#StudyAbroadBecause it brings the world together!

by Stasia Lopez / Mar 23, 2015 /
Stasia Lopez's picture

Ciao! Michelle Wass is a senior at the University of Pittsburgh and about to graduate with a Bachelor’s degree in Natural Sciences (with concentrations in biology, chemistry and psychology); an Italian minor, and a Global Health Certificate. She made the best decision of her life to study abroad in Rome, Italy, in the spring 2013 semester. As a result of this experience, she now has a network of friends and family all over the globe, and an endless desire to travel! Thanks to her wonderful host family, she has become skilled in the Italian language, and gained invaluable multicultural perspectives.

She says, “I insist on finding a way to incorporate my passion for traveling into my planned profession in the medical field. The first month back in the US was rough; I found myself asking, “well…now what?” quite frequently.  Then I was notified of a job opportunity to become an Alumni Ambassador for the American Institute For Foreign Study (AIFS), the company that I studied abroad with. I applied immediately, got the job, and for the past two years I’ve been having so much fun promoting the international experience to fellow students!"

While establishing her presence on campus as an ambassador and working for AIFS, she still continues preparing for the medical field by being EMT certified, volunteering weekly, and working part time at Allegheny General Hospital in patient transport. She also remains active in student organizations like the Italian club, and Panther Cure Finders, which is a student charity organization that Michelle founded at Pitt, which benefits Cystic Fibrosis research.  Read her interview below to learn more about Michelle’s experience!

 

Michelle Wass. #StudyAbroadBecause... It brings the world together!

 

Were you always interested in studying abroad? What motivated your decision to go abroad?

No, surprisingly. I wasn’t aware of study abroad opportunities at all until the summer going into my senior year of high school, when one of my best friends told me she was going on an international exchange program for the year in Belgium. She started studying the French language when we were in middle school, and she decided to participate in a Rotary exchange program to master her French accent, and experience someplace new. It wasn’t long after she’d been gone that she asked me to come visit her, and it didn’t take much convincing for me to agree. I had been living vicariously through her Facebook posts and photo uploads for weeks, and through video chats with her and her host sisters, I could see that she was having the time of her life. I started saving up, and finally went to visit her a few months later.

At the time, I had never traveled outside of the country. In fact, I hadn’t traveled much further than down the east coast, so it was an absolutely thrilling experience. I remember feeling all stirred up emotionally that week—excited, anxious, and curious. I found myself in so many unfamiliar situations while I was there: navigating around foreign airports and cities, trying to speak the language, and meeting her host family. In those eight days I was there I learned so much, not only about their culture, but about myself too. I couldn’t imagine how much I would learn if I were to venture overseas for longer, so I made a promise to myself right then and there as I waved her goodbye at my departure gate, that I would study abroad in college. After some consideration and research, I decided on Italy, and began to learn the Italian language. When I arrived at Pitt, I reached out to the Study Abroad Office, and the rest is history.

 

Michelle Wass: #StudyAbroadBecause it brings the world together!

 

What was your study abroad experience like? Describe the courses studied and basic outline of your experience.

My semester abroad began with an exciting three-day stopover in London, where I met all of the students on my program, and enjoyed group tours and individual sightseeing. Coincidentally, my roommate from Pitt was studying abroad there for the semester, so I met up with her for an unofficial lay of the land and an update on how her time abroad had been so far. Next, we went to Florence for a two-week orientation, where I stayed in a hotel with fellow students and took an accelerated three-credit language course. This part of my semester was really enjoyable, because since we were all rooming together in a hotel, I was able to get to know staff and students on my program before moving on to Rome - and I got to take classes with students from all over the world! My class was tiny, which was something I had not experienced at Pitt and I really liked. For some of my classmates, the only mutual language we knew was Italian, which was really cool. While in Florence we visited the city’s most famous art and architectural treasures, traveled to Venice for a weekend during carnival, and went on a day trip to a gorgeous castle in Tuscany where we learned how to make wine—no big deal.

Finally, we arrived in Rome, where I would live for the next five and a half months with a host family. They welcomed me immediately, and made me feel right at home—invited me to family functions, outings with friends, and day trips. It was the best way to become fully immersed in the Italian culture, and of course, the fastest way to learn the language. Now, I may have been the luckiest girl in the world to be placed with that particular family, but after having such a positive experience, I strongly advocate the home-stay option. I was thousands of miles away from home, and yet still felt so loved and secure. It was incredible.

While in Rome, I took some general education courses and others towards my Italian minor: Rome through the ages, globalization, history of the Italian mafia, and Italian language. Most of the curriculum was taught in English, with the exception of my Italian language class, of course. The subject matter was fascinating and really helped me to get acquainted with the city of Rome and its rich history. Many of my classes were taught on site, so it was a tremendous learning experience to be able to see the legendary artworks, historical monuments, and world-renowned architecture.

Throughout my semester, I was fortunate enough to able to travel independently. On spring break, a friend and I went to Prague, Vienna, Salzburg, Dachau, and Munich. Then, in April, I went to Amsterdam with a group of six other girls from my program, and shortly after, met up with my friend from London...in Barcelona. Along the way, I met so many inspiring people who shared their stories and experiences and gave tremendous insight into their fields.

After the semester was finished, I decided to extend my stay a few weeks beyond my program end date. Originally, I intended to do some more solo traveling, but as the end drew nearer, I realized that I wanted to stay in Rome to soak up as much of the sunshine, buzzing streets, and delicious food before departing. I had become so close with my host family, and was already beginning to miss them, so I spent my last weeks revisiting all of the beautiful people and places I had encountered in the eternal city.  

 

Michelle Wass. #StudyAbroadBecause... It brings the world together!

 

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

Truth be told, I have always been a pretty independent person. However, by going overseas, I definitely gained an even greater sense of independence and confidence. Whether it was communicating in a foreign language or simply just trying to get from point A to point B, I learned how to think critically and how to be flexible and adapt to new situations, which has enabled me to work with all kinds of people, even under stress. I’ve most certainly improved my listening skills, and become less hesitant to ask questions. Above all, my international experience has provided me with a variety of perspectives, and helped me to mature. It made the world a much smaller place, because the more I traveled, the more I learned, and the more I realized the many ways in which we are all connected.

 

What were some challenges that you observed that happened on your study abroad experience?

Studying abroad is full of challenges, but it’s what we make of them that defines our experience. I was dumped in a new place, so unlike home, where norms and expectations were totally different. I went on a program by myself, knowing no classmates beforehand, so I was constantly put in new situations with new faces outside of my comfort zone. By embracing the culture shock, realizing differences, and acknowledging my own biases, it showed me a lot about the Italian culture and about myself. Being taught a lesson from the local pick-pocketers, losing luggage, and missing family can be major set-backs for students abroad, as they were for a handful of my friends, but when these things happened to me, I made it work. I realized that no problem was permanent or worth tainting my overall experience abroad - which really helped me. It was a challenge to adjust, but I enjoyed every moment of it!

 

Michelle Wass. #StudyAbroadBecause... It brings the world together!

 

How did you prepare to go abroad? What steps did you take that really helped you? What advice would you share with other students? Did you have to attend a pre-departure orientation?

Anyone who knows me knows that I tend to be a meticulous planner, and since I had decided early on that I wanted to go abroad, I started preparing for it far in advance. After selecting a program, I started researching Rome and other destinations that I wanted to travel to, so that I could begin to come up with a financial plan and budget my expenses. I investigated virtually everything about Roman life so that I could prepare for culture shock, and frequently found myself on blogs that shared information on Internet access and phone plans to make staying connected with family and my adjustment easier. But my preparation wasn’t all on my own. After reaching out to the study abroad office, I was put in touch with several students who had traveled on my program before who were extremely helpful in sharing their experiences and tips for being prepared. Closer to departure, two things that I found very beneficial were my pre-departure meeting and a pre-departure handbook provided by AIFS that was specific to Rome.

The best piece of advice I can give to students considering going abroad is to express your interest early! This will allow you to gather as much information as possible to be prepared. I learned the most from talking to other students who had gone abroad, and reading travel blogs, so I would suggest doing the same. An additional benefit of starting the process early is that it gives you time to apply for every scholarship under the sun. I have met people that had almost all of their study abroad experience covered by scholarships and grants—it is possible! As a side note, I feel like a lot of unnecessary worry goes into packing and what to bring, because in reality you can get anything you need when you arrive overseas and forgotten material items are always a quick fix.

 

Michelle Wass: #StudyAbroadBecause it brings the world together!

 

Many students worry about the cost of going abroad. How did you pay for you study abroad experience? Were there any scholarships and grants available? Any tips you would recommend to students who’re interested in going abroad?

I, too, was one of those students who was worried that I wouldn’t be able to afford going abroad, but both AIFS and the study abroad office on my campus shared a wealth of information on scholarships, grants, and creative fundraising. I first applied to the scholarships that offered larger rewards, and focused my effort on crafting solid, competitive essays. I utilized my campus’s writing center, and sent out my essays to friends and family to have as many eyes on my applications as possible before submission. After completing some of those more detailed applications that required lengthier essays, applying for the smaller grants and scholarships was very easy, took less time, and it streamlined the process. My hard work paid off when I was awarded the Benjamin A. Gilman Scholarship and the University of Pittsburgh Study Abroad Office Scholarship, which ended up covering a little over one third of the total cost of my semester abroad. The rest of the bill was covered through financial aid, and some out of pocket savings. The best advice I can give is to apply for as many scholarships as possible, and to be mindful of unique qualities that set you apart so that you can tap into them.

 

 

Did anything about your study abroad shock or surprise you? If so, explain. Do you have a favorite memory to share from your experience abroad?

Nothing in particular shocked me while I was abroad, but I was constantly surprised by little cultural differences in my changing surroundings. I don’t think I could even begin to try to pick one favorite memory out of the thousands that I have from my time overseas. However, I’ll share the one that remains the most vivid, probably because it was right as I was arriving in Rome.

“Beeeeep!” My taxi driver slammed on his horn, as the vespa in front of us cut us off. We swerved around it, the cobbled stoned streets thudding loud underneath us, and I heard my first loud slur of Italian curse words. I was feeling so anxious to meet my host family for the first time. Just as the nerves began to overwhelm me, we turned the corner. My jaw dropped, and suddenly all noise tuned out. Vatican city and the beautiful St. Peter’s basilica were right in front of me, while the magnificent Castel St. Angelo was getting smaller in the rear view mirror. We arrived at the address written on my crumpled post-it note, and my taxi driver grabbed my bag from the back. I was shaking with nerves and after I looked up at the towering apartment complex, I turned to him in desperation. He smiled, took the post-it note, and rang the doorbell. Within a few minutes, the whole extended family was running out to greet me—apparently my host mother’s sister lives just above her, and my taxi driver had rung the wrong doorbell. They showered me with hugs and kisses, and made me feel welcome. In that moment, I knew that I had made the best decision of my life to study there. Excitement wouldn’t be a sufficient word to describe that feeling that was growing inside me. If that were only day one, my imagination scrambled to guess what lay ahead that semester.

 

Michelle Wass: #StudyAbroadBecause it brings the world together!

 

Once you returned from your experience, how did you reflect upon your study abroad experience?   

My semester abroad was a highly formative experience for me, and immediately after returning, I had this yearning to continue to pursue international interests, and to get involved in opportunities that would allow me to keep my memories and experiences from abroad close to me, and to use those experiences in a productive way. The first month back was a huge adjustment, but it was comforting to read my journal from abroad and share my photos and stories with family and friends. I stayed in touch with classmates from my program, and people that I met during my travels, a lot of whom were making the same transition that I was, feeling some reverse culture shock, and ready to reminisce on good times overseas.

Luckily, it wasn’t long until I was notified of a job as an Alumni Ambassador with AIFS, and began working shortly after landing the position. Basically my job is to serve as the lead AIFS representative on-site, recruit students to study abroad, and organize and host events to inform them of AIFS program opportunities. Getting to know my coworkers, fellow alumni ambassadors, and prospective study abroad students allowed me to reflect on my experience even more.

 

Did your study abroad experience ever come up in a job interview? If so, explain. Has your experience helped you get to where you are today?

Of course, my study abroad experience has obviously helped me land my position as an Alumni Ambassador with AIFS, and in fact through my ambassadorship, thanks to my mentors, I have become much more comfortable in articulating my study abroad experience, giving my elevator pitch to employers, and developing my own personal brand. The experience they’ve given me has provided me with a range of skills and competencies to draw from for any job. I’ve also been able to network with so many brilliant people within the company who have given me invaluable advice for staying afloat in the professional world.

 

Michelle Wass. #StudyAbroadBecause... It brings the world together!

 

How has international education impacted or influenced your cultural identity?

My family doesn’t have very close ties to our heritage. I have a German last name, but otherwise I come from a family of very mixed European descent. Despite the fact that I’m not very Italian, I felt at home by the end of my semester abroad, and I came to love and appreciate the Italian culture for all of the beautiful differences it has from American culture and the similarities it shares. I still identify with the American culture and very much lead an American lifestyle, but I have certainly picked up Italian influence. In the mornings, I make coffee Italian-style with my little macchinetta. I’m not a talented cook, but on those rare occasions when I try to be, I use my host mom’s recipes. I still listen to Italian music, watch Italian films, and use Italian expressions. My personal favorite is when I dream in Italian from time to time.

 

Anything else you’d like to share?

Studying abroad was a truly profound and influential experience for me, and it has opened the door for many more academic and professional experiences that I hadn’t considered previously. I highly encourage all students out there, regardless of their hesitations, to explore the world of opportunities at their feet. I would like to thank everyone who supported me throughout my journey abroad and back, and all of the people that I met on my travels; you have touched and inspired me. Lastly, I would like to thank Wandering Educators and other organizations of your kind for your dedication to international education, and bringing the world together.

 

#StudyAbroadBecause... It brings the world together!
    
 

Michelle Wass: #StudyAbroadBecause it brings the world together!

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

All photos courtesy and copyright Michelle Wass