#StudyAbroadBecause...you learn a lot when you’re lost!

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Maria Castello is a recent graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, where she studied English writing and literature. During her time in college, she spent a semester studying in London, where she interned with a small publishing company. She loved her study abroad experience so much she is now planning to attend graduate school and pursue a career in international education. She loves classic novels, tortoiseshell cats, and green tea, and is currently learning to speak Italian.  

Maria Castello: #StudyAbroadBecause you learn a lot when you’re lost!

What motivated your decision to go abroad? How/why did you choose where to go?
In a word – books. As a lifelong reader, I’ve been exposed to so many different cities and countries around the world through the books I’ve read, and I’ve always wanted to visit as many of these places as possible. 

I’d wanted to visit London for as long as I can remember – at this point, I can’t even recall what inspired my original desire. I think it had a lot to do, however, with the way in which the city embraces its literature, history, and arts community. For years, I’ve been reading books set in London, watching movies filmed there, and learning about its incredible place in history. The arts are all really well respected in London, and I found myself drawn to a city that truly embraces them.  

I also wanted to visit London because of its incredible diversity. Over 300 different languages are spoken in London, and its inhabitants come from all over the world. I remember walking down the street and hearing what seemed like 30 different languages in five minutes. 

Finally, I was also really inspired by two of my best friends, both of whom I met my first year at Pitt. They are both well-traveled, and, as someone who had never gone abroad before, I loved hearing about their international experiences. They were supportive of my desire to go to abroad, and provided me with the encouragement I needed. Without them, I don’t think I would have made it to London. 

Maria Castello: #StudyAbroadBecause you learn a lot when you’re lost!

What was your experience like? What is your favorite memory? What were some challenges you observed?
Studying abroad in London was definitely the best experience of my life so far. I think I was lucky in that I didn’t experience many “lows” while abroad – I loved my classes, I learned a lot at my internship, I made great friends, I traveled to places I really enjoyed, and I was able to attend many fantastic cultural events within London. 
I became really close with my four roommates (along with many wonderful people in my classes) during my time abroad, and the adventures we shared comprise my favorite memories. From the time we walked around lost in Paris late at night without realizing we were right in front of our hotel, to traveling to the far edges of London to find a Doctor Who store, to our last early-morning tube ride to Heathrow airport, the experiences which cemented our friendships mean more to me than any other part of my trip. 

My other favorite memories in London include seeing Imogen (three times!) at Shakespeare’s Globe, attending King Lear at the Old Vic, visiting the Churchill War Rooms, the National Gallery, and the Tate Modern, walking through the East End and on the Millennium Bridge, and standing on the south bank of the Thames, looking out over the river. 

As far as additional travels go, I loved visiting Edinburgh and the Scottish Highlands, Paris, Wales, Stratford-Upon-Avon, Stonehenge, Bath, and Oxford. 

Maria Castello: #StudyAbroadBecause you learn a lot when you’re lost!

Probably the biggest challenge I faced while abroad was trying to get enough sleep. It was mostly my own fault for not always doing so; looking back, if I could tell myself one thing before going abroad, it would be to make getting good sleep a bigger priority. I think the few “low” moments I did experience in London were all due to exhaustion. 

I also found it pretty challenging to be an American abroad during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign and election, because people often expected my fellow Americans and me to answer for our country’s current political situation. 

What skills did you develop from your experience? Do you feel changed from your experience abroad? 
Interestingly, I think the biggest skill I developed while abroad was the ability to read maps and navigate (to a certain degree) without the help of modern technology. My biggest fear before I left for London was finding myself lost in a foreign city, because I’ve never really felt I had a great sense of direction. Naturally, I did lose my way several times, but as I began to force myself to read maps and learn London’s underground system as well as possible, I started to gain a lot of confidence in my navigating abilities. 

I also learned the importance of being completely present in a moment, of speaking up for yourself and others, and of being prepared for the possibility that events will not always go to plan. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, studying abroad made me much more open-minded. 

I absolutely feel changed from my experience abroad. I think I’m a lot more aware of my identity as an American, and of what “American” means to the international community. I feel less isolated and more culturally sensitive now. I also feel that I am now more likely to avoid blindly accepting stereotypes of people – for example, before visiting France, I was so worried that people there would be rude to my friends and me because of the stories I’d heard or read about the way Americans are supposedly treated there. In my experience, however, the people I met in France were kind and helpful. 

Has your experience helped you get to where you are today?
My experience studying abroad has absolutely helped me get to where I am today; at the moment, I am considering an eventual career in international education, either working with an American university’s study abroad program, with American students studying abroad, or with international students in the U.S. To a certain degree, I feel I’ve been in these students’ shoes and can empathize with what they’re going through. I definitively have an interest in helping more people go abroad to experience the types of lessons and memories I gained in London. 

I’m also now very much interested in eventually living and working abroad (especially in London!), something I don’t think I would’ve considered if I had not studied abroad. 

Maria Castello: #StudyAbroadBecause you learn a lot when you’re lost!

What advice would you share with other students who are thinking of going abroad?
Before going abroad, do as much research as possible about the place in which you’ll be studying. Try to always be open-minded and reserve judgement. Take the time to enjoy the small moments, even if you’re just sitting in the London rain eating fish and chips. Always write down, in multiple places, important addresses and phone numbers. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you feel homesick, talk to someone about it – your friends and classmates likely feel homesick, too. Get enough sleep, and make your health a big priority. If you really want to do something, do it, even if you have to go alone. Lastly, be open to as many new opportunities as possible! 

Maria Castello: #StudyAbroadBecause you learn a lot when you’re lost!

How has international education impacted or influenced your cultural identity?
International education really increased my awareness of my American identity and of America’s place in the international community. While in Europe, I came to realize how little I knew of geography and international politics, but I also gained a strong desire to learn more about both subjects. Studying abroad also made me more sensitive to and interested in immigrants and refugees, and taught me the importance of learning more about the world in general, of traveling and learning new languages and meeting people from all kinds of different communities.

Is there anything else you'd like to share with us?
I’d just like to emphasize again the importance of taking care of yourself physically and mentally (and especially the benefits of getting enough sleep!). Also, I’d say don’t be afraid to get (somewhat) lost – I think those experiences are some of the best opportunities for personal growth you’ll find while abroad, because, as you force yourself to find a solution, your confidence in your abilities (whether it be map-reading, asking strangers for help, etc.) will only grow. 

#StudyAbroadBecause...You learn a lot when you’re lost! 

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Maria Castello: #StudyAbroadBecause you learn a lot when you’re lost!


Stasia Lopez is the Global Education Editor for Wandering Educators and is also a Career Consultant at the University of Pittsburgh. She graduated with her Master’s degree in Educational Leadership in Higher Education and Student Affairs from Western Michigan University and earned her Bachelor of Science in Business Administration degree in Hospitality and Tourism Management from Robert Morris University. Stasia is passionate about international education, travel,  and loves working on a college campus. She’s lived in four different U.S. states (Florida, Michigan, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania) and also studied and lived abroad in Rome, Italy. Stasia lives in the Pittsburgh area with her husband, Fernando, precious daughter, Maya, and playful kitty-cat Zorro.

You can read more of her #studyabroadbecause interviews, as well as articles on various forms of international education at home and abroad, here.


All photos courtesy and copyright Maria Castello