Valpo Voyager

Student Stories from Around the World

Author: studyabroad (page 3 of 43)

For the Love of Protesting

Author: Ella Speckhard

Location: Paris, France

Pronouns: She/Her/Hers

My homestay in Paris is situated in the 11th arrondissement of Paris on Blvd Voltaire. This is a lovely neighborhood with lots of great places to eat, shop, and observe the “real” Parisian life away from the tourist traps. My host’s apartment is just a short walk away from Place de la Nation, a monument commemorating the square with the most active guillotines during the Revolution, as well as the Père Lachaise cemetery. This is the largest cemetery in Paris, a beautiful place to walk, and contains the graves of such famous people as Edith Piaf, Chopin, Oscar Wild, Jim Morrison, and the fictional character of Jean Valjean in Hugo’s Les Misérables. I’ve really enjoyed having easy access to these two spots; the cemetery is a lovely place to take a walk when things get overwhelming because there’s lots of trees and green space and it feels like a different world from the city that surrounds it. Living near Nation gives me access to a lot of different metro lines and makes getting around the city much simpler. However, what I didn’t know about this location is that it’s also central to the thing French people love most: protesting.

I receive regular emails informing me of different protests happening around the city so that I can try to avoid them. However, many of the protests pass right in front of my apartment so avoiding them is easier said than done. Luckily, I’m usually at school on the other side of the city when they take place so I’m not super inconvenienced, but I have witnessed a few and wanted to shine some light on what to expect from a protest in France.

The first protest I saw was one of the marches for the transportation strikes. It was early in the semester and I was interested to actually see something that I had heard so much about in my classes. I’ve never been to any marches or protests even in America, so I was a bit nervous. I shouldn’t have been though because it was basically just a boring parade with lots of signs. People came from all over France to participate so this was the largest protest I’ve seen so far, but I only caught the tail end of it, so I don’t have a great reference for how many people were marching. That evening during dinner my host turned on the news and we watched live footage of the protestors at their final destination, Place de la Bastille, and it was there that things got a little bit rowdy towards the end. We could hear the commotion in the distance, but luckily it didn’t affect our neighborhood at all. There were just a few fires from people burning their signs and people yelling at the police, but nothing violent or drastic.

The second protest I saw was a completely different story, and probably my most adrenaline-inducing experience abroad. It was a completely normal Tuesday afternoon and I was on my way home from classes, finally feeling confident in my routine. When I exited the station and went up the steps to the sidewalk, I could immediately sense that something was off. Cars were parked on the street so I couldn’t immediately tell what was happening, but I could see the sirens on top of police vehicles to my left. All I had to do was cross the street and walk for 20 feet and I would be home, but if I had been 30 seconds later getting off of the metro, I would’ve had to go somewhere else for the evening. I wasn’t sure if I should cross the street or not and hesitated for just a moment before the woman next to me decided to cross, so I followed her. When I stepped out into the street was when I saw a wall of police running my way, carrying their shields and batons. I jogged the rest of the way across the street to get out of their way and as I walked away from the commotion towards my apartment, I couldn’t help but turn around to see what was going on. People were stopped on the sidewalks watching, and as more and more police ran past, I truly felt like I was living out a movie scene. It was with the first blast of the tear gas cannon (I’m not really sure what the technical term for that is, but it felt like a cannon the way it shook the ground) that I snapped out of it and ran inside. Once I was inside, I felt comfortable watching things develop from the balcony, but only managed to get a few short videos because the tear gas was actually making my eyes itch even from 6 stories up. I was able to figure out that this wasn’t a transportation protest, but a protest of firefighters.


Although the video makes it seem pretty scary (and it was, I’ll be honest), I felt really lucky a few days afterward when I saw an article on social media about the other protests that the firefighters in Paris had done that week.

They stayed out on the street for about half an hour, and then the blasts I was hearing grew further and further away as the protest moved toward Place de la Nation down the street.

A video I took as things were breaking up and moving elsewhere

Finally, the most recent protest I’ve witnessed was extremely small, but loud. The group of marchers were led by a van with many speakers and a man yelling into his microphone about their cause. I’m not sure what they were protesting, but it’s amazing to think just how quickly I’ve grown accustomed to these types of events. I’ve only seen three in person, but they’re so deeply engrained into everyday life in France, and particularly Paris, that I didn’t even think twice when I heard the commotion on the street.


Hopefully I don’t run into any more protests where my safety is in question because that was a pretty intense experience, but I feel confident that I know the signs of a protest turned hostile and would be able to just turn in the opposite direction and find something to do until things settled down enough for me to go home. Inconvenient? Yes. But the French love their protests and so learning how to live with them is essential, especially where I’m living. Remember, priority number one when studying abroad is safety! Research where you’re staying before you arrive so that you’re able to prepare for the different facets of your neighborhood, for instance, the presence of a bunch of protests right in front of your apartment!

Getting Around

Author: Jenna Johnston

Location: San José and Heredia, Costa Rica

Now that I’ve been here for a few weeks, I’m starting to get used to the varied methods of public and private transportation. My Spanish classes at the University of Costa Rica (UCR) started this week, and while Heidi oriented me to the university, she must have told me at least four ways to get to class in the morning, and four more to get home in the afternoon. I realized a few days ago that I had used six methods of transportation in one day: I walked, biked, took a train, took a bus, took an Uber, and took a taxi. So here’s what each of those are like for me in my everyday life.


My favorite method of transportation, though by far the slowest, is walking. This would be unthinkable to my last-semester self. I biked everywhere on Valpo’s campus — with my back-to-back classes and packed schedule, it was necessary. If I couldn’t bike due to snowy weather or a flat tire, I would lament how long it took to walk everywhere, and would be just a few minutes late to everything.

But here, walking is fun again. Between neighborhood dogs and darting through traffic, it might be the added thrill — pedestrians don’t have the right of way or very many crosswalks, so crossing the road is all about timing. The sunny weather and better views certainly help, as does the fact that here, absolutely no one will care if I’m a few minutes late. My daily walk has been to Casa Adobe, where the Valpo study center is located, about 20 minutes from my house. There are a few different routes between my house and Casa Adobe. I prefer the one that I can’t take if it’s starting to get dark outside. Here, people say streets are dangerous at night if they’re sola — if there aren’t any houses around, so you might end up walking alone. But the sola route has fewer cars to dodge, and it takes me on a road bordered by trees through a local park, so it’s particularly pleasant early in the morning.

The sola route on a sunny morning.


Last week, in anticipation of having to catch the 6:45 train for classes at the UCR, I borrowed a bike from Casa Adobe. Despite my bike being my lifeline back at Valpo, it’s more difficult here. With more hills, lots of traffic, and worse sidewalks, biking can be a bit dangerous, especially when I’m coming home during rush hour. With the added steps of retrieving my bike from the garage at home and stashing it at Casa Adobe, biking and walking from my house to the train station end up taking about the same amount of time. Maybe as I get more confident in this new environment, something will change, but I haven’t gotten the hang of biking here yet.

My bike, waiting in the garage for the next time I decide to try it.


The train is definitely the most reliable source of transportation I have access to. It always follows the same schedule, arriving just a few minutes before 6:46 am every weekday. But it’s a far cry from the South Shore Line. Going from the suburbs into the city on a weekday morning means it’s rush hour — every car is packed full of people. I’m not very assertive in a crowd, so I usually end up having to ride a few stops in the precarious closed-in space between train cars, with the floor and walls moving and no handles in sight. It’s a relief once we get closer to the city, people start getting off, and I can make a dash for the stability of the train car, grabbing on to an overhead handle.

The train also gets me to school really early. The train arrives at 7:15, so I have a full 45 minutes to wander around campus, grab coffee, or do some last-minute homework before class begins. I can’t complain, because the it’s the fastest way to get anywhere. The timeworn car may rock back and forth on the tracks as we move, more boatlike than trainlike, but that’s part of the adventure, right? The views out the window, the price, and the time are unbeatable. I love the train.

Santa Rosa’s train tracks. I wish I had a picture from the train, but it’s usually far too crowded to get my phone out.


I’ve taken fewer Ubers and taxis than anything else to get around. They’re more expensive, take more steps to catch one, and require conversation. My first weekend here, I took an Uber to and from the mall to buy pants (my biggest study abroad advice — check your suitcase to make sure you actually grabbed all the clothes you planned on taking out of your closet!!). The first driver I had said only a few words, but my driver home was very chatty. While I was worried at first I would make a fool of myself, after he realized I was from the US, we talked and joked about cultural and language differences, and it was a lot of fun. It was definitely a good step toward becoming more confident in my Spanish and acclimating to the culture. Speaking of culture — in Costa Rica, when you take a taxi, you sit in the backseat, but when you take an Uber, you sit in the front. Not totally sure why, but the more you know!

A pic from Longo Mai, because it’s weird to take pictures in Ubers.


The bus is my ticket home, in more ways than one. The train only runs at rush hour, so when I get out of Spanish class at 1 pm, I take a bus or two instead. Also, as proof that I won’t overstay my travel visa, I bought a bus ticket to a neighboring country before going through immigration. Buses are everywhere — while I’ve heard nothing about a formal timetable, I’ve never had to wait longer than a few minutes for a bus. And I’ve taken them everywhere — to get home from class, to get around my neighborhood, city, or province, and to travel to, from, and within San José.

There are (at least) two ways to get home by bus after class. If it’s close to an hour, I take the direct bus from the UCR to Santo Domingo. This one requires paying a lot of attention — since it’s heading all the way to the city of Heredia, the bus doesn’t like to stop unless it has to, so when I’m approaching my neighborhood, I pull this little cord next to my seat and hope the bus driver will let me off. It’s a comfortable bus though, less crowded than the train, and having a direct route from school to (near) home is a blessing.

The other way to get home is less certain, and I’m not too confident in it yet. I can go to the bus stop, take literally any bus into downtown San José, walk around the corner, and take any bus whose sign in the window lists “SANTO DOMINGO” as a stop. I’m still weirded out by the concept of not worrying what specific bus or route to take, but it does give me freedom and flexibility, since I can take it at any time, and if I want, take a detour into downtown San José to hang out in the city after class.

This isn’t the bus I take, but there are so many buses on UCR’s campus. Here’s one of them!

Some Costa Rica things I’ve googled recently:

  1. micah 6:8 espanol: The Casa Adobe community holds devotions every Sunday evening. I finally made it to one this past Sunday, and didn’t bring a Bible, so I looked up the verse for discussion in both Spanish and English to have them side by side.
  2. what is vitamaiz: I went with my host family this weekend to visit our grandmother’s house. On Saturday, I saw her stir something flour-like into a pot of hot water on the stove, and a few minutes later she handed me a mug full of a warm, light-colored drink. I wasn’t really sure what it was but drank it anyway – not my favorite, but it was pretty sweet. I saw her pull out the box later, and later googled the name of the product, but I still don’t really know what it is – some kind of corn drink, probably? Some cultural mysteries can’t be solved even by Google!
  3. how to get US shows in costa rica: I’m an avid fan of The Good Place, so I was very sad when I tried to log into my Hulu account here and it blocked me because I’m not in the United States. Ever since, I’ve been searching for a way to watch the last several episodes and the series finale, but no luck so far! If you have any idea how to do it, please let me know 🙂
  4. wonder park movie summary: One of my host family’s favorite activities is to watch movies together, usually in Spanish with Spanish subtitles. I can follow along pretty well, but sometimes my limited vocabulary will cause me to miss the point of an important scene. I’ve taken to googling the plot summaries of movies so I can read along and keep track of what’s happening.
  5. C2 grammar spanish: I’m taking two Spanish classes this month – grammar and conversation. There are six levels from A1 to C2, and I placed into B2 for conversation, but there aren’t enough students to offer B2 grammar this month. I had the choice of an easier or harder Spanish class, and after trying both and some frantic googling to make sure I wouldn’t be in too over my head, I chose the harder class. It’s going to be a challenge, but I think I’m up for it!

I don’t know if I’ll ever feel like I really have a handle on getting around Costa Rica. I told a classmate how to take the bus from UCR to Santo Domingo today, and I can only hope that when I ask him tomorrow, the directions made sense! But I’m grateful for the number of different ways I can get from here to there. It’s exciting having the freedom and ability to go pretty much anywhere, with just a little forethought, a few solid Spanish phrases, and some change in my pocket.

Taking in all the sun I can.

Making a New Home

Author: Emily Gustin

Location: Cambridge, England

Pronouns: She/Her/Hers

After a few weeks, I feel I am finally settled into life in Cambridge. It was not the easiest journey to get to this point, but I am glad for the struggle– it has let me grow in ways that I never would have otherwise.

Culture shock is a strange experience and difficult to describe because it affects everyone in different ways. For me, I was finding it hard to talk to the people in my classes. In British universities, students choose a course of study and take modules (classes) in that subject with mostly the same people throughout their degree (unlike liberal arts schools in the US, where students take classes in different subjects). So, when I showed up to my first class, I was definitely the odd person out– everyone had already been taking classes together since the start of their first year, and they were already a tight-knit group. I felt self-conscious and concerned that I might not make any friends, since I was an outsider. It took a couple weeks, but some of my classmates have opened up and I feel comfortable having conversations with them– I just had to be patient and give them and myself some time to adjust.

Moving away from my family and friends has also been difficult for me, but I have found such comfort in talking to my cohort– we are all in the same situation, and I am so thankful to have them as a support system. Because of them, I know that I am never alone.

When I walk through the streets of the city, I feel like I am a part of it, fully immersed into a new way of life that did not seem possible a month ago. Getting to know the city has been one of my favorite parts of living here, but I also wanted to explore places outside of England. Last weekend, I had the opportunity to travel to Milan, Italy, for my first trip outside of the UK. I went with two others in the Cambridge group, Grace and Katie. Traveling is a wonderful thing, but we learned that you have to be prepared to be patient. It’s a lot of work just to get where you want to go, including many forms of transportation (train, bus, plane, metro, and others). After arriving in Milan, we had to figure out the metro system (in Italian, which none of us could read) to get to our hostel. Thanks to Google Maps, we were able to find the correct route to take.

We had two full days in Milan. The Duomo di Milano (Milan Cathedral) is a beautiful, massive building in the heart of the city, and it’s hard to miss. It took over six hundred years to build and is the 5th largest church in the world. We were lucky enough to go to an organ vespers service, so we even got to go inside for free. All of the readings were Italian! We spent much of our time in Italy enjoying the art and architecture of Milan. The three of us went to Pinacoteca di Brera (Brera Art Gallery) and Castello Sforzesco (Sforzesco Castle), which had amazing collections of Italian art, as well as art from around the world (including Michelangelo’s last sculpture and Mategna’s Lamentation of Christ, which are both very famous).  We also got to see Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper at Santa Maria delle Grazie, which was an amazing experience; I couldn’t believe that I was seeing such a piece of art history.

Grace, me, and Katie in front of Duomo di Milano

Tagliatelle bolognese—one of the several pasta dishes I enjoyed in Italy

Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, located in Santa Maria delle Grazie

Katie, Grace, and I did not have a shortage of Italian food; we had either pasta or pizza for every single meal while we were there, and I have no complaints. My favorite meal was homemade rigatoni with tomato sauce and burrata cheese on top, complete with custard pie for dessert– it was all so delicious. We also had gelato several times, which did not disappoint.

I had appreciation for these yellow apartments that we saw while walking the streets of Milan

When we started the journey back to England, I think we all felt a little different, but in all the best ways. We had seen some of the most iconic architecture and art pieces in Italian history, eaten some amazing food, and mastered public transportation in another language. Though we were tired, I felt a sense of accomplishment. As the three of us headed for the airport once again, I watched the sun come up over the mountains and I felt a moment of stillness. It was such a beautiful view, and I was so thankful to have experienced it.

Our last glimpse of the cathedral

After taking a taxi, a bus, a plane, and a train, we made it back to Cambridge safe and sound. I think we all agreed that it felt a little bit like coming home.

Twelve Hours in Rotterdam

Author: Dakota Kampmeier

Location: Rotterdam, Netherlands

Pronouns: She/Her/Hers

Rotterdam is a city in the Netherlands full of funky architecture and packed food courts. I was told before visiting that the buildings are so unique because Rotterdam “got super bombed” during the war by the Germans. As it turns out, this bombing was a complete accident and the result of delayed communication. Leave it to the Dutch to find the silver lining, though, because they took their destroyed city as an opportunity to rebuild the infrastructure of Rotterdam. Only two buildings survived the bombings, a rectangular-looking building where the Germans held office and the fifteenth-century Grote of Sint-Laurenskerk church, which the Germans used as a lookout tower. Rotterdam is an alluring mix of old and new, skyscrapers that tower over cobblestone roads and traditional Turkish foods inside a modern all-glass food court. Exploring the city for a day with a local added an appreciation for the atmosphere.

My buddy Sam played tour guide for me and my friend Maddy, another American girl, and showed us all the good spots in his hometown. We ate fries in a cone called “Patatje Oorlog” and wandered the streets in a drizzle as Sam explained what the many statues that peppered the city represented (spoiler alert: they almost all serve as reminders of that time the Germans bombed the city in the forties). We wandered around the infamous cube houses, another testament to the architecture of the city. While they look tiled from the outside, apparently inside the homes are completely level. That sort of thing boggles my mind because I’ve never heard of someone living in a lopsided cube before, but they were cute and just enough of a tourist trap that I ended up buying a postcard with a photograph of the houses. As the rain came down a little harder, we ducked inside the Market Hall, a food court of sorts on the first floor of an apartment building. This building, too, was shaped oddly enough that if you looked straight up through the mural on the inside, you could see the window of someone’s bathroom about a hundred feet above your head. After purchasing some sought-after frozen yogurt, we wandered back outside and stood on the steps of the bustling market, seemingly ignorant to the fat rain drops that fell into my spoon.

Once all the yogurt was consumed, Sam pointed out a small bookstore beyond the market and we headed over to check it out. Inside was the most obscure collection of books I had ever seen. From two five-hundred page volumes about Belgium transport to a comic-type book series called “The Book of Bunny Suicides: Little Fluffy Rabbits Who Just Don’t Want to Live Anymore”, I can assure you that you’ve never read a single book in the store. Without meaning to, we spent almost an hour pouring over the strange titles and bending over in laughter at “The Hypnotic Power of Crop Circles”. By the time one of us checked our watch, it was time for us to catch the movie “1917” in an attempt to wait out the rain, which we did. The streets were slick with water when we exited the theater and the rest of our evening, though chilly, was dry.

The evening consisted mostly of finding a place to eat. 7pm is dinner rush hour, and every place Sam suggested had a line out the door. We finally found a German-chain Italian restaurant (do with that what you will) and ordered personal pizzas and glasses of wine to recap the day and get to know each other even better. After dinner, we took a half-hour stroll to the other side of town, passing through a forest of flags by the river, and we guessed (poorly) which countries they belonged to. Just over an industrial-looking bridge we found Hotel New York, a sweet building nestled along the water that used to be the harbor where ships would set off for America, carrying immigrants and all the hopes and dreams one could manage. We sat at the bar of the hotel and enjoyed drinks and good company before catching the metro back to the station for a late-night train ride into Utrecht.

Exploring Rotterdam, even just for twelve hours, was a pleasant surprise. Even though it was only a thirty-five minute train ride from Utrecht, it was unique in a way that made it feel like a completely different world. There was so much that we didn’t see, but still I returned to school with sore feet and a full camera roll. Sooner or later I’ll venture outside of the Netherlands and see the rest of Europe, but I can’t forget how much this tiny country has to offer, either.

Mucho más allá

Author: Jenna Johnston

Location: Santa Rosa, Santo Domingo, Heredia, Costa Rica

I arrived here in Santa Rosa, Costa Rica a week and a half ago. From classes starting, to life with a new family, to weekend adventures and a trip to Longo Mai, it’s been a whirlwind. While I was definitely nervous for the semester, there was one thing that helped as I prepared to leave. Hannah, a Valpo alum and friend who stayed with the same family, connected me with our tica mom* on WhatsApp, and she sent me a delightful voice message in which my new siblings – two younger girls and a toddler boy – introduced themselves. Whenever I felt stressed or nervous about leaving, I would replay it and smile as “hola Yena, cómo estás, te amo” filled my ears.**

My tica sisters made me welcome cards that they gave me when I arrived, complete with glitter.

Posing with my tica sisters and cousin, with plenty of Valpo gear to go around!

When people ask me about my first impression of the country, I talk about its natural beauty. It’s an easy thing for me to talk about in Spanish, but it’s also my natural first reaction. I chuckle to myself every time my tica mom asks if I need to grab a jacket whenever the temperature dips below 75 degrees Fahrenheit. I take advantage of every opportunity to study, have class, or walk around outside. And I will never get tired of the mountains. We’re located in the Central Valley, which means the mountains surround us. To locals, they’re unremarkable, background, but I will never get tired of gazing at them on my walk to class, at sundown, or while driving around the city.

Beautiful cloudy mountain views on our drive to Longo Mai.

While I’m very grateful for how lovely my time here has been so far, it hasn’t been without its mishaps. One morning was particularly trying – first, I couldn’t leave my house because I couldn’t figure out how to unlock the front door and no one was awake. Upon leaving my house, the neighborhood dogs jumped on me and chased me down the street. After shooing them off and arriving at Casa Adobe, the front door, which I don’t have a key to, was locked! But for every unfortunate occurrence, there have been many more joys, from swimming in the river and singing old songs with locals at Longo Mai, to playing and laughing with my tico siblings, to trying and loving new foods. I’ve learned so much in class already, and arguably even more in my everyday life.

We went for a swim in a beautiful river while at Longo Mai.

A quick explanation of what my study abroad program looks like, since it’s pretty unusual: while I’m a part of a Valpo study center program, I’m the only student from Valpo in Costa Rica this semester. Thankfully, the Valpo study center is based out of a house called Casa Adobe, the hub for several volunteer and educational programs, and the residence for families, volunteers, and employees from around the world. Like previous semesters, I’m taking an introductory history course with the program coordinator, Heidi, but we are joined by two Casa Adobe volunteers who arrived here around the same time I did – Juliana from Bolivia and Andrea from El Salvador. I was very nervous about studying abroad alone, but now I feel lucky that I get to do my first class, a few trips, and orientation activities with a unique international cohort.

From left to right, my cohort – Andrea, me, and Juliana – at El Museo de Arte Costarricense.

Some Costa Rica things I’ve googled so far:

  1. san jose airport map: Preparing myself so I wouldn’t get lost immediately after arriving!
  2. how to ask for check costa rica: I went to lunch alone in a restaurant for the first time. Unlike in US restaurants, the waiter doesn’t rush to give you the check right after you eat, but I wasn’t sure how long I had to wait. After waiting and watching, I realized that I was supposed to go up to the counter to pay. Good thing there were other people in the restaurant, or I may have waited forever!
  3. incofer train schedule: Figuring out how early to wake up in order to catch the train to go to San José with my cohort on Saturday (turns out – very early). It’s the same train that I’ll take to my Spanish classes at the University of Costa Rica in February.
  4. how to add minutes kolbi: Here, instead of phone company contracts, you prepay for phone “minutes” on your Costa Rican SIM card. I knew that most stores were able to help you add more minutes, but I wasn’t sure quite how to ask.
  5. pupusa recipe with squash: While in Longo Mai, Doña Edit taught us how to make pupusas, a delicious Salvadoran corn flatbread stuffed with cheese, squash, and beans. I knew immediately that I would want to make them again.
  6. costa rica earthquake: There were two earthquakes while we were in Longo Mai! As I’m from the Midwest, I’d never experienced an earthquake before. Both of them were of moderate intensity, causing little to no damage, but they occurred in the middle of the night, and I slept right through them!

A phrase has been knocking around in my head ever since I heard it last week. My tica family and I went to see Frozen 2 in theatres. In Spanish, instead of singing “Into the Unknown”, Elsa sings “Mucho Más Allá”, a phrase that colloquially means “far beyond.” If each word is literally translated, it sounds like “a lot more over there”, which made me laugh. But the chorus of the song has been stuck in my head ever since, which makes sense, as I am “mucho más allá” from my home, my family and friends, and everything that’s familiar. Still, I’m grateful to be here, and can’t wait to see what more adventures this semester holds.  

The view in our backyard from the garage stairs at sunset. San José is just below the mountains in the center left.

*The word for Costa Rican is tico, and for brevity’s sake, I will use tico/a to refer to the members of my host family.

** The “J” sound is different in Spanish than in English, so my name sometimes ends up with a Y instead of a J in spoken and written Spanish.

Discovering Utrecht

Author: Dakota Kampmeier

Location: Utrecht, Netherlands

Pronouns: She/Her/Hers

Utrecht, Netherlands (pronounced oo-trecht) has been a pleasant surprise and the epitome of culture shock. I have been here for one week today, and the rollercoaster of emotions has kept me from writing an intelligent sentence about this place I am now starting to call home, but I finally feel ready to attempt to emulate what this place and its people are like. Everything is still all so new, so fresh, but slowly some elements are starting to become routine. Slowly I have unpacked my suitcases and laid my makeup out on the windowsill. Slowly, I am settling.

I could sugarcoat my experience thus far and say that it has been nothing but a dream, that I made lifelong friends on the first day and that I slept like a baby the first night. However, I am not here to sugarcoat. This experience has been wholly and completely mine, which is fantastic, but part of that experience includes telling the raw truth. The raw truth is that I wanted to come home when I was still on the plane. The raw truth is that I woke up the first morning in a foreign place and an unfamiliar bed and wanted my mom. The raw truth is that I felt more alone than I’ve ever felt before, and for a while I thought I had made a mistake. Sure, this has been my lifelong dream for who knows how long, but what if I’m not actually cut out for it? I was terrified this week, and there are still moments when I miss my couch and American cereal and Midwestern weather. Now that it has been a week, though, I can already see how far I’ve come and how far I’ve still left to go.

I have made friends (don’t worry mom and dad, nice people are everywhere). They’re from all over the globe, from the coast of California to the surprisingly developed city of Nairobi, Kenya. I’ve met people who make me laugh, people who taught me how to bike “correctly”, people who make me feel like the well-travelled soul, and people who rekindle the excitement about being here that I felt before I left home. The trick to homesickness, I’ve discovered, is throwing yourself into the situation you’re in totally and fully, without reservation, without shame. The water is cold, sure, but it’s so refreshing. On my campus, especially, there are so many people who felt the same way I did when they arrived, so many people just trying to make their way in a foreign country and find friends to ease the lonely nights. The UCU campus is a bubble, as they say, but the kind of bubble that makes me feel secure instead of trapped.

While there is an abundance of things to do on campus, everyone encourages newcomers to venture off campus and meet people in the city centre or through community events. There’s truly no limit to possibilities here, which is precisely what makes it as equally daunting as it does electrifying. The person I have always dreamt of becoming is starting to emerge the longer that I am here. I biked to the store by myself today, and I am now sitting in a small café drinking green tea surrounded by the smell of books and lavender. The first day of classes has rekindled my desire to learn, and although school will not be easy by any means, it will certainly be more steady than last semester. Overall, as the homesickness wears off, a sense of finding home in this adventure is taking its place. By May, I suppose I’ll already recognize myself, but in the best way possible.

Settling In

Author: Julia Riordan

Location: Cambridge, England

Pronouns: She/Her/Hers

I was surprised by how difficult it was for me to initially settle into my new (temporary) life in Cambridge. Everything was unfamiliar. I did not understand the behavioral or conversational customs. Certain things about life in Cambridge, which I never thought I would notice, created discomfort. For example, Cambridge is an incredibly old town. The sidewalks are surprisingly narrow and the storefronts and businesses inhabit old, quaint buildings. When inside these buildings, the hallways and seating areas are extremely small. I never assumed that these small differences in culture would create noticeable discomfort. But, initially these cultural differences caused me to feel like an outsider. I certainly felt like I stuck out. Regardless, I am starting to settle into my life here and appreciate aspects of their culture which was once unfamiliar. 

This walkway although beautiful, is incredibly narrow!

I would advise any student to anticipate culture shock, regardless of their previous travel experience. I could definitely not anticipate the amount of cultural differences that I would take notice of. Additionally, the actual experience of living in a town with stark cultural differences is very different from thinking about these differences within the comfort of one’s own culture. Unfortunately, it is not until I arrived in Cambridge, that I began to think more about these cultural differences and how I could make myself comfortable here. A paradox arises then. One should anticipate cultural differences, but cannot truly understand the effect of these differences until arriving in the country. 

A museum in Cambridge with beautiful architecture

I have always had an appreciation for the architecture of a city. I absolutely love that architecture can reflect the culture of the city but can also differ so greatly across countries or even towns themselves. Architecture can also reveal a lot about the history or the city. One can learn much more about the complexity of those living in Pompeii by studying the architecture and organization of their city. By studying the architecture of a city, I can appreciate its beauty but also understand more clearly the cultural and historical context with which the city was built. Luckily, Cambridge is a city rich in history and full of beautiful, colored buildings. Upon arriving to Cambridge, I would walk throughout the city focusing specifically on its architecture. I would research various buildings in Cambridge and seek information about how the city was built. I have found that by familiarizing myself with the culture of  Cambridge, I have felt more connected to the culture. I would suggest study abroad students to similarly find a way to connect to their country’s culture so that they can hopefully feel more comfortable.

While in Cambridge I have enjoyed trying all the different kinds of pastries

Most importantly, I urge all study abroad students to allow themselves to relax. As American students we are accustomed to running from class to various meetings. In our spare time we complete countless hours of homework. We seem to always maintain a certain level of stress. Although it is crucial for students to devote a generous portion of their time to their schoolwork, it is equally important to care for one’s mental health and general well-being. Moving to another country is stressful. But studying abroad is a unique experience which allows us to be students but also travelers. Without the time commitment of clubs and weekly meetings, I can be a student but also try cooking new recipes and explore the city more. Studying abroad has allowed me to explore my other identities besides my identity as a student. In doing so, I find myself investing more time into my studies but also into my own interests and passions.

A market I found while exploring Cambridge with many different kinds of food stands!

Ultimately, settling into a new country will be overwhelming and difficult. Yet, the discomfort of living in a new country is short lived when you can learn to appreciate the culture of the country you are living in. However, I am having fun exploring the city and pursuing my interests in the meantime. 

I found this cute bridge and tiny river while exploring the architecture of Cambridge

Coming Home: A Study Abroad Reflection

Author: Mia Casas

Location: San Jose, Costa Rica

Pronouns: She/Her/Hers

It has been officially over one month since I have returned home from my Study Abroad Program in Costa Rica. Unlike some of my peers, I was super excited to finally come home. Others had mixed emotions. On the other side of the spectrum, one of my friends was really upset and sad about the idea of returning to the States. This perfectly exemplifies how each person experiences circumstances differently, and processes their emotions differently.

Although I loved Costa Rica, I was ready to be home. I was anticipating reverse culture shock with excitement, oddly enough. Heidi advised us that we would come back to our country and culture with new, fresh eyes. She recommended that we keep a journal to note our observations about the world we live in. Our new vision would fade fast as we became accustomed to US living again.

It’s true that most Americans are known for their hustle and bustle in daily life, and this is even more accentuated during the holidays. The Christmas season, though, is my favorite time of the year and I was eager to come home to spend time with my family and friends, and catch up on all the holiday festivities. Undoubtedly, my relatives looked forward to my return, but the overwhelming feeling of sadness hit me unexpectedly when I realized I didn’t have the same support system as I did in Costa Rica. I knew that a period of grief would hit me eventually, but I never expected it to happen when it did. It happened one weekday when I felt like I didn’t have the support system I needed. I had realized how busy and run down my family was with work, practices, appointments, etcetera, leaving me feeling neglected, in a sense, as if they didn’t have time to spend with me. Meanwhile, I was so enthused to be home and wanted to engage more frequently than what my friends and family could offer me.

I hit a low that night, but realized it was just a part of the cultural adjustment process, same as in Costa Rica. In due time, I found clearings in my friends’ and family members’ schedules to catch up and enjoy their company, and eased my way back into my routine here at home. There are still times I wish I could take a break from all of it to embrace the Pura Vida spirit. Yet, I still count my blessings for all the things I missed while I was away. And I count my blessings for all the wonderful memories made in Costa Rica.

Los Chorros Waterfalls: For our last cohort trip, we traveled near Grecia to see this magnificent waterfall, in addition to hiking some life threatening trails, (the usual in Costa Rica). This sight was magical, as we were able to swim under the waterfall, and bathe in the river without being disturbed by tourists.

International friends: We said goodbye to our friends from Norway and the Netherlands. I am thankful for having the opportunity to have met them.

Managing Expectations

Author: Julia Riordan

Location: Cambridge, England

Pronouns: She/Her/Hers

I will embarrassingly admit that my decision to study abroad was influenced by the social media posts of those who have studied abroad before me. Their posts were seamlessly edited and unbelievably beautiful. Above all, these images subtly remind social media users of what can be made possible by studying abroad. By studying abroad, we can easily travel between other countries and see beautiful, exotic places in person. Perhaps I was a bit naive before arriving in England, and my perceptions of travel were distorted. It seemed both inexpensive and ever-possible to visit parts of the world that felt unbelievably far from Valparaiso. Yet, the experience of studying abroad has taught me not only how to travel to these exotic places, but also how to manage my expectations regarding travel.

A couple friends and I decided that we wanted to travel to Vienna, Austria for an upcoming weekend. Being slightly naive, we believed that we could cheaply book tickets and rooms at a safe hostel just a couple days before leaving. Yet, planning a weekend trip involved many more logistics than we initially believed. For example, we needed to find a train from Cambridge to London. From the London train station, we would have to take a train to the airport. Upon landing in Austria, we will need a way from the airport to the hostel or hotel. At this point, we would have taken two trains, a plane, and a taxi/uber. I could have never anticipated the amount of planning that such a short weekend trip would be.

It was difficult for me at first to accept the reality of traveling. It can be expensive, and can be incredibly challenging to plan. How could travel seem feasible yet feel so incredibly overwhelming? Yet, I am slowly realizing that  rather than finding ways to make travel more feasible, whether by research or by careful planning, I should manage my expectations regarding traveling.

This weekend, my friends and I traveled to a beautiful coastal town called Brighton. I had many expectations about the cleanliness of our hostel, or even the appearance of Brighton. Often times, my expectations were unrealistic, and I found myself slightly disappointed. This is not to say that Brighton itself was underwhelming. Rather, I was comparing Brighton to my preconceived and unattainable expectations. When I had little to no expectations, I began to enjoy my time in Brighton. I began to realize that if my expectations were not met, feelings of hesitation or anxiety followed. By setting these expectations which I believed would help me to have a better trip, I was under-appreciating the beauty of the city around me.

There is no straightforward way to manage one’s expectations. Our social media use has a definite role in shaping these expectations and reminding us of them. We can’t flip a switch and suddenly forget our preconceived notions about a particular place. However, by acknowledging these expectations, we can learn to manage them. I was initially disappointed by our hostel. It was rather dirty and dark. It was not as friendly as I had hoped and the environment of the hostel felt harsh. However, my friends and I ended up befriending a Canadian girl named Sabrina in our hostel. We quickly became friends and she accompanied us for the rest of the weekend. My perception of our hostel shifted immediately. I no longer saw the hostel as simply dirty, loud or uncomfortable. Rather, the hostel was also a place to meet people from all over the world. My most cherished memories from my weekend in Brighton were the unexpected moments. It is not that we should travel without expectations. Yet, we should not allow these expectations to control our experiences. Rather, we should quiet these expectations and open ourselves to new and memorable experiences. In my experience, when I can quiet my expectations, I can further immerse into the travel itself and create lasting memories.

Photo Tour of Le Marais (3rd & 4th Arrondissements)

Author: Ella Speckhard

Location: Paris, France

Pronouns: She/Her/Hers

In my French language course, we’re giving oral presentations next week on one of the districts of Paris. My partner and I were assigned the Marais, two arrondissements right along the Seine in the heart of Paris. We followed instructions from our professor and saw some amazing things, taking pictures and jotting down notes to share next week. Here are some of my favorites!

It was finally sunny the day we went! Paris has been very gray lately, so it was really a blessing to walk around in the sunshine for a while (and all of the buildings are so much more beautiful)!

Saint Gervais and Saint Protais Church, Paris. This church is celebrating 600 years, even after being a victim in the bombings of WWI.

Le Marais is home to some incredible street art—unfortunately I couldn’t get a picture of my favorite piece due to traffic, but these are close runners-up!

Place des Vosges was full of life this evening; children played, couples strolled, and teens ate together, surrounded by the beauty of these buildings. I definitely plan on coming back here later in the spring when the trees are blooming!

Statue of Louis XIII at the center of Place des Vosges. Every building in Paris is connected to the history and story of the French. It can be hard to wrap my mind around sometimes because compared to Paris, everything in America is pretty much brand new!

L’Hôtel de Sens

Église Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis. We didn’t get to go inside this one, but it was spectacular even from the street.

Finished our tour with dinner on the Seine. We grabbed sandwiches from a cool shop in the historically Jewish neighborhood of the Marais and although it was a bit chilly, the view was worth it.

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