#StudyAbroadBecause You Find Yourself

Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture

Hi, I'm Alexandra Oetzell, I graduated spring of 2015 from SDSU and completed my degree in Studio Art in 4 years. I spent my final year abroad, studying in Florence, Italy. I love to paint and draw, but as long as I'm working with my hands, I'm a happy girl! Since I returned from my 12 months abroad, I picked up this school bus project. Basically I have been converting a short bus into a tiny house and it has helped me learn so much about how anything in a normal house would work, problem solving to getting an entire home into a bus, and also I get to be creative with interior design. The bus project is so much fun, and I can't wait to travel in it!

Venice - Alexandra Oetzell: #StudyAbroadBecause You Find Yourself

What motivated your decision to go abroad? How/why did you choose where to go?
I had always wanted to go abroad. What made me want to study overseas the most was when I heard that only something like 1.5% of students actually study abroad. It was a such a low number, I thought why pass up such a great opportunity?!I was studying art at San Diego State University for 3 years when a break up with a boyfriend made me want to get as far away from San Diego as possible. I had been looking into study abroad and thought now is the time! Most students go their junior year, but I went for my entire senior year. I knew right away 6 months was not an option. I wanted an entire year to be completely submerged in the new and unknown. I turned in all my paperwork and with the help and support of my parents, I took off. 

I was torn between Spain and Italy, and thought about doing 6 months in each place, but that was a little complicated. My late grandfather Lou (Luigi) was 100% Italian, which made me a quarter. We didn't know much about my father's Italian family and lost contact with them. My mom told me to go around Italy and ask for anyone with his last name, Camina - maybe we could reconnect with long lost family!

Since I was studying art, and most of the classes I had to take my senior year to graduate were studio art classes, I chose the CSUIP program. It was best suiting to achieve necessary credits, and who doesn't like Italian food?! The program was based out of Florence, Italy. I had never been to Italy and really had NO idea what it was going to be like. 

What was your experience like? What is your favorite memory? What were some challenges you observed?
When I arrived, I did not know a single person. Of course, I made friends with classmates first - they spoke English and it was easiest. The most challenging thing our first week was finding a place to live. Students were completely on their own to find roommates and to find an apartment. With one semester of Italian under our belts, we found a cute place and a landlord that knew some English. 

I lived in a small apartment I shared with 2 other girls and one guy, all from California. Our CSUIP campus was a beautiful walk or short bike ride away from the busy hub of downtown to the edge of the small city. There were 80 other students at the CSU Firenze campus from other state schools in California. The 13 other studio art students and I were given a rigorous entrance exam, where they tested our art skills and painting skills to take classes at the Accademiea de delle arte, the same school Michelangelo studied at. It was an honor to study art there, and in comparison to other students, I took a LOT of art classes because I needed so many studio classes to graduate. 

I'd say my favorite memory from my time spent studying there was the first time a teacher lit up a cigarette in class, I was shocked! Could you imagine that happening in the United States? No, it was so casual there, she just smoked, all windows and doors shut and continued her lecture. That day for lunch I went to the usual pizzeria with my friends, it was a local spot with no tourists. My experience was so authentic. I really have a special place in my heart for the time I spent in Florence. It gets hot in the summer, and cold in the winter. There is a river that runs through the city and most buildings are so old you would not believe they are still standing. It really is like stepping into a time machine and going back to the renaissance. People were always selling fresh fruits and vegetables in carts at the side of buildings. Merchants waving their hands when they talked, always complaining about something. Vineotecas where you could fill up you own jug with wine, they charged about 3 dollars per liter. Food was always baked fresh. During the winter, not so many tourists were in the city and the Christmas markets would pop up in the big squares. You could get hot spiced wine and drink it on church steps, and eat a warm pastry from the markets. The whole city was decked out in Christmas lights. Florence was really a magical city, and I feel SO lucky every day I got to experience it for an entire year. 

What skills did you develop from your experience? Do you feel changed from your experience abroad? 
I developed certain skills from studying abroad. Obviously language skills; I learned my first new language, and I was not half bad. I loved when my mom and sister came to visit for Christmas and I ordered their first meal in Italian. I didn't think twice about it but as soon as the waiter walked away my family was so impressed! 

I absolutely improved my art skills. I finished all my senior art classes there and was able to graduate. My diploma came when I came back to the US. 

I improved my traveling skills. Before I left, I always asked my parents to book me flights and help me plan. I visited about 20 countries during breaks from school and during the summer. Everywhere from the highlands of Scotland to the Sahara in Morocco, and planned every trip myself. I feel confident in my navigation skills now, and it opened so many new doors for me!

I think the most important thing traveling taught me is it's ok to travel alone and... you are never really alone. When summer came, I wanted to go so many places before returning to the US, but most of my friends were heading home or in different directions. So I just made solo plans. I backpacked for 2 months and did so much - that really made me a stronger person.

Has your experience helped you get to where you are today?
I think this experience was a good gateway into more traveling. It showed me I can do so much more. I think I always knew I was capable of these things, but this was proof. I know now I can travel solo. I can try new things and meet new people with an open mind. I can embrace a new culture and way of living. 

Today I am converting a school bus into an RV. I plan to take off in August and travel around the United States SOLO. I should be on the road for about a year. After that I want to teach art and English in another country. I believe art is something I was not destined to sell, but to share, teach, and inspire. 

What advice would you share with other students who are thinking of going abroad?
When studying abroad, find out the budget airline of that country and use it wisely! I was able to fly from Italy to Morocco for $15! Amazing. Also I found taking busses and ride shares around Europe was about one third of the cost of trains. Cook whenever you can to save money, and learning to cook the local food is best. You can save money, gifts, and room in your luggage by learning to cook a local dish and cooking it back at home for your friends and family. Dont be afraid to spend a night at the airport, or booking a hostel with 20 people in one room rather than a hotel where it's 2 to a room - this is how you can also make friends. Stepping outside your comfort zone is important, but its a constant struggle to balance adventurous and safety. Be a smart traveler. Take advantage of every long weekend or break from school. 

Rome - Alexandra Oetzell: #StudyAbroadBecause You Find Yourself

How has international education impacted or influenced your cultural identity?
Though I never found my long lost Camina family members, and discovered that almost everybody is a quarter Italian, I did feel more "in touch with my roots." I am a caucasian euro-mix of countries and cultures, and associate with not one more than the other. Italy will have a special place in my heart from the wonderful time I spent there. Italy is really a unique place, and the way I view the culture and country is totally biased from the time I spent there. I think spending a year in Italy helped me gain a deeper understanding, and I do plan on returning some day, but I have so much more to see before that. 

Is there anything else you'd like to share with us?
My advice to any student it so do it. Be that 1.5% of students that say f*** it I have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Take it from me - I ran with bulls in Spain, danced at Stonehenge during the Solstice, and rode camels in the sand dunes of the Sahara all because I took that plunge. You may think of home from time to time, but TRUST ME nothing will be different when you return. Journey on - it's more than taking classes...you are finding yourself. 


#StudyAbroadBecause...You Find Yourself


in Switzerland with Alexandra Oetzell: #StudyAbroadBecause You Find Yourself


All photos courtesy and copyright Alexandra Oetzell