With the beginning of September in Rome comes an influx of study abroad and Erasmus students to the city. To celebrate the start of many people's journeys and my own 3-year study abroad anniversary, I thought I would write a post with study abroad tips that can be applied to any foreign country. Being a major city central to Europe, Rome is very popular with students and has 146 accredited programs currently. Not to mention the draw of living in one of the most beautiful and romantic cities on Earth, while eating your body weight in carbs ;)
To start your semester abroad in the right way, here are some tips taken from my personal experience studying and living in Rome.
Packing for your trip abroad is a vital part of having a great experience. While there is a lot of advice about packing for a foreign trip, the most important thing I learned is that if there are certain things at home that make you happy, prioritize them. For me that was my pillow, some photos, a few of my favorite books, and the skincare/makeup I wasn’t sure was available in Italy. On that note, I do recommend bringing shampoo, conditioner, and at least one bottle of your favorite face/body products to a different country. Many times your brand won’t be available or if it is, might be super expensive. I was lucky enough to remember all of my favorites, but a word of caution: they just don’t make deodorant and tampons the same in Europe.
focus on the language
I was absolutely terrible at learning languages all of my life. Ask anyone, I hated language classes and didn’t see the point of studying something I thought I would never need. Fast forward 3 years later and I am living in Rome, using Italian every single day. Don’t I wish now that I had paid more attention to my intro and intermediate Italian classes. And don’t get me started about the 10 years of Spanish that have culminated in a grand total of three phrases (hola, que tal, and me llamo).
Learning the local language is integral to gleaning more from your study abroad experience. Many students come to Rome and can get by with a few phrases and speaking slowly in English. But the best experiences I’ve had here never would have happened if I was speaking English. Traveling to remote places in Italy, meeting interesting people, and feeling like a local in your new home all require some knowledge of the language. While I find Italian to be a difficult language to learn, it isn’t impossible and it's definitely fun to try. Italians are always willing to entertain you as you struggle and even making an effort to speak their language goes a long way to breaking down cultural barriers.
push yourself out of your comfort zone
Every study abroad destination has its typical American experience. Rome’s, for example, would be taking pictures in front of the monuments, eating pizza and pasta every meal of every day, and going out in the neighborhoods of Trastevere and Campo di Fiori (shout out to G-Bar and The Drunken Ship). This is where I was recommended to go when I studied here and this is where hopes for a fully immersive Italian experience go to die. You will not find out what it's like to live in a different culture if you hang out with only your American friends, do stereotypically Italian things, and go to the same places every week. Rome has a huge offering of bars, clubs, restaurants, and neighborhoods that actual Italians will frequent. The best way to find out where these places are is to talk to the locals and once you do, you will wonder why you ever felt the need to go to Scholar’s in the first place.
make foreign friends
When I studied here, I spent the first 2 months of my trip avoiding all interaction with Italians and instead hanging out with my new American friends (understandable considering the Italians I did meet out at touristy places were sexually aggressive and not a lot of fun). But then one of the Italians in my friend’s multi-cultural class came over my apartment. And she brought her friend. And a couple weeks later we started dating. Now I’m not saying that to truly experience a new country you need to be romantically involved with a local, but even making friends outside of your roommates and people on your program will dramatically change your time abroad. With Edoardo, I saw so many new sides to Rome and I came to really love this city. Spending time with someone who called this city home allowed me to start feeling at home as well.
travel, but not too much
One thing that new study abroad students are always excited about is the ability to cheaply travel around Europe. They come here with goals to visit 15 countries and travel every weekend out of their four months. But if you’re traveling every weekend and studying during the week, when do you have time to explore YOUR city? Weekends in Rome are so special, with music events, food tastings, and the ability to see the historic center by walk in half a day. In addition, there are so many easy weekend trips inside the country that it’s a shame to be taking flights every weekend. You should try to experience as much of this country’s diversity you can, without sacrificing international travel completely.
avoid believing and reinforcing stereotypes
This might be the most difficult tip to explain and for foreigners to accept, but time and time again I see Americans traveling to Italy convinced by the “Italian stereotype” that the media communicate. Being scared of pickpockets, nervous that Italian men will take advantage of you, certain that the only food people eat here is pizza and spaghetti, are commonly experienced emotions felt by students and short-term tourists traveling to Italy. All of these things happen here, but not with the frequency that outsiders imagine. Yes, it’s important to be cautious and yes, certain foods and places are symbols for the Italian culture. But there is so much more to the Italian people and country than this. People steal money in every major city in the world, not exclusively Rome. Many Italian men love to make friends with Americans because they love talking about our country with us. Pizza and pasta are great but many Italians also love sushi, fresh seafood, and American burgers. It’s easy to stay ignorant about another culture because finding out we (or our society as a whole) are wrong is hard to accept. But by consciously deciding not to believe in and thus reinforce cultural stereotypes, you will have an infinitely improved study abroad experience.
If you skipped down to the bottom (not judging), these are my three golden rules to study abroad in the right way.
- learn the language (at least a bit)
- push yourself to meet locals and try different things
- don’t rush through your semester because it will be the best time of your life
All photos taken in 2013, during my study abroad trip to Rome.