Study Abroad

My trips and general thoughts about my Fall 2012 semester in Florence, Italy.

See the world from 14K feet through skydiving

Study abroad students swear by skydiving.

When I studied abroad in Florence, Italy in 2012, one of the big trips, among heading to the Amalfi Coast in Italy and Oktoberfest in Munich, was to venture to Interlaken, Switzerland, to jump out of a plane and get a bird’s-eye view of the Swiss Alps.

There were many students I knew who chose to take the mid-air plunge and the first thing they said upon their landing was, “I need to do that again.”

“Those who are interested in trying new things and pushing new boundaries are ideal candidates for sky diving,” said Chuck Owen, owner of Skydive Jersey. (Photo: Courtesy of Skydive Jersey)

“Those who are interested in trying new things and pushing new boundaries are ideal candidates for sky diving,” said Chuck Owen, owner of Skydive Jersey. (Photo: Courtesy of Skydive Jersey)

Still, I couldn’t bring myself to defy a human’s natural fears and hop out of a plane at 120 miles per hour.

Today, I wonder if I made the right decision. Well, I still have the chance to plummet through the air, as do you, right at home thanks to Skydive Jersey, a Pittstown skydiving facility catered to beginner sky divers.

The establishment just celebrated the beginning of its fifth season, as it sends off 3,500 first-time skydivers per year from the first weekend in April to the last weekend in October.

All Skydive Jersey instructors are trained under the standards set by the United States Parachute Association. (Photo: Courtesy of Skydive Jersey)

All Skydive Jersey instructors are trained under the standards set by the United States Parachute Association. (Photo: Courtesy of Skydive Jersey)

“Many people who run sky diving establishments do it for experienced divers, but we do it for the first-timers,” said Chuck Owen, owner of the facility who has been on more than 10,000 skydives.

The safest and easiest way for beginners to skydive is tandem diving, where a “student” diver is paired with an instructor for the entirety of the jump. This only requires less than an hour of training for students and allows them to simply enjoy the experience since they can rely on the instructors, who, at Skydive Jersey, have all been on more than 500 jumps and are trained by the standards set by the United States Parachute Association.

With this in mind, can a beginner sky diver simply enjoy the experience? Is skydiving, an extreme sport, really safe?

Chuck Owen, owner of Skydive Jersey, said that no one gets in the plane and is completely fearless. (Photo: Courtesy of Skydive Jersey)

Chuck Owen, owner of Skydive Jersey, said that no one gets in the plane and is completely fearless. (Photo: Courtesy of Skydive Jersey)

According to the United States Parachute Association, out of 3.2 million American jumps last year, there were 24 accidents, which means that you have a 0.00075 percent chance of being in a skydiving accident. To equal your risk of dying in a car accident in a single year, you would need to skydive 17 times.

Owen said that on top of that, experienced jumpers going it alone are much more likely to be in an accident over beginner skydivers since they may want to push the limits of their skills.

“No matter how intimidated a person is when they first arrive, no one has ever landed and not had a smile on their face and been ecstatic,” Owen said. “It’s a very transformative experience that you just conquered this major feat. The expression on their face is priceless.”

“No matter how intimidated a person is when they first arrive, no one has ever landed and not had a smile on their face and been ecstatic,” said Chuck Owen, owner of Skydive Jersey. (Photo: Courtesy of Skydive Jersey)

“No matter how intimidated a person is when they first arrive, no one has ever landed and not had a smile on their face and been ecstatic,” said Chuck Owen, owner of Skydive Jersey. (Photo: Courtesy of Skydive Jersey)

When students express fear after arriving at Skydive Jersey, Owen said his team calmly talks them through it and explains that skydiving isn’t what they think. Contrary to what most non-skydivers believe, there is no roller coaster stomach drop. Instead, free fall, said Owen, feels like a gentle float.

“No one gets in the airplane and is completely fearless,” Owen said. “Once you’re out in free fall, you realize it wasn’t so bad.” Then, he said, there’s usually “a ‘wow’ and then speechlessness.”

Diving students at Skydive Jersey range in age from 18 to 95, but generally, they are between 18 and 45 year old. Students must be at least 18-years-olds and height-weight proportionate; men must be less than 230 pounds and women must be less than 215 pounds.

At Skydive Jersey, the exit altitude is 14,000 feet. (Photo: Courtesy of Skydive Jersey)

At Skydive Jersey, the exit altitude is 14,000 feet. (Photo: Courtesy of Skydive Jersey)

“Those who are interested in trying new things and pushing new boundaries are ideal candidates for sky diving,” Owen said.

After training, students take a 20-minute plane ride over the Delaware River Valley as it climbs to 14,000 feet. Once at exit altitude, students are attached to their instructor’s harness and the door will be opened. Then, the 50 seconds of freefall at 120 miles per hour begins before the parachute is deployed and student-and-instructor drift down to the ground at 20 miles per hour for 10 minutes into a gentle landing.

It’s the idyllic landscape that skydivers get to enjoy from their view in the sky that also makes Skydive Jersey an ideal spot for thrill-seekers to get their fix. Skydivers will spot the Delaware River, Spruce Run Lake, Round Valley Lake as well as the Manhattan and Philadelphia skylines.

Chuck Owen, owner of Skydive Jersey, said that skydiving is a very transformative experience. (Photo: Courtesy of Skydive Jersey)

Chuck Owen, owner of Skydive Jersey, said that skydiving is a very transformative experience. (Photo: Courtesy of Skydive Jersey)

“Hunterdon County is incredibly beautiful,” Owen said. “I was blown away at how untouched it is the first time I took off.”

Plus, Skydive Jersey is situated at Alexandria Field, a peaceful and historic airport tucked away in the countryside that has been in the same family since the 1940’s.

Groups should plan to spend a full day at Skydive Jersey for weekend dives and a half a day for weekday dives, which can also be affected by the size of the party, weather delays and unexpected plane maintenance.

After the experience is over, Owen said there is usually a “’wow,’ and then speechlessness.” (Photo: Courtesy of Skydive Jersey)

After the experience is over, Owen said there is usually a “’wow,’ and then speechlessness.” (Photo: Courtesy of Skydive Jersey)

Weather delays are very common for sky dives — about one in three dives will be rescheduled, which Skydive Jersey gives priority to versus new bookings.

Owen said, “Some people smile, some laugh, some scream, but everyone comes back to Earth glad that they took the plunge.”

 

SKYDIVE JERSEY

Where: 70 Airport Rd. in Pittstown

Contact: reservations@skydivejersey.com or 866-669-3020

Website: skydivejersey.com

Cost: $195 per person for one to three people and $185 per person for 4+ people

Qualifications: 18 or older and men must be less than 230 pounds and women must be less than 215 pounds

Season: First weekend in April to last weekend in October

Hours: Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

New Jerseyans debunk study abroad myths

“We just can’t afford it,” Darlene says, citing her daughter, Erin’s, fervent interest in studying abroad.

This feels like the end of the argument, much to Erin’s disappointment. Darlene knew that her daughter would have fun, make friends and visit remarkable places, as all parents want for their children. However, the sensible factors prevailed — if it wasn’t the finances, it was the danger in being abroad, the absence of lasting benefits or the lack of academic vigor, that led to her decision.

Clearly, there are some misconceptions brewing, because none of these things are true. With semester-abroad application deadlines coming up at the end of December and into early 2015, this is worrisome.

As one of the .7 percent of New Jersey students to study abroad in 2012, I found that the ideas parents nurse concerning study abroad tend to be distorted, not to their own oversight but instead to the widely accepted notions on the international programs.

For families struggling to meet rising tuition deadlines each year, the idea of spending thousands of dollars for their child to meander across Europe for a few weeks seems unfathomable.

However, most colleges allow students to transfer their financial aid packages, scholarships and merit awards to an approved study-abroad program, including Rutgers University, possibly making living costs comparable to if the student stayed at their home college for the semester, especially if housing costs are included in the international program or the program is hosted in a less-developed country.

Through my program at Monmouth University to Florence, Italy, I paid $300 in fees on top of my normal tuition to study abroad. Robyn Asaro, assistant director of Study Abroad at Monmouth, said that she recommends that students looking to travel frequently on the weekends should bring an additional $4,000 to $6,000 for a semester program. But that’s only for students who want to spend their semester that way — it’s not a necessity.

Photography Jenna Intersimone

Students also can take advantage of their college’s specific scholarships, such as these offered for Rutgers University students, as well as these national study abroad scholarships that can be utilized by all students.

The thought of a child traveling internationally unsupervised can lead to severe parental anxiety. But Americans are 20 times more likely to die from a violent crime in the United States than are citizens of other developed countries in their nations, according to a 2013 report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Throughout Asaro’s 14-year career in study abroad, she said that the extent of dangerous outcomes has been “a very minor injuries.” To prepare students for their time abroad, Monmouth coordinates four mandated safety meetings and works closely with affiliated international institutes to coordinate any issues.

Kyle O’Grady of Edison, who studied abroad in Florence as a Marketing and Finance major in 2013, said that she never felt unsafe abroad.

“Our group looked out for each other and it was a built-in support system,” she said. “Our study-abroad coordinator also kept in touch with us, and we also had an outlet at our Florence university to stay in contact.”

Kyle

In my experience, students who keep safe during their international studies utilize common sense, such as sticking to well-lit streets, traveling with at least one other person and keeping a low profile — no extreme safety precautions required.

It’s no surprise that 46 percent of all New Jersey post-graduates under 25 were unemployed or underemployed in 2012, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Parents may be surprised to know that time abroad may help their child not become a statistic.

Global Human Resources News conducted a study in which 73 percent of human resources executives cited study abroad as an important factor when evaluating job candidates for junior positions.

O’Grady said that she often finds herself talking about her study abroad experience on interviews, which, in one case, provided a connection with her interviewer that later landed her an offer. The venture also has also helped her develop an idea of her future career.

“Whereas before I felt a little lost, it definitely gave me direction on what I want to build my life around,” she said. “I want to work with a travel company or find a job in a new city.”

Plus, according to a 2012 Rutgers University report, 95 percent of study-abroad students found a job within one year of graduation, compared to 49 percent of the general population of graduates.

Megan Holt of Bridgewater, who studied abroad in Aix en Provence, France, as an International Business major in 2012, thinks that her study-abroad experience was the key to her current job with a French luxury brand that she landed within two months of graduation.

“Being able to tell my interviewer about my experience living with a French family helped assure them that I was accustomed to the culture,” she said. “Because I was applying to work for a French company, they valued my language skills and the fact that I was able to adapt and form relationships despite cultural barriers.”

Megan

Parents often worry that they could end up contributing to an expensive semester devoted to partying. However, being immersed in a new culture is the best way to learn a language and pursue other academic endeavors, plus most international schools offer exclusive classes.

Holt said, “I lived in a small French village where very few people spoke English. My French teacher herself spoke only a few words of English and taught entirely in French. I was essentially forced to learn the language.”

During my semester abroad, I took three hours of an Italian language course four days a week — not a possibility at my home school for reasons of time, availability or pure interest. I also met many art or fashion students receiving an unmatched experience, as Florence is the birthplace of the Renaissance and has been named one of the 50 fashion capitals of the world.

Undoubtedly, studying internationally is a large undertaking. But hopefully, with the dissolution of these myths, more than 1 percent of American students will be able to enjoy what could be the most rewarding experience of their lives.

A Photo Journey

It’s been awhile now since I’ve returned from my semester in Florence, Italy. A little more than a year has gone by – however, this has not stopped my from romanticizing and reminiscing about my time there daily nonetheless. So for this week, instead of listening to me blabber on about how awesome Italy is or how I’m still waiting for National Geographic to hire me to become a professional nomad, check out some of my favorite photos from my time spent abroad.

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Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey

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Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany

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Cinque Terre, Italy

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Voss, Norway

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The Duomo of Florence, Italy

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Monaco of the French Riviera

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Venice, Italy

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The Leaning Tower of Pisa, Italy

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Dublin, Ireland
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The Rocks of Faraglioni, Amalfi Coast, Italy
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The Dalmatian Coast, Croatia

Become The Lazy Tourist

Back in the day, you would never catch me dead staring blankly at a television screen, sitting at my kitchen table eating a meal, or quietly listening to music. Being away on a trip to a faraway land made this even more out of the question – time is of the essence; so why sleep, relax, or eat when you could be exploring?

Even during my too-short semester in Florence, Italy, when I went away for the weekends, I packed every moment full of museums, activities, attractions, and bars. I rationalized this insanity by arguing to myself that during the week I was spending my time enjoying every bite of gelato and every walk down Via Roma. Although I’m glad, in some ways, that I used my time wisely every weekend when visiting other countries and cities throughout Europe, by the end of the semester, my weekly plane trips to these faraway lands left me feeling pretty burnt out.

During one of the last few weeks I spent as a semester-abroad student, my best friend from back in the States came to visit me and we went to Budapest, Hungary with her mother and aunt. For the first time all semester, I didn’t bust my ass trying to find the best prices for every tour and every meal. I didn’t have my guidebook held up over my face, trying to read the map and making sure we had hit every museum on the block. And I didn’t worry.

Instead, I spent a weekend wandering open-air markets, eating at probably-overpriced restaurants, and laying in an awesome bed in – gasp – a chain hotel. I took long showers and read books when I felt like it and I ate a ton of these weird Hungarian pastries. I was a tourist. A lazy tourist, one of the biggest travel blasphemies known to travelers everywhere.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure real Budapest is great, just like all the other international cities were great (for the most part). I’m sure Castle Hill and the Great Synogogue are mind-blowing and very much worth venturing outside instead of just driving by in some lame red tour bus. But I will most likely never know what the inside of the House of Terror looks like or what real Hungarian food tastes like, because I was too busy shoveling strawberry yogurt in my mouth for $15 a pop at the Four Seasons. And that is perfectly okay.

I ate breakfast at the hotel dessert bar and I took idiotic pictures posing next to stern guards and funny statues. I had enough food to go into a coma and I went to bed early. I wandered around a beautiful, historic city with my best friend and I didn’t appreciate one bit of it. Just because you’re a traveler doesn’t mean you can’t be a tourist once in a while.

6

The Surreal Life

I feel like I was never there. 

Before I studied abroad, I’m going to assume I heard this statement a lot, although I don’t remember it. The only reason why I’m figuring this is because I’ve said it at least five times in the past week, and I’m not the only one. Every person I know who goes away comes back and says, I feel like it was just a dream. 

Today I saw a friend who graduated a few months ago who went away during his sophomore year of college, quite some time ago, and one of the first things he asked me today was “How was your time abroad,” odd since I came back six months ago and most people don’t casually ask about it anymore. As always, one of my first statements was that the whole thing felt surreal, which usually pours out of my mouth when I try to sum up my experience and I realize that I just sound like a blubbering idiot.

I’ve heard it a lot (as stated before), but my old friend put it in a way that was a little odd to me, more than just “Wow it was so awesome to run around a random country for three months!” 

He said, “When I came home, it took me a solid year to come to terms with what I had done and what I had accomplished. It wasn’t that it was dreamy or incredibly amazing, it was just so surreal.”

He continued to explain that he studied abroad through his community college, not the university that he later attended and where I met him. Obviously, since community college isn’t your typical study abroad outlet, he was the only one to participate in the program that semester at all. The nervousness that goes along with this was only accentuated when the school called him up and said he had been accepted into the program, however, they didn’t have housing for him, and instead, handed him a list of people to call.

When he got to Australia, he called up one of the people on his list, and sure enough, one man had actually stayed home to take his expected call, something unheard of in America, and had space available for him to rent. The 6’5 rugby player also didn’t mind lending the 5’5 skinny pre-med student some clothes when the airport lost his luggage for ten days.

My friend stayed in Newcastle, not Sydney, which is a lot rougher of a town than beautiful and touristy Sydney is since it is a coal-mining town filled with blue-collar workers and some accompanied crime. Him and his landlord friend also housed various couch surfers throughout the semester who cooked for them and took them out on the town, being as thankfully, Australians appreciate the joy and beauty of travel and they don’t mind helping out a fellow traveler in need.

Study abroad shouldn’t only consist of drinking, asking people what the WiFi password is, and figuring out what countries have the best clubs. It’s not an experience that should necessarily mark “the best time of your life,” but perhaps, the most exciting and the most wrought with change. This is what makes study abroad surreal- not the parties and the people you meet who happen to live in your state. Instead, it is the unique life that you undertook for a dramatic, outrageous, and unreal time of your college years.

Il Dolce Far Niente

I remember my final days in Florence. I remember how as the weeks added up, how I missed more and more having responsibilities, jobs, basically just being accountable for more than just getting on a plane on time. I missed being important to someone, to something.

Well now, here I am. It’s 4:45 on a Tuesday and I have been up since 7:30 am, and after this too-short hour I have off, I will work until 9:00 pm (then I’ll probably go to the bar, which is besides the point).

I miss the days when if I felt like it, I could linger in a cafe for an hour. I miss when I could walk into a museum, just because. I miss when I could meet a stranger and just chat with them for a little, not trying to occupy my mind with what else I had to do that day. At the time, I missed serving a purpose. Now here I am, trying to fit in when the hell I can possibly eat breakfast (which usually ends up being a piece of fruit I eat while I’m sitting at the traffic light on Ocean Ave).

What the hell was I thinking? Yes, having things to do is great. I’m not saying I want to be unemployed, or the worst sin of them all, bored. But with more longing than I have ever felt for any person, I miss being able to be. I miss thinking about the taste of the food that I am eating and thinking about the conversation I am having. I miss the sweetness of doing nothing. Il dolce far niente. 

In America, we hustle, hustle, hustle. We work three jobs and we try to get the kids to soccer, lacrosse, and track and we get to the gym at 6:30 am and we eat lunch at the drive-thru and we take long hours because we really need the money but what is it for, really? What are we working for, honestly? When is the payoff going to come?

You let me know when you find out. In the meantime, I’ll be looking up one-way flights back to Italy.

Nothing.

Time Commitments

When one (unfortunately) arrives home once again and is greeted by armful by armful of happy friend, one is bound to come across many people who will say, “Yes, I did that too, during my summer session abroad!”

Wait… your summer session? Now, I totally understand if you have time commitments for the semester, financial problems (although from what I have heard, most people spend almost the same amount during their summer session as they would during a semester abroad, but that’s another odd issue entirely), or familial issues, but honestly, it seems to me that a summer session just means this – you got jipped.

If you’re not aware, a summer session tends to run about three to four weeks, sometimes going for as long as six, while study abroad sessions usually range from thirteen to sixteen weeks. Sounds like a big difference? That’s because it is. A summer session is a vacation. A long vacation, but a vacation at that. A semester abroad is an attempt at life.

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I remember when four weeks passed during my time in Florence (I happened to be at Oktoberfest at the time, if I remember correctly) and I looked around and said to myself, What if I had to leave right now? What if at this moment, I was packing my bags and being shipped back off to the Jerz?

At four weeks, one is barely adapted to life in another country, another world. One is still a stranger (and probably is still one at the three-and-a-half month mark, too). Many people subconsciously see this as a good thing- they don’t really want to totally assimilate. They don’t want their own habits to have to change, they don’t want to step too far outside their comfort zone, they just want to see a little bit just in time for them to get homesick and get back on the plane to be greeted by a tearful Mom.

When my own friends left for their summer sessions, a few weeks before I left for my semester in Florence, I was a little jealous. I was scared to go away for so long. Petrified, actually. It was like taking a too-big bite of cake when I should have only had a spoonful and now it was falling embarrassingly out of my mouth and everyone was staring. Even when I first got there, in between the moments of extreme excitement, I thought to myself, What have I gotten myself into? What planet do I live on? 

But just like anything else, we all get used to our new surroundings and we learn to adapt. We create our new selves and new homes, and when it’s time to leave, we will reach for our armfuls of our new friends too.

La Famiglia e Tutto

Today I had a meeting to go to (shocker). And as with most of my meetings, I didn’t really feel like going, mostly because I would just rather be in my room pinning things on Pinterest. However, also with most of my meetings, I still showed up.

However this one was a little bit different- a study abroad luncheon for my Italy group, in the exact same room that we all sat in about six months ago, when we were complete strangers. I remember trying to be a brave and sitting at a table with the girls, none of whom I had ever seen before or even knew what to say to them. I sat there and quietly ate my free sandwich (I did show up, didn’t I?) and got out as soon as I could. Thinking of my upcoming semester in Italy, I never felt so scared and unsure in my life. Looking back now, I’ve never been so confident and proud of any other decision I have ever made.

Funny how this time when I walked into the room, I was greeted by smiling faces of all ages and from all different backgrounds, all of whom I had only ever known within my ancient city of Florence. Odd how things change. To see all of us out of our elements, struggling to fit into what feels like this new culture, was scary yet comforting, knowing that once again, we weren’t alone.

And just like now, we weren’t alone the first time we set off to meet a new culture in a new country, either– we had each other. To think we will always be as close as we once were is pretty ridiculous, but I don’t think that really matters. No matter how much time goes by and how long we stay best friends with our childhood neighbors, our kindergarten playmates, our college roommates, our high school boyfriends– they will never have what we all had together. Strangers who, in relying on one another as family, friends, and comrades, became a little globe-trotting family.

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How To Live

So right now I am in my NEW BED! Well, not really new. Actually it’s borrowed from our realtor but whatever it’s new to me. The point is that I have moved once again, but this time it’s back to school for my LAST SEMESTER! Great now I’m depressed.

Anyway, as I was moving in, I looked at the piles of junk that my mother and I deposited on my bed. Bags and bags of clothes, printers, fans, jewelry boxes, backpacks… and two lone suitcases. The two suitcases that I was allowed to bring for my semester in Italy. That’s it. Two suitcases.

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And you know what’s funny? As I looked at this giant pile that was ever-growing on my bed, I wondered how much of that stuff I actually really neededI went to Italy with two suitcases, and never missed a thing. These new perfectly content suitcases that had the chance to see the world. I visited seven other countries during my semester abroad and 15 Italian cities and had plenty to prepare me for the cold, the heat, and the ugly. So did I really need all of this stuff? No. I didn’t.

Am I going to send it back? Uhh, no. As I explained to my mother I had already spent a semester wearing the same shirt basically every day and that was just fine but I like having my closet back. But looking at that pile and sorting through my junk, it became clear that although travel teaches you how to deal with new people, new cultures, and new habits, it also teaches you how to live.

Off the Beaten Path

Okay so before I say this, let me get something straight here: I loved studying abroad. I loved walking by the Duomo to class every day (as if you didn’t know that already) I loved traveling every weekend, I loved having one pair of shoes to wear, I loved the music, the food, the people. But let me also say this: Studying abroad is dissimilar to my real life in more ways than the obvious (as that I was in Italy). The main one being that I had nothing to do and no one to answer to.

At first, this is wonderful, breathtaking, grounding. For the first time in my life, I sat. I drank my coffee. I didn’t answer e-mails and return phone calls or update my to-do list. I just drank from my little cup and watched the people walk by and listened to street music.

Must Be Nice.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Well yeah, it is. But now imagine this feeling for three and a half months. Eventually, it all gets to the point where you miss responsibilities, working, doing something that contributes to society and progress instead of pissing away your money. Luckily, this feeling rolls around at the three-and-half-month mark.

So as you can probably guess, I’m happy and eager to get back to school and my tutoring job and my job for the Annual Fund and my school newspaper and my honors newsletter and the rest of the seemingly endless amount of things I have to do. I’m ready to actually be a part of the world again and not just freeload off of… myself.

However, not everyone feels this way. I feel like there are a lot of returning students out there who saw their time in Florence as what a life could be, when really, this isn’t very realistic. This is a fantasy. In the real world, you don’t go to the bar on days that end in “y” and you don’t just hope someone will let you onto the train for nothing and you don’t carry a backpack on you with everything to your name. Can you? Yes. Will you? Probably not.

The Life

Don’t force Florence, or any other fabulous destination, be your escape. Don’t let it be the way that you got away from the real world for a while and was then forced to come back to mundane, average life. Instead of it being a stopping point, a pretty side street with trees and flowers that you had to leave on your way back to the highway, make it a part of your final destination. Make Florence the way that you changed your real life as you knew it. Let it make you more relaxed, more open to new ideas and new people, let it inspire your love of travel and of art. Don’t look back on your time abroad and say Man, I wish I was still there, but instead let it say, Thank god this made me the way I am today.