Heather Gogel - 2015 Program Participant

What inspired you to go abroad?

I took a family trip to Italy while in high school, and from that moment forward I knew I needed to go back and learn from their beautiful culture.

Why did you choose SAI Programs? 

SAI was the best fit for my major classes and specific destination.

Riomaggiore, Italy
My first trip out of Florence, to Riomaggiore

What was your favorite part about Florence?

The small town feel once I got use to the streets. If I ever felt lost I knew in about two streets I would get my bearings again.

What made your experience abroad unique? 

The people I meet along the way were incredible. I became friends with a local coffee shop owner who helped me with my Italian homework and even taught me how to make a cappuccino!

How did local staff support you throughout your program?

SAI always had their office open and was willing to just chat if I needed someone to hangout with. The also offered so many free trips and activities: I did not pass up a single one. They were all great because it allowed me to get closer to fellow students within the program and presented parts of Italy I probably would have not gone to.

What's one thing you wish you would have done differently? 

I wish I would have volunteered.

Describe a typical day in the life of your program.

A typical Monday for me would consist of waking up, going to the market for fresh fruits, veggies, cheese, or pasta. Occasionally I would stop by my favorite place to get a cappuccino and enjoy some Italian company before I had to get ready for my art class. I would walk past Piazza di Santa Croce everyday for class and everyday the view was incredible. Once my classes were over for the day, I would find one of my roommates to walk around or workout with if we were feeling adventurous. I usually cooked myself dinner, but on Monday nights a group of us would always go out to dinner to discuss our next Firenze adventure.

Picnic on steps in Riomaggiore, Italy
Watching the sunset and eating a picnic for dinner on the steps in Riomaggiore, Italy.

What did you enjoy doing in your free time?

Wandering the streets of Florence to see what new hidden shops or restaurants I could find.

What was your accommodation like? What did you like best about it?

Our apartment was not like any other. I loved it! The rooms were huge and had paintings on the walls. I loved having this large old key to open our door up with. Even the main door to get into the building was gorgeous. The building was old, and there were five girls taking showers, so we sometimes ran out of hot water. However this problem was always fixed by the next day.

What is one thing every participant should know before participating in your program? 

Come with the intentions of making a life in the city you are visiting. Make sure to do the tourist activities, but also try and live like a local. Workout, volunteer, and learn the language.

What was the hardest part about studying abroad?

The hardest part about studying abroad was managing my money. It was so easy to just decide to not cook and eat out for every meal, however that presented two problems. One: I was running out of money quicker than intended, and two: I was living like a tourist instead of a local. I wanted my study abroad experience to include "living like a local", so I had to remind myself that I was not a complete tourist in Florence. That being said, I did enjoy every single bite I ate, even the ones where I learned to cook!

What surprised you most about Florence?

Florence is full of surprises. Every corner you turn there could be a piece of art, a random shop you never noticed before, or you could discover a shortcut to your destination. Overall, the big surprise was actually how small Florence is. When I first arrived I was so nervous that I would be lost all the time in the big city. But once I became use to the non-perpendicular structure of the streets, I was surprised at all the shortcuts I could take. I still got turned around every now and then, but I was only "lost" for a couple of minutes before I came across a familiar street. Full disclosure: I am directionally challenged in my home town, so to become comfortable in a new city is a lot for me!

An olive grove in Italy
Sampling olive oils and pastes made in a local olive grove.

How difficult was it to communicate with locals?

Communicating with the locals was not difficult in my opinion. There was definitely a language barrier in many situations, but all of the Italians I met were very friendly and either knew some English or were very good at communicating with their hands. I never had a moment where I could not get my point across or I could not understand them. That being said, I was glad I started to learn familiar phrases before I arrived in Italy. I also loved taking an Italian class in Florence.

What is one thing you wish you would have known before studying abroad in Italy?

I wish I would have participated in more volunteer opportunities, because that would have given me the chance to learn more about the city and the people in it. It would have contributed to my desired "live like a local" experience.

If you could study abroad again, where would you go?

If I was to study abroad again I would love to go back to Italy, but I would try a smaller town so that I really could work on my Italian. I would also like to go to a non-western Europe destination just to compare different cultural habits.

What do you feel the biggest benefit of studying abroad is?

The biggest benefit of studying abroad is that I met so many great people from both all over America and Italy. I was able to see different types of lifestyles and cultures, which contributes to my major of hospitality management and tourism. It is important for me to see different personalities from different cultures, because each person reacts to hospitality and tourism in different ways. I think studying abroad really gives me an advantage in my career interests.

An Italian delicacy shop in Florence, Italy
A local restaurant where I would stop and grab the panino of the day every Monday in between classes.

Do you have any packing tips for individuals headed to Florence?

For those going abroad, I would suggest you bring comfortable shoes because you will do a lot of walking. Try to coordinate clothes that you can wear several different ways. Like a light shirt that works by itself for hot days and two different sweaters that work with it when it gets cold. Leave plenty of room for souvenirs because you will have more than intended. Bring some clothes that you don't mind giving away at the end of the semester (that gives you more room for souvenirs and new clothes).

Now that you're home, how has your program abroad impacted your life?

Being abroad helped me to obtain an internship with the convention bureau in my city because I realized how much I loved my city and wanted to promote it to other tourists. I feel like I have more advice to give others because I believe everyone should be able to experience what I did.

Would you recommend SAI Programs to others? Why?

I would recommend SAI because they had a quick response time, were always available when needed in Florence, and really cared that we had the best experience in Florence possible.