply isn’t true. However, I also won’t minimize the experiences I gained from studying abroad for 12 days in Italy.

Here are my takeaways of how to travel right, or at least better, coming from someone who had never been on a plane in her life before this trip: be more than a tourist, when it comes to where you stay less is more, and make new friends.

I had never been to any place where people were drawn to places of worship so abundantly until I visited Italy. However, many of these people were not there to worship but to observe the space, take Instagrammable photos, or make remarks to show off prior art history knowledge (I am guilty of doing all three of these).

I’d advise you to not just meander through the cathedrals–be more than a tourist. Attend a service as well, regardless of if you are religious. It is only in participating in its original function that you can see the space truly come to life.

On the contrary, I’d also not completely count out on experiencing sites like a tourist, but come back during visiting hours and let the art and echoing acoustics take over your senses. With help from our professors, we learned the meaning behind the art both inside and outside of the city of Orvieto’s Duomo.

However, what you don’t see as a tourist during visiting hours is the church as a home of faith for the members of its congregation. You don’t see the families with six kids running around or the fathers–like our friend, Alessandro–pushing a double stroller through the ancient doors of the Duomo.

You miss out on the smell of incense reaching you even in the far back pews and the opportunity to hear a hymn familiar and dear to yourself with the sobering realization that the same hymn you love singing in Valpo’s Chapel is sung all around the world. 

As appealing and attractive as staying in a big, bustling, iconic city may seem, stay in a small town. Our small town was Orvieto in Umbria, Italy. Being only about a mile wide in any direction, we rapidly became quite familiar with our surroundings.

The locals were one of my favourite parts of the whole trip. We visited the same gelato shops frequently, and the owners still welcomed us kindly despite our butchering of the names of the gelato flavours we were trying to order. The small-town culture we experienced from the local businesses is something I’ll hold close to my heart years after this trip, and it is something I felt only in Orvieto.

While Rome has glamorous, luxury hotels, the charm of a small town is irreplaceable.

Making new friends in a different country may be difficult, and not always possible, but it is one of the most fulfilling takeaways I have gotten out of my trip. I, my new friend was my roommate, Sofia. Sofia goes to Gordon College, but I hope to see her over the summer when she comes to Indiana to visit her relatives.

I didn’t think I could get close to someone so quickly, let alone in a foreign country, but I found myself waking up at four in the morning just to say goodbye to her before she left our study abroad program early to go to another program in Jordan. Others found friendship among the local Italian community.

For instance, a few students in our group befriended a local leather shop owner, Federico, and took a leather journal making class from him. 

Take this advice as you will, but I hope that my glimpse into Italy and Orvieto has given you new ideas about travelling abroad–or perhaps, you found yourself reading it and agreeing with some of these ideas based on your own study abroad experiences. While I loved seeing the Colosseum, the Pantheon and the Trevi Fountain, it’s the memories of the smaller moments that I find myself telling people when they ask, “So, How was Italy?”

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