CAPA International Education alumna Jessica Petro from the University of Pittsburgh studied abroad in London last summer. Below, she tells us below about what it was like to transition from living in a small town to a global city, talks about the defining moment when she knew she made a great decision and encourages anyone considering a study abroad program to take the chance and go for it.
CAPA World: Tell us a bit about yourself and your background. Where did you grow up? Which university are you from and what is your major?
Jessica Petro: I am from a very small town in Western Pennsylvania called Windber, about two hours east of Pittsburgh. I am in the first semester of my senior year at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. I am a double major in marketing and human resource management. I am also working on my French minor and International Studies Certificate.
CW: Where and when did you study abroad with CAPA International Education?
JP: I studied abroad with CAPA in London, England during the first term of summer 2012.
CW: Why did you decide to study abroad and why specifically London?
JP: I was lucky enough to be exposed to traveling at a young age, and it has always been something I am very passionate about. Ask my parents; a day doesn't go by when I am not planning my next trip or revising my list of top countries I want to visit. I can’t pinpoint exactly what it is about traveling that intrigues me. I am a naturally curious person so I think traveling fits my personality perfectly because every time you travel you get to learn and experience new things.
Like most college students, all my traveling experience prior to studying abroad has been as a tourist. When you study abroad the line between tourist and local quickly blurs and by the end of the trip it is virtually eliminated. Of course I still visited and thoroughly enjoyed all of the popular tourist sites, but an extended stay in a country gives you the opportunity to really experience and almost internalize the culture. This is one of the main reasons why I always wanted to study abroad.
My interest in studying abroad started in middle school when I became more involved in language courses. Most of the people I talked to about studying abroad thought I was going to end up in France since I am studying French, but I always had my heart set on London. I think London is one of the world’s most global cities; so although it’s an English speaking country, you have the opportunity to be exposed to a variety of cultures. Reflecting on my experience in London, I definitely do not regret deciding to go to England over France (although, I did make it to Paris, and it is an incredible city!).
CW: Tell us about your first impressions of London and any that changed by the time you went home.
JP: I got my first impression of London while I was riding the tube to my flat from the airport. It was around 7am so there were a lot of commuters on the trains. The first thing I noticed was many people were speaking a different language. This really surprised me especially after a sleepless night on an 8-hour flight, but I think it was that moment that made me realize I was in the right place. London isn't just the about posh men wearing tweed blazers, eating a shepherd's pie in the neighborhood pub, or walking past Buckingham Palace to see if the Queen’s flag is flying. It is so much more than that. If you ask me, London is the world’s city, a place where anyone from anywhere can go and feel at home. Once I realized this, my appreciation for the culture grew exponentially.
CW: What were the biggest challenges you faced in adapting to your host country? Most rewarding moment?
JP: I did a lot of research about London and England in general before I left, so I felt pretty prepared, but I was a bit apprehensive about navigating the tube. (I got temporarily lost on the New York City subway system once…Not exactly a proud moment.) My most rewarding moment relating to the tube was when the line I always took back to my flat from shopping on Oxford Street was closed while I was waiting on the train at the platform. I had to hop off, re-group, and find a new route home. After that episode, I felt confident on the tube and even rode to random stops I had never been to before to explore different parts of the city.
CW: Did you have a chance to interact with the local community? If so, tell us about one interaction that stood out for you.
JP: I had the opportunity to interact with the local community on a daily basis. I had an internship in an art gallery that was an excellent learning experience. Every day my supervisors and I would have lunch in a nearby restaurant. I was surprised when we walked in that everyone knew everyone. My supervisors were greeted by name and they often knew most of the patrons at the other tables. The experience was similar to what it is like in my hometown; in a city of millions of people you don’t expect to see the same people every day. I would recommend looking into doing an internship abroad for anyone that wants to be completely immersed in the culture of their host country.
CW: Now that you are back in the States, have you felt any sort of reverse culture shock?
JP: I can’t say that I experienced any culture shock when I returned to the states. Although, it was a little strange driving on the right side of the road on the way home from the airport after getting used to being on the left side.
CW: What have you been up to since you returned to the US? Do you feel that your experience with CAPA will play a role in your success starting your career?
JP: I am still in college for two more semesters, but when I graduate my goal is to eventually find a job that involves traveling. I wouldn't mind being an expatriate for a little while if a career opportunity presented itself. I believe my experience with CAPA will undoubtedly help in my career search, especially since I had an international internship. I have tried my best to use my college experience to differentiate myself from my peers, and I think studying abroad is excellent way to achieve that.
CW: What advice would you offer other students currently on a study abroad program or considering one?
JP: If you are currently studying abroad my advice would be to take advantage of every moment you have, and try something that you never thought you would do because those are the things that will define your experience.
If you are considering studying abroad my advice would be to just go for it. I can relate 100% with anyone that is afraid to try it, but if you don’t seize the opportunity it is going to pass you by. I promise you will not regret it!
CW: You started your blog Would You Go Again? to share your experience. Did you find keeping a blog a worthy venture while you were abroad?
JP: I am pretty avid blog reader, and before I studied abroad I always thought about starting my own blog, but I could never come up with a topic that I was passionate and knowledgeable enough to write about. Before I left for London, my uncle, who is a photojournalist, suggested starting a blog so my family and friends back home could experience what I was doing along with me. I wrote in a journal every day during my trip, but I didn't actually start my blog until a few months after I got home. I would highly recommend keeping a record of your experiences abroad so you will always remember them whether it is through a blog, journal, scrapbook, or however else you feel comfortable expressing your thoughts. My blog has given me the opportunity to relive my experiences, and will hopefully encourage a few people to look into studying abroad.
CW: What did your study abroad experience teach you about yourself and those around you?
JP: I believe studying abroad made me a more confident person, not that I wasn't confident before I left, but I always had people to fall back on if I needed to. I have lived with my parents my whole life, even during college, so knowing that I can make it on my own and make sensible, intelligent decisions in an unfamiliar country really made me believe in myself more than ever. Even though I always wanted to study abroad, it was something that took me completely out of my comfort zone. The simplest things from sharing a room with someone and having to rely on public transportation were completely new experiences for me.
As corny as it might sound to some people, having the opportunity to study abroad also taught me that dreams do come true. I’m not talking about small dreams like hoping to get something for Christmas or hoping for a good grade in a class; I am talking about potentially life changing dreams. If there is something that you really want to do you need to get out there and make it happen, forget about being afraid and what other people might think of you. That’s how I had the opportunity to study abroad, and I could not be more grateful for the incredible experience that I had.
Read more about Jessica's experience on the CAPA London program on her blog: http://www.wouldyougoagain.blogspot.co.uk