#StudyAbroadBecause It Makes You Feel Alive

by Dr. Jessie Voigts / Feb 09, 2015 /
Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture

Danielle Oteri is an art historian, writer, professor and founder of Feast on History. This spring she is leading a creativity retreat where she'll bring entrepreneurs to ancient sites in Southern Italy with a program designed to transform ideas into innovations. She studied abroad in Italy.

 

Danielle Oteri - #StudyAbroadBecause It Makes You Feel Alive

 

What motivated your decision to go abroad? How/why did you choose where to go?

Before I first travelled abroad to Florence, Italy for a painting class at the age of 19, I had never been farther away from New York than New Jersey. It felt like my mind expanded from something around the size of a studio apartment to a mansion with more rooms than I could possibly explore. After college, I was working at a Silicon Alley start-up as a graphic designer and got laid off when the dot com bubble burst. The city was full of unemployed, young, inexperienced web designers just like me, and I realized that my skills-focused education was still no guarantee of employment. So I decided to follow my bliss and go to graduate school in Italy. It even seemed practical, compared to scraping by on temp jobs to pay rent on my 5th floor walk-up apartment above an Indian restaurant.

 

What was your experience like?  What were some challenges you observed?

The summer before I left for Italy, I packed up my apartment, moved in with my parents, and basically tried not to spend a dime while I dreamed of Italy. I arrived in Florence on September 9, 2001, and three days later New York was attacked. Emotionally and mentally, I was back in New York as I sat in dark Irish bars where I could watch the news reported in English and wait on messages from my many friends who worked in or near the Twin Towers. I had finally arrived in Florence where I would live my dream, only to feel like I should more appropriately be living the nightmare that my loved ones at home were experiencing.

 

What skills did you develop from your experience? Do you feel changed from your experience abroad?

I read Bocaccio's Decameron, which is about a group of friends who leave Florence during an outbreak of the Black Death to go hide in the countryside and tell stories. Just like Bocaccio's characters did, I would go to Santa Maria Novella and travel outside the city to Fiesole, sit in the ruins of the Roman amphitheater, and think about what had happened. Grieving with this 14th century book in my hands gave me a deep understanding that I was just a speck in this much larger continuum.

I also remember visiting San Gimagnano, where I overheard a tour guide explain how the skyline was nicknamed "medieval Manhattan." In the Middle Ages, enemies were always trying to knock down the towers, which were always rebuilt even taller. I took comfort from this much greater perspective on time, and realized that what was happening gave me a greater compassion for all those who had suffered something similar. Every time a shopkeeper would hear my American accent, they would offer heartfelt words of condolences, as though New York was a close family member.

 

 Santa Maria Novella is the church in Florence adjacent to the train and bus station. Bocaccio's characters in the Decameron meet at the church to depart together for Fiesole. Danielle Oteri - #StudyAbroadBecause It Makes You Feel Alive.

Santa Maria Novella is the church in Florence adjacent to the train and bus station. Bocaccio's characters in the Decameron meet at the church to depart together for Fiesole. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

Has your experience helped you get to where you are today?

Studying abroad has everything to do with where I am today. The experience changed the course of my life completely, and helped me put the things I love most at the center of my life. I became an art historian, began working at the Cloisters Museum & Gardens, Metropolitan Museum of Art and later an adjunct professor of art history at Seton Hall University. Because of my background in design and startups, I apply the lessons I've learned from the great masters to talks and a creativity retreat for people working in technology, marketing, and branding. Innovators can learn as much from studying Michelangelo as they can from reading Seth Godin. I've been able to form lots of professional connections with conversations that began talking about Italy. The secret power of following your dreams is that it inspires others to do the same.

 

What advice would you share with other students who are thinking of going abroad?

Save as much money as you can so you can do more abroad without having to work. Live with roommates, live with your parents, and know that money spent on experiences is infinitely more valuable than money spent on things. You'll be surprised how far you can make your money stretch when you consider that the price of a nice pair of boots is more than a train ticket from Milan to Vienna. (Though I admit that buying a nice pair of boots in Milan can also be life changing.) A mediocre meal in Paris is still a million times better than a night of takeout at home. Leave that $16 in your bank account, make some fried eggs and toast for dinner, and dream of crepes.

 

 The Cloisters Museum & Gardens in New York where I have been a Lecturer for the past 12 years. Danielle Oteri - #StudyAbroadBecause It Makes You Feel Alive

 The Cloisters Museum & Gardens in New York where I have been a Lecturer for the past 12 years.

 

How has international education impacted or influenced your cultural identity?

I am Italian and grew up close to my Italian family, so the culture was already familiar. Yet, I learned so much about myself by seeing so much of myself, particularly things I considered different or even flaws as characteristic of Italians in Italy. I'll never forget sitting on the commuter train that circles Vesuvius and seeing all these faces that looked like my father's, my Uncle Sonny's, and my own. I felt a deeper connection to the idea of home than I ever had before, and it opened the door for me to reconnect with my family in Italy. It made me much more comfortable in my own skin. I stopped using all this messy foundation to cover the naturally dark circles under my eyes because I realized it's just another connection I have to the Southern Mediterranean.

 

Is there anything else you'd like to share with us?

People often say there is no such thing as the "right time" and you shouldn't' wait for it. I disagree. There is a "right time" and sometimes we must wait for it, but that right time is usually a very small window, sometimes as a little as a day, when you can suddenly re-negotiate your home, your responsibilities, or your finances. If you want to study or travel abroad, hold the dream and be ready to say yes the second the right time arrives. And it should absolutely make you a little dizzy and nauseous! If it doesn't, go further or stay longer.

 

Greek temples at Paestum in Southern Italy where I lead a creativity retreat and teach people how turn lessons from history to turn ideas into innovations. Danielle Oteri - #StudyAbroadBecause It Makes You Feel Alive

Greek temples at Paestum in Southern Italy, where I lead a creativity retreat and teach people how turn lessons from history to turn ideas into innovations.

 

#StudyAbroadBecause... few things make us feel more alive than being completely out of our comfort zone

 

 

 

All photos courtesy and copyright Danielle Oteri, except where noted

 

 

 

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