Elissa Ryan - 2014 Program Participant

Cinque Terre, Italy

Dreaming Big in Cinque Terre, Italy.

What inspired you to go abroad?   

I chose to go abroad to find myself. Before leaving, I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life (keep in mind that I was a first semester senior when I went abroad). I knew that I wanted something business related, but I had no set goals or true passions. After my semester in Milan, I now am confident in what I want to do: to be an entrepreneur. Traveling abroad didn’t set my new goals; it simply stripped away what was ever hiding them.

Milan was filled with adorable shops and restaurants that all were unique in their own way. It gave me so many great business ideas that America has not yet picked-up, such as the aperativo, which is comparable to the American happy-hour except one million times better. Usually for only 10 euro, you get an endless selection of great foods to choose from and one drink of your choice. Sounds too good to be true, but it really did help with that tight college budget.

I chose to study abroad because I wanted to experience the world. I wanted to meet new people, see new things, and grow as a person. It is true when they say your semester abroad will be the best semester of your college experience…and quite possibly the best four months of your life.

This program was amazing thanks to the IES Abroad staff, the students in the program, and the amazing field trips they planned for us. What I wanted most out of my study abroad experience was to really become immersed into a different culture. I wanted to learn new and different ways of doing things. I wanted to silence the cultural ethnocentrism that many Americans and I tend to have so well embedded inside us. Overall, I wanted to learn about different cultures, life, and myself.

Why did you choose to study in Milan?

Essentially, I choose Milan because of its world-renowned business reputation. I am not a fashionista, and did not choose Milan because it is the fashion capital of the world. Milan is so much more than that. Milan is a trend-setting city in the world of business and there is so much to learn here. I knew that I didn’t want a typical tourist destination, but instead somewhere where I could really get a feel for the culture without being bombarded by tourists. Milan was the perfect fit. It was all that I read and heard about and more.

Hiking Mt. Etna in Sicily, Italy

Hiking an active volcano, Mt. Etna in Sicily.

How has studying abroad in Milan changed your life at home?

It took exactly one month and five days since leaving home that I knew I was never going to be the same. My Leading Across Cultures teacher liked to talk. In fact, most of the time I was dozing off thinking to myself, "Where am I going to go this weekend? Prague, the Almafi coast, Florence?" Interrupting my thought bubble, Mr. Armani gave us a list of 18 personal attributes as a homework assignment to sort out by importance. Words like courageous, honest, loving, forgiving, and open-minded were listed. The old me would have chosen honesty as my number one attribute because I had just recently been tainted by a relationship that was anything but. This time was different; I knew the instant my eyes scrolled upon the word that it was the reason I was different; it was the reason I'd never be the same again. The word I chose the most important attribute that a human could have was capable.

I came abroad not knowing a single soul, never had been outside the U.S. before and was overwhelmed with a sense of unpreparedness upon arrival. That feeling of doubt did go away, faster than I could have ever anticipated. I learned that sometimes, the best things that happen in life are when you put yourself outside of that comfort zone. I learned it’s okay not to know, in fact, sometimes it’s better not knowing and to just experience and trust in yourself. I can honestly say that I learned more traveling in those four short months abroad than I could have in any classroom. When it comes down to it, real learning takes place through experience. When all of your senses are exposed to a new environment, it will change you. You can’t get that from any book either. Taking the first step is the hardest but once I did, I took great satisfaction in knowing that I could do anything that I put my mind to; that I am capable of anything.

Stepping outside of your comfort zone, becoming immersed in a culture that is completely foreign to you, learning that there's more than just the "American" way of doing things, and traveling to some of the world's most beautiful cities. Studying abroad was everything I'd hope it to be that and more. But, the most vital part that I can take away from my experience was the amount I learned about myself and about life, which when it comes down to it, is really all you're guaranteed until the day you die. Seven countries and eleven cities later, I realized that it's not about the amount of territory covered, it's about the feeling you get when you know you're in the right place at the right time, doing exactly what you're meant to be doing. More importantly, It's about knowing that you're capable.

What important tips do you have to share with future students in Italy?

Duomo di Milano in Italy

Duomo di Milano.

First and foremost, it’s nothing like the American college experience. There are no dorms, there is no “campus”, there are no campus dining halls, there are no (working) TVs in the apartments, and there are certainly no red-solo cups. Sure, it doesn’t sound that great if you’re a glass half-empty kind of person, but to everything that I just listed, there’s an even better upside.

The dorms are not little cramped up rooms with one window, two beds, and a mini fridge. Instead they are cozy apartments located in beautiful Italian residential areas. One of my favorite parts of this program was where I lived. It really made the whole experience because I was literally and figuratively immersed in the Italian culture. We were literally the only American’s living in the entire apartment complex.

There is no campus, but instead there is a building with classrooms, offices, and a quaint study area. Sure, it doesn’t sound like much, but it only encourages students to keep exploring the area, which is exactly what I did everyday. There’s no campus food, but you’re in Italy...need I say more?

I was semi-relieved to find out that the TV that my apartment had on display was not a working TV. That way, it forced us to find other things to do rather than to be cooped up inside watching TV.

A semester in Italy is not like a semester at a typical American college because Italians do not drink the way we do. Instead of excessive drinking and pre-gaming inside with friends, Italians drink slowly and conservatively, and prefer to do it outside if they can.

My advice to anyone going abroad is to be open-minded. Understand that you are a visitor in their country and they have their way of doing things just as we have ours. The most important tip I can give to future study abroad students is to take risks. You took a huge risk by coming to a foreign country to study for an entire semester, so keep going! Travel to as many places as you can, because time will fly and before you know it the semester will be almost over. Don’t let fear hold you back!

What was the most memorable experience you had in Milan?

I cannot pick only one memorable experience that was my favorite; there are just too many to choose from. I simply can’t explain how it feels when watching a sunset overlooking the Mediterranean sea from a quaint church, or how it puts you at peace with the world, even just for a moment. Or how the David reminds you what the human hands are capable of. I can't even begin to describe the taste of freshly made mozzarella or homemade Italian gelato, or how much better Tuscan wine tastes when overlooking the vineyard that it came from. I can't explain how exploring (and studying) when you're young and able could possibly be the best decision you'll make for yourself; I can only paint the picture.

Swimming in Taormina, Sicily

Just Keep Swimming! Taormina, Sicily