I’ve had the travel bug since I was a teeny tiny gal. My first international trips happened when I was a year old, and were a yearly event in my family. I saw the value in appreciating different lifestyles, meeting interesting people and gaining a new perspective—even as a kid. So once I started my college trajectory I knew going abroad would without question be instrumental in gaining a well-rounded education. I also was a commuter student for most of my time in school, living at home and working my butt off—so I thought this would be an awesome way to gain that “college experience” even if it was abroad, and got to relish my independence a bit.
Why did you choose USAC?
USAC’s Viterbo program was the absolute perfect fit for me academically, and I felt like it would be a great match for my personality and curiosity. I needed some journalism courses and art electives, and I wanted to dive into a language I thought was realistic to grasp during my three months there. Since I’m a native Spanish speaker, Italian felt like a cinch for me… at that point, not sure how easy it is now that I’m back hahaha. It’s also super central! I didn’t care about all the negative ideas surrounding cliches of going to Europe for my study abroad experience, give me ALL the cliches, there’s a reason so many people choose places like Italy and France. Being in the heart of Europe I knew I’d be able to bounce around other countries. I also felt like I was learning something new about Italy every day when I was still exploring programs, so I just thought,” Dude, this sounds great, never dull and diverse!”
What was your favorite part about Italy?
That is SO HARD to pinpoint. I’d say the centrality is hugely wonderful. Not just Italy relative to Europe, but being in Viterbo, which is right in the middle, is so convenient. I also like that it wasn’t in a huge metropolis and had to speak, or try to speak, Italian most of the time so I think that really propelled my learning. I was close enough to Rome to venture off for the day, even if I wanted to sleep in. There were parks, beaches, all around. And of course if you’re looking to getaway to Croatia for the weekend, the airport isn’t super far. Oh, and aesthetically Viterbo is unlike anything I’d ever seen, I’ve said it before but if you want to know where Shrek really lives, it’s here.
What made your experience abroad unique?
Oh man, I’ll go with a story on this. The thing about having Rome so close, I wasn’t afraid to go alone. So one day I did, I bought a selfie stick for 3 Euro as I hopped of the train, and I was ready for a day all on my own—you’ll find you kind of need that sometimes after all your group adventures. I decided to do the touristy things I hadn’t yet, starting with the Vatican.
I assumed I’d just hop in line and all would be good and well, but the line was probably a half mile long, it was scorching hot and I was not about it. So, when one of the many many salespeople approached me to pay to cut the line, I decided it was worth it. This woman did not have any sort of uniform, ID, or any indication whatsoever that she was legitimate but, oh well, I followed her down some streets I’d never been to find our “special entrance.” To my relief there was a group of others waiting for us to arrive. The tour guide was fighting on the phone with her boss about how many more of us suckers they could grab in time for the next tour.
So there I am, me, an American, and an Indian family of ten plus. They were doing them, taking photos and preparing for the tour, I did me, looked around and was prepared to enjoy this tour all on my own. Suddenly (if I can be dramatic) a beautiful figure was approaching our group; we had been waiting for one more. This figure was a male, wearing a fedora, about 6’2” with his shirt perfectly, slightly unbuttoned. I assumed he was Indian too, I was right. I assumed he didn’t speak English, I was wrong. Clearly, we were destined to take this tour together. “Hi, this should be fun,” he said. I melted, and we took it from there. I was a puddle, this guy had perfect teeth, we were on this adventure, alone, together, but inside I was honestly thinking “This guy’s a chatterbox,” and I really wanted my loner day, that feeling of independence and adventuring solo. We were about ten minutes in, and had maintained about a ten foot distance behind the family through the tour. Samir (the cherub has a name), insisted on taking my photo, mocking my selfie stick— I wasn’t mad. We marveled at facts the guide spewed out like the fact that the Pope only eats organic food. During a photo op on one of the balconies, a member of the family noticed us, well, they noticed Samir. This man threw up his arms in excitement and hugged Samir, everyone was gasping and taking photos. “What the?” is what I’m thinking. So naturally, I’m like “When were you gonna tell me you’re…famous?” He laughed, and of course I pried further. Samir was a Bollywood star.
“ What the!” When he told me he was here for work I didn’t think it was to film some motorcycle competition through Rome for Indian television. I was happy, mortified, starstruck, and confused as to why he was hanging out with me, all at once. The tour concluded, I put my shameful stick away and turned in my headphones. “Want to go to lunch?” I thought to myself as I walked away from this beautiful media icon and hilarious person. JUST KIDDING. “Want to go to lunch?” was what he said to me just as I thought our adventure was done. Yes, he asked me. Ugh, yes I felt fabulous.
So I hopped in a cab with this stranger, he read my palm while we sped through traffic, told me I’d marry a handsome guy. Looking at him and then not looking at him I was thinking “You are pretty good looking…” We landed a sweet restaurant right in front of the Colosseum, had a couple Spritz drinks, laughed and laughed some more. He asked me about me, which just kind of made me chuckle, like who cares, I’m a California central valley girl studying abroad, now tell me about your climb to stardom and how the other half lives. And he did, about his rejection and persistence, his highs and his lows. But he taught me a lot about me, and inspired me beyond just what HE had done as an actor, he taught me to look to myself for inspiration.
“What do you want to do after studying here?” “I really don’t know, be somewhere between journalism and film I think. I just feel lost, it changes all the time.” “You have FOMO” “Whats fomo” “Come on, fear of missing out!” I knew that feeling wayyyyy too well, and am super stoked I know this term I use it all the time now. “You wanted to study abroad for a while, right?” “Yeah.” “So look at you, you’re doing it, you’re exactly where you want to be. You’ve done it!” The angel was right. I never felt so inspired, by my own dang self. I was ready to take on the world, it was wild. And hearing about his failures, it was a very raw testimony to all his successes. We wrapped up our adventure over gelato, he asked me for my contact info. Yes, again, asked ME. I made a legitimate effort to not go fan-girl.
We said our goodbyes and I hopped on the train with the neatest story (and IG selfies with Samir). I guess what this all taught me was to really go with the flow. I had a ridiculously detailed itinerary before heading to Italy, but my favorite day alone was one that was very loosely planned, I let the adventure surprise me, and I was rewarded on a whole different level. This experience was unique for so many reasons, of course this doesn’t always happen, haha. But I think it was a moment that allowed me to learn so much about myself. Yes, we still talk. Yes, I think I’m slightly cool for it. No, we aren’t star-crossed lovers, he has a beautiful family and one day I will too!
How did local staff support you throughout your program?
From being rescued after missing the bus, to food recommendations, the local staff were more like friends. There wasn’t a moment they weren’t available for any situation, they always wanted to help. If it weren’t for Simone from my program, my friend Thea and I would have likely been stranded in a nearby beach town; he mapped out directions for us from Viterbo while we went crazy figuring out how safe it was to hitchhike.
What's one thing you wish you would have done differently?
I would have not planned as much. I didn’t follow my schedule and desires to the “T”, but I think I could have been so much more pleasantly surprised by seeing what surfaced once I was there. Someone there will share a similar curiosity with you, or show you one you didn’t know you had, and that my pull you one way. It’s good to stay open.
Describe a typical day in the life of your program.
Typical day…hmm… there was so much adventure that you forget how cool the day before was. We had class for a couple hours on campus, then some of us would meet for dinner and drinks, or go grocery shopping together (that’s an adventure on its own). We’d start planning weekend trips at a local cafe over apertivo (best time to get free snacks, and only pay for one drink!).
What did you enjoy doing in your free time?
On my free time I loved to just walk around Viterbo. The ancient walls that used to serve as barriers during war times make you feel safe, it’s hard to get lost too far away from home, but it is a bit like a labyrinth so that's exciting. I’d meet up with my language partner and practice learning Italian and teaching her English, some days you need a day in too, believe it or not, so having a movie night with some of the other study abroad buds was also a good memory of mine.
What was your accommodation like? What did you like best about it?
My accommodation was spacious, central and comfortable. I was in an apartment with one other gal, who happens to be one of my best friends now. Everything was furnished, didn’t have to bring bed sheets or cutlery, it was all there which was fabulous. We had a nice balcony with a very of Piazza San Sisto and another balcony with a few of a large clock in the distance in Piazza dei Papi, perfect for wine and sunsets.
What is one thing every participant should know before participating in your program?
You should know that whatever you want to plan, whatever you want to see and do, it’s not going to go exactly your way, and that’s the beauty of this and has been so teaching for me. Embrace the journey, embrace your peers, both foreign and fellow Americans, and see where it takes you!
Now that you're home, how has your program abroad impacted your life?
I’ve really learned about myself and how I fit into the world. I always wondered what it was about myself that felt like I had seen so much of the world but asked, “What is this all even good for?” “How does it apply to my career goals, and me as a person?” This time abroad showed me the significance of that and how it can be applied professionally-when I returned my first job after this journey was to work as an advocate for studying abroad as the international education ambassador at my school. I saw it on other levels, I was editor of our newspaper so I decided to create a section, “A Warrior (our mascot) Abroad,” which included incredible study abroad recounts and got more students curious about the experience. Because of the jobs I had as a result of studying abroad, I was able to climb to eventually working at the UN, a dream I never fathomed would become reality. It all started with being in Italy and seeing the world through a new lens.
Would you recommend USAC to others? Why?
I would without a doubt recommend my program to others. I think it’s an experience, a place, filled with people everyone can learn from, but especially if you’re into the arts, writing, and really want to learn Italian—this is for you!
Natalie is a Viterbo USAC 2015 alumna. She is from California but presently calls New York City home. Prior to her trip abroad she had began by exploring South America throughout her younger life, she spent some years living in Peru. Before USAC she had traveled to Europe a couple of times, and has since returned. She's been to 20 countries total between North, South, Central America and Europe.