Lauren Dacus - 2016 Program Participant

What inspired you to go abroad?

Studying abroad in Italy has been a dream of mine for a very long time. I still remember being in high school telling my parents about how when I get to college I would spend a semester as soon as possible abroad in Italy. Everyone saw it as this silly pipe dream of mine, but I was serious. When the fall semester of my sophomore year rolled around, I was determined to make this ambitious dream of mine come true. I have always been fascinated with Italy's rich history and culture and to get to experience that for the very first time for such a long period of time was an idea so surreal to me.

Castello Estense in Ferrara, northern Italy

Castello Estense in Ferrara

Why did you choose CIEE?

I had been sitting in my study abroad advisor's office for maybe an hour looking online for programs in Italy that were both affordable and in a city I'd be interested living in. After an exhausting search, we finally stumbled upon the CIEE program in Ferrara, a small city in the north of Italy. I had heard of this city before, as it was an important state in the Renaissance, and was shocked to find that there existed a study abroad program there.

I went back to my dorm that same day and started a full scale search on the program and I fell in love. I was able to get in contact with a past participant through the CIEE alumni program and it sealed the deal for me. The girl who CIEE had matched me with told me all about her experience, how wonderful the advisors were and all the things she loved about the city, and the program. From there on I was confident with my decision to study abroad with CIEE in Ferrara.

What was your favorite part about Ferrara?

One of my favorite parts about the city of Ferrara was the beautiful personality about it and how proud the Ferrarese people are of their history and culture. I felt as though I got a true authentic experience studying in Ferrara. Don't get me wrong, the large cities like Florence and Rome are wonderful, but part of their charm can be lost in how touristic and urban big cities are. Leaving Ferrara was one of the hardest things I had to do, because I truly felt it had given me la dolce vita (the sweet life).

What made your experience in Italy unique?

How authentic of an Italian experience I got. It was almost shocking when my friends and I would hear an English speaker because it was so rare. Often times the only tourist we encountered were Italian school kids on field trips. Ferrara never felt like a tourist trap, there weren't those "fake Italian" restaurants that appeal to Americans or hundreds of selfie stick sellers coming up to you every corner you turn (actually there weren't any at all). I felt as though I got to live like an Italian for four months. It also helped that I had an incredible host family; CIEE did a very good job at pairing us with host families that matched our personalities.

How did CIEE’s local staff support you throughout your program? 

The program directors were an incredible support system for me. They made sure that the students were their number one priority. When I had health issues, there was always a director there with me at my appointments, getting my medications, and even helping me file my insurance claims. When on an overnight excursion I needed an in house doctor, the directors called for one almost immediately and then went to go pick up my necessary medications. The staff made sure that at all of our activities we had an amazing time. Some of my favorite excursions included: our five day trip to Sicily, a wine tasting day, a trip to the local boxing club, and a night at the Opera.

Carnevale in Venice, Italy

Carnevale in Venice with friends

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

This may sound cheesy, but honestly, I would not have done a single thing differently. Even when I had my mini disasters, like missing my bus home from Rome to Ferrara or getting lost in a city all alone with no map, I still have learned a lesson from every mistake made.

All of the experiences I accumulated during that time have made me grow in ways I am still finding out almost a month after returning. I loved my experience so much, and would do it again all the same.

Describe a typical day in your life in Ferrara.

My host family's dog would sometimes give me a wake up call by prying open my door and pouncing on me to rise. After I did so, I got dressed and headed downstairs for breakfast. My host mom would always lay out a delicious cake or pastry for me which I would scarf down embarrassingly.

Since I lived outside the city walls, I would often catch the public bus, or occasionally bike, to the study center for my classes. In between classes, my friends and I would grab lunch at this amazing piadini stand (a piadina is a flatbread like sandwich typical of the region) or at our favorite restaurant near by. After classes were done my friends and I would sit and chat at the study center then grab gelato or explore a little bit of the city.

I would usually have dinner around 8 p.m. with my host family, which consisted of first a pasta dish, followed by a meat dish, and for dessert, the in-season fruit. After dinner I would work on homework, then bike to meet my friends at one of our favorite bars and end the night dancing at one of the discos in town.

What did you enjoy doing in your free time?

One of my favorite things to do in my free time was to explore Italy! It is so easy to travel around Italy through trains and buses, I even took a bus once to Rome for one Euro! Another thing that I enjoyed doing was, appritivo, which Is when people get together at bars or restaurants and have a drink along with free food in the afternoon; it was a nice chance to just unwind after a long day of classes with my friends.

To end my nights, I enjoyed going out to the discoteca with my friends. We would almost always stay until they closed and we danced our hearts out. The only con: biking home in the cold sore from dancing like fools.

Umbrellas hanging above the streets of Ferrara, Italy

Umbrellas hanging along the streets of Ferrara

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

All of us in the program stayed with host families. I loved the experience of staying with a host family because I got sort of an insider view of what living like an Italian was truly like. I've learned things about the Italian culture through my host family that I would not otherwise have known.

Although I was living in a family, I did have my own sense of independence. The myth that living with a host family means you can't stay out late and you always have to be with them 24/7 is false. I always respected the rules of the home, but my host mom was totally comfortable with me doing "my thing" sometimes, which I greatly appreciated.

They took me in and treated me like their daughter, which made this life changing experience a lot easier to settle in to. Another bonus, it helped me improve my language skills immensely because it gave me a chance to have daily conversation speaking the language.

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

Every participant in this program should know that they are getting themselves into one of the most unexpectedly amazing experience of their life. Some advice I would give to future participants is:

1. Relax! Do not stress too much, you are about to embark on the journey of a lifetime. Before I came to Italy, I had stressed about every little thing leading up to the day I boarded the plane. I was afraid of silly things, such as my host family not liking me or blowing my budget in the first few weeks. Relax, things will fall into place, and if they don't they were not meant to be.

2. Do not underestimate your capabilities, you are braver than you think. Climb that tower, although you may be afraid of heights; try those foods that may look a little scary, go to that place you've always wanted to see, even if it means to go alone. One experience I remember vividly was my solo trip to Siena, in which I climbed to the top of the clock tower by myself; being a person who fears heights so much so that I have never even been on a Ferris wheel, it was quite a rewarding and thrilling experience.

3. Always try and look on the bright side. I know that may sound super cliché, but truthfully it has helped turn some of my disasters into lessons. Things may go incredibly wrong one day and that's okay, it does not take away from the other 100 good days you have had or are going to have.

Ruins in Taormina, Sicily

Me in Taormina, Sicily, on one of our CIEE excursions

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

This experience has changed me in ways I am still finding out even almost a month since I have returned. I never expected this experience to make me look at myself and my home culture in such a light I have never seen. I have found an even deeper pride in calling myself an American, and the values and beliefs that comes along with it.

I have also been able to more easily understand and appreciate the world around me, socially, politically, culturally, which is something that all of the reading in the world can not teach you.

I joke and tell people now that this experience has aged me, in the sense that through all the things I have learned and experience over the past four months, I have grown a bit wiser. But, truly the most important thing I have gained from this experience is how to live and to live fully; to take advantage of the limited days life has left to offer me. I want to explore the world and experience so much more of it. I now have this renewed appetite for life that before this experience did not exist in me, and for that, I am eternally grateful.

Would you recommend CIEE and your program specifically to other students? Why?

I would definitely recommend this program and CIEE in general to potential study abroad students. CIEE has made this experience for me all that it was. I could not possibly imagine nor do I wish to imagine doing this experience with any other provider. Their support both before and during the program has been immeasurable.