Study abroad 101: where first-generation college student meets Italy

by Stasia Lopez /
Stasia Lopez's picture
Jan 07, 2012 / 0 comments

Experiential experiences, like studying abroad, can really open a person’s eyes to the world. For me, it was no exception! Since I was a young teen, I had the bug for travel; during college, I decided to study abroad! I chose Rome, Italy because I knew nothing about my Italian heritage. While I grew up in a Mediterranean lifestyle, it was predominately Greek more than Italian. In my home, the cultural traditions and customs of the Grecian lifestyle took over as I was sent to Greek school (language classes), Greek dancing, eating and baking Greek cuisine and pastries, and celebrating the wholesome and beautiful culture of the Greeks.


My mother is Italian and I wanted to know more about my Italian heritage. At the time precluding my study abroad experience, I was working at a hotel for almost three years saving every nickel and dime I could. Those nickels and dimes really added up as I saved almost $10,000 of my own money to go towards my study abroad experience in Italy. For months, I read travel books, planned and budgeted for trips on long weekends, and wanted a wholesome experience where I was really part of the culture. I made copies of my passport and visa, copies of my credit and debit cards, and wrote down important numbers and kept a file filled with important information for my parents, just in case anything went wrong.


Being a first-generation college student and graduate, the chance to study abroad in addition to getting a quality education was like winning the lottery for me (but without the financial perks!). I worked hard saving money, planning and budgeting, and being responsible by carefully researching and reading all I could to prepare for my experience abroad. I also made sure I was mentally and emotionally ready for a five-month separation from my comfort zone, my family and friends. I truly believe a large part of the preparation process that students do not often prepare for is the separation, therefore resulting in homesickness, depression, and other various mental and emotional occurrences. I prepared by telling myself that I will be back to the USA, that I will stay in contact with my family and friends, that Rome is going to be my new home, and preparing through research and being responsible.


The day that I was leaving for Greece (I got permission from the Italian Consulate of Pittsburgh to leave earlier to visit family there), was a day of pure happiness. I refused to cry (I also think that starting a trip or any experiences on a sappy foot results in depression and a dependent attitude (which explained my happy, happy, joy, joy attitude). I changed about 200 Euros at the airport and decided to change the rest when I got to Greece. More than ten hours, a sunset and a sunrise later, I was an ocean apart from my loved ones. I felt incredibly ready for this experience, especially after all the research I had done. I spent two weeks in Greece before traveling to Italy where my study abroad experience at the American University of Rome (AUR) was to take place. Visiting family on the island of Kalymnos was probably the highlight of going to Greece for me. I was happy that my body and mind adapted quickly to the European lifestyle and it did not take me long to feel right at home.


Stasia Diamantis at the Trevi Fountain


I quickly learned how to budget my new currency and navigating around strange cities that I had never been to before. I was happy that my relaxed travel attitude was in my favor as getting lost never sent me over the edge and lost luggage was no big deal. I really let myself enjoy the experience—I let my five senses take over as I was in surreal ecstasy as I looked upon historic monuments, making sure to touch them to make sure they were not a mirage; smelling and tasting the most heavenly and fresh cuisine I ever tasted, and listening to all the hustle and bustle around me, made me smile.
Something that surprised me was how my body went into “travel mode,” a term I claim that made me extra alert of my surroundings, gave me a natural GPS system inside myself, and a knack for improvising when needed. I did everything I could to make sure I at least acted as much as a local as possible. I did not like the reputation that I read in my travel books about Americans or heard from my international family and friends. As far as I was concerned, I was acting as an Ambassador of my country, the USA, and wanted to put my best foot forward at all times. With all the people that I had the pleasure to meet on my study abroad experience, I personally can say that I was able to change a few viewpoints about Americans to my new European friends. We learned from each other. I think one of the best things I did was make new international friends. For one, I got to learn about the “real” Europeans and their lifestyles; and for two, I created such great friendships with these amazing people that I still get the luxury of learning from, and Skyping with!


My new home in Rome was better than I ever expected. It is hard to put into words what makes a person speechless, and when I was in Italy, I felt speechless a lot from all the beauty, the lifestyle, the stories and culture. I took five classes at AUR and one of them, Art of the Renaissance and Baroque, got me out of the classroom and into art museums, parks, and in the heart of downtown Rome. We walked in the footsteps of Saint Peter, saw the world with a new eye, heard stories of miracles and of wonderment, and I for one, was in a constant state of awe as I saw more and more of ‘the Eternal City’.


gelato in Italy


If a person can fall in love with a place, it was Rome for me. The markets every week selling fresh vegetables and flowers, the endless gelato that I had was out of this world, the care of sitting down with your family for meals, how pedestrians were part of the traffic, the reverence that the Italian people had for the Pope, the daily siestas and even, with how busy the city was, how slow paced it was (at least for me) compared to my home in the USA. I loved walking downtown seeing the Colosseum and imagining how many people fought and died in there with the gladiators; I’ll never forget seeing where Julius Caesar was murdered as it was a place that I passed by all the time; everywhere a person looked there were bits and pieces of history and mysteries that engulfed the city.


Stasia Diamantis at the Colosseum, Rome


The benefit to living and studying in Italy, was how cheap it is to travel within Europe. I used travel sites like,,,,,, and I originally had a Eurailpass that I got a refund for because a Eurailpass is better used if you have a consistent amount of days/weeks you can use it. I only had long weekends to look forward to and flying and taking the train nearby were better options for me.


Looking back, I feel really thankful that I was able to experience the cultures of Greece, Italy and the Vatican, Romania, Czech Republic, Hungary, Spain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the Republic of Ireland. Studying abroad changed my worldview and my career path.  Stay tuned for my next article on: How Studying Abroad changed my career path. It gives details into the start of my passion and career in international education!

Anastasia R.D. Lopez, is a newlywed who is currently pursuing her Master of Arts in Educational Leadership in Higher Education and Student Affairs from Western Michigan University (WMU) in Kalamazoo, Michigan. She is a Career Educator and Advisor at WMU for the College of Arts and Sciences. Anastasia received her Bachelor of Science in Business Administration in Hospitality and Tourism Management degree from Robert Morris University in Moon Township, PA. She’s passionate about study abroad and international education, loves bowling, and collects global ornaments for her international Christmas tree. She is also the Global Education Editor for Wandering Educators.