My name is Nina Burges and I am an International Affairs major minoring in Economics and Data Science. I studied abroad at John Cabot University in Rome, Italy for the spring 2020 semester through a third–party program, SAI Rome. I wanted to share some of my experience on the department website and offer any advice to students in the department interested in studying abroad. Much thanks to Alicia, Jill, my friends and my mom as well as all my professors for their assistance, advice, and well wishes, even when it did go south due to COVID-19.
I always knew that I wanted to travel abroad since I was a child. When I arrived at UMW, I made sure to attend every information session and study abroad fair on campus and visit the Center for International Education (CIE) office two spring semesters in a row. These sessions and visits helped me figure out my goals and intentions for studying abroad and find programs through the CIE website based on these stated goals and interests. Initially, I settled on Morocco for my study abroad destination because I wanted to improve my Arabic speaking skills and my Spanish skills on the off chance I went to Fez or Tangier, which are closer to Spain. I applied to one program in Rabat, in addition to another program in Rome, Italy as a backup plan run by SAI. I started to feel drawn towards Rome as I further compared the programs, considering factors such as variety of classes and whether my peers would be from America or from my host country. Unexpectedly, I chose the Rome program after long deliberation, input from friends and—I hate to admit it—coin-flipping. I soothed my guilt with the notion that I would gain a new perspective on Europe beyond wine, colonization and dead, narrow minded philosophers and politicians. I also hoped that maybe I would find someone to speak Arabic with if I volunteered at a refugee center or talked to one of my classmates or found myself in a translation triangle from Italian to English to Arabic—that last scenario never happened.
The process for studying abroad mostly consisted of collecting and submitting paperwork to financial aid, CIE, and my study abroad program provider, SAI. CIE gave me a folder with all the forms that I needed to have signed and a check list to keep me on track and the SAI program followed the same procedure in helping me obtain a visa and a permit to stay; secure housing in Rome; and enroll in my classes at my host university, John Cabot University. The hardest part of it all was obtaining a visa, as the Italian Consulate required everything from a bank statement to my academic transcript, and ultimately a two-hour drive from Maryland to Philadelphia the day before Thanksgiving to submit it all. Fortunately, I was able to walk in without an appointment and submit the paperwork, and my visa was approved and sent back to me within days. Much thanks to my mother, who altered her cooking schedule to drive me to Philadelphia and back.
My preparation for going abroad also consisted of getting a scholarship, working at UMW catering until the semester ended and my old summer job at Pier 1 over winter break. I appreciated having this money to pay for groceries even though my scholarship and loans covered all my program costs and then some. I also took the winter break to learn Italian on Duolingo even though I planned on taking a class at my host university. Ultimately, this was all that I could do at that point without worrying myself into a frenzy.
I took four classes in sociology, law, Italian and fresco painting at my host school, John Cabot University. These classes were not very demanding in workload, but they were very enlightening in content, especially my Sociology of Southern Italian States lecture that examined the manifestations of the North-South divide in Italy and their economic and institutional implications for both regions. This class helped me to remove my rose-colored glasses and view Italy as a nation with just as many problems as the US. I also took a class in fresco painting—watercolor painting on plaster, think Sistine chapel—which offered a welcome, creative new experience working with my hands for a grade as opposed to writing papers and reading until my eyes and fingers fall out of their sockets. The life of an International Affairs major.
I studied alongside study abroad students and degree-seeking students from all over the world, including Qatar, Romania, Ghana, India and Barbados. I was able to speak Arabic with a Qatari girl from my fresco painting class and we ate at a Lebanese restaurant where she forced me to speak Arabic with the owner. That experience strengthened my confidence, but it reminded me how much I work I still must do to achieve fluency. I also met people through participating in clubs and organizations sponsored by my host school. I joined a group of students to teach English to Ukrainian, Guatemalan, and Burundian immigrants at a community center run by the Latter-Day Saints. This experience opened my eyes to the reality of immigration, as many of the students were from all over the world and appeared to be my age.
Additionally, I participated in Africans in the Culture Club, which provided a unique support system and safe space for people of black or African descent living and studying abroad in Italy. The movie nights and the club meetings were helpful for me especially I had trouble finding friends amongst the people in my program for the first couple weeks I was in Italy. This was especially troublesome because I wanted to travel around Italy and Europe, but I was a bit wary of travelling alone, and therefore I worried that I would not be able to travel as much as I wanted to. Ultimately, I set social goals for myself and I found two people to travel with to Florence and later to Venice for Carnevale.
My experience abroad reaffirmed my wish to travel and experience different cultures as in my post college career. The Italian people were so nice to me and patient as they listened to my banged–up Italian, kindly switched to English when they saw that I didn’t understand, and laughed with me when I replied to “come sta?” (How are you) in Arabic. I learned so much about myself through this experience and I will keep it with me forever and I hope my experience will encourage to consider studying, researching, volunteering or interning abroad during their time at UMW.
My advice to students thinking about studying abroad:
Use your resources: There are so many resources on campus and off campus resources for people wanting to study abroad, just start planning early so you can do your research and get the information and financial resources you need to create the experience that you want.
Don’t be afraid to change, but that does not mean one choice is better than the other—All destinations have their charm and I still want to go to Morocco just as much as I love Rome.
Embrace the broken language—I went grocery shopping in Italy for the first time and a man from East Asia asked me in broken English if I knew whether the prosciutto was supposed to be cooked. I realized then that I could spare to speak beyond the usual “Ciao” and “Buongiorno” at least once or twice a day. Even if your execution is off, make the effort to learn and speak the language, even if you have to repeat yourself—outdoor markets are a great place to practice because the conversations are one on one and you can leave whenever you want by just repeating “no” in your host language.
Write down goals before and during your time abroad—This helped me feel accomplished when I left Rome, even though it was eight weeks too soon and reflect on my growth.