How to be a Part of the Local Community Abroad

Dec 12, 2016 1:30:00 PM / by Julie Ritz

CAPA Study Abroad Alumna Interview: Sydney Langer

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Meet Sydney Langer, a business major at Hood College who studied abroad in Florence during spring semester 2016. Below, she talks about volunteering while abroad and why she encourages others to do the same, how her courses allowed her to get real-world experience in her major, and why she recommends living with a host family instead of with other American students in a traditional dorm or apartment.

CAPA WORLD: Tell us a bit about yourself.
Sydney Langer: My name is Sydney. I am a senior at Hood College located in Frederick, Maryland, majoring in business with a concentration in marketing. I am a member of the women’s swim team and am involved with a couple of on campus clubs. Last spring, I studied in Florence, Italy through the CAPA program.

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CW: Why did you choose the CAPA program and why Florence specifically?
SL: Before studying abroad, I had always wanted to travel to Italy. When I went to my school’s study abroad office to discuss my options, I found out I could study abroad there. Italy is one of the locations where the CAPA program is active and Hood College is affiliated with the program. After doing some research, I thought the CAPA program was a good fit for me. I wasn’t looking for a program with hundreds of students because I am used to going to a small school and the CAPA program in Italy is of comparable size.

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CW: Did you manage to volunteer while abroad or find other ways to connect with locals while in Florence? What are your tips for other CAPA students who hope to do the same?
SL: While abroad, I did manage to do some volunteer work at one of the local schools in an English classroom. I would go to the school once a week and help the teacher teach the language class. Some of the activities we assisted with included reading and playing games with the children. Since Italian is their primary language, many of them struggled with pronunciation, which is completely understandable. When I was working with the children, I could tell that they really appreciated how we spent time trying to help them learn. It was really rewarding to see the kids trying and seeing their progress over the semester.

For future CAPA students, I highly recommend getting involved with the community around you. To make the most out of your time abroad, try getting to know the locals by finding a way to do some volunteer work. CAPA offers a couple of programs for students to volunteer and I recommend taking advantage of those opportunities. Although it may be challenging if you do not speak the language, it is extremely rewarding in the end.

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CW: As a business major specifically, what would you recommend as must-see or do experiences for other students in Florence who have similar professional interests?
SL: As a business major, I researched the business program offered through CAPA at all of its locations. However, after considering it, I found out that three of the classes offered through CAPA I had already completed. For future study abroad students, I recommend taking some of the business classes that are offered through CAPA. They give you a new perspective on various aspects of the business world since the professors are from another country and of different backgrounds.

For example, one of my professors works in the supply chain industry. For one of our classes, we visited his warehouse where his company is located. We were given a tour and shown its daily warehouse operations. This opportunity was so useful because we got to experience it all firsthand and get a visual on what goes on behind the scenes to better understand what we were learning about in class. I would recommend taking advantage of opportunities such as this one because you may never be presented with them again.

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CW: What was the food and culture generally like in Florence? Did you find any favorite dishes or restaurants? How was your experience of life in the city culturally different from home?
SL: If anything about Italy is true, it is that they consume a lot of food, especially pasta. I ate pasta almost every day while I was abroad, sometimes twice a day. I knew that I was going have the opportunity to try new foods while abroad, but I didn’t expect to try some of the foods I was offered. Most places are going to offer different things than what you are used to, but you just have to make the most of it and keep an open mind and try as many new foods as possible. 

Italians have a very different lifestyle than Americans. There were many aspects that took some time to get used to. One example is the meals throughout the day. They have specific foods and drinks that are culturally acceptable to consume during certain times of the day. Some locals will look at you funny if you order something at the wrong time of the day, such as coffee. The best advice is to follow the locals’ example.   

I lived in a homestay while I was in Florence. My host mom was an excellent cook. My favorite dish that she made was eggplant parmesan. Before traveling abroad, I was not a big fan of this dish. However, my host mom’s recipe was to die for! For lunches, the panino’s are great and cheap. There are several just around CAPA's location, so be sure to try them all and find your favorite one.

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CW: Tell us a bit about your living situation, what your host family was like, why or why not you would recommend a homestay to future students and whether this experience was beneficial for you.
SL: When going through the application last fall, I had the option of either living in a homestay with an Italian family or living with other students in an apartment. When my mom was in college, she studied abroad in Spain. She chose to live with a family. I talked to her about my options and she recommended that I live with a family as well because she thought that I would have a better experience. At first I was hesitant to choose living with a family because I thought it might be would be harder to meet other students. I took some time to think about it, and in the end I decided to live in a homestay. This was one of the best decisions I made while studying abroad.

The family I lived with included a mom, dad, two sons, and two dogs. Luckily, the sons were around my age, one being two years older and the other only 10 days older. I am a huge dog person and have grown up with dogs most of my life, so that helped being away from home. I was able to immerse myself completely in Italian culture. I have been fluent in Spanish most of my life, and going into the semester, I knew no Italian whatsoever. I had heard that Spanish and Italian were similar so I wasn’t too worried. It was hard at first because it was all new to me. However, I took beginner Italian during the semester and, by the end, I was able to understand and hold conversations in Italian with my host family. Living with a host family definitely improved my speaking and comprehension.  

I would highly recommend living in a homestay, although I understand that it may not be the best option for everyone. It was one of the most rewarding things I have done in my entire life, both in terms of personal growth and really immersing myself in another culture. When my grandparents visited Florence, they were treated like family. I know that if I ever return to Florence, my host family would do anything for me and vice versa. They were my family away from home and I can’t thank them enough everything they did for me.

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CW: Where did you travel outside of Florence while you were abroad? Any tips for students traveling on a budget? Anything else you wish you would have known in advance?

SL: While abroad, I was lucky enough to travel to 15 countries and several cities within Italy. Other than Florence, I visited Verona, Pisa, Rome, Venice, Siena and San Gimignano. CAPA offers a couple day trips and hiking opportunities for students, including to Siena and San Gimignano in one day. Outside of Italy, I traveled to Amsterdam, the Netherlands; Interlaken and Bern, Switzerland; Prague, the Czech Republic; Munich, Germany; Lisbon, Portugal; Spilt, Croatia; and Slovenia. After the program concluded, I ended up staying for almost another month traveling in Europe.

I am a big saver. I was lucky enough to have access to my hard earned savings while abroad and used them to go to these amazing places. I made sure to research the best deals before purchasing anything travel related. If you are looking into planning your own weekend trips without a program, I recommend that you search for deals regularly. Prices are always changing and you want to score the best deals you can to help save some money. The earlier you try and book trips, the cheaper the prices. Another way to save money is to buy your own groceries in your host city and cook you own food at your apartment. Food in grocery stores is a lot cheaper and fresher than what you are used to in the United States. Trust me, I know it’s hard not to eat out at restaurants all the time, but making your own food can be just as good!

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CW: Where do you see yourself taking your career over the next few years when you graduate? Did your experience abroad in any way shape your career goals and aspirations?
SL: I am still unsure of what I want to do after I graduate this upcoming May. I have begun looking into jobs and am thinking about going into the marketing department of a company. It took my a while to figure out what I wanted to major in, and I recently changed my concentration to marketing. This decision was partially made because of my study abroad experience. I took "International Marketing" in Florence and really enjoyed the class and the professor. The class opened my eyes to what is available in this field of business.

Studying abroad really opened my eyes to all of the opportunities that are available. I can see myself working abroad in the future. I do not think I could be abroad permanently, but I would love to work for a couple years outside of the United States. I am also thinking about applying for some other international jobs, including Peace Corps service after graduation. Studying abroad opens up many doors and potential future opportunities. 

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CW: Where were the places you carved out as "Your Florence" - the places you found outside of the tourist sites, the places that were most meaningful for you? What was special about them?
SL: The best places are the ones you just stumble upon when exploring the city. Within three and a half months, I found several different places outside of the tourist areas that I enjoyed. One of my favorite places my friend and I found was a rose garden. Since I was there for the spring semester, it didn’t warm up until near the end of our program but we still made the most out of it. The garden was located near Piazza Michelangelo and there was a view of the entire city of Florence from this spot. It was just this huge garden with lots of grass around the roses to sit or lay on. On really nice days, there were a lot of people there, but it was still beautiful and relaxing. Many people went to just lay out in the sun or have a picnic with friends. We would do the same or bring homework with us and enjoy the view.

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CW: What changes have you seen in yourself since you began your study abroad program? What has your experience taught you about yourself and the world around you? Has it changed the way you think about or understand global issues?
SL: Growing up as an only child, I learned how to be independent early on. I am not afraid to try new things and challenge myself, and studying abroad only strengthened these qualities. Not many people will fully understand what it was like to experience what I did last semester. There were tough times and some of the best times of my life.

Going abroad was one of the best decisions I have made. I learned more about myself in one semester than I did the past three years of college. Not only did I grow as a person, but I became more confident in myself. I was completely out of my comfort zone and forced to do things by myself. Sure, my parents and friends were just a phone call away, but they couldn’t hop on a plane whenever I needed them. I leaned on my parents for advice - mostly as a sounding board, but for the most part, I had to learn to solve problems on my own.

My experience abroad has taught me that opportunities are endless. The world is a huge place with a variety of people and you don’t realize it until you’re out there exploring for yourself. I encountered so many different things abroad and never knew what was going to be next. I wouldn’t trade my time abroad for anything and I would do it all over again in a heartbeat. In all honesty, my life will never be the same as it was for those four months of my life. With that said, I will be forever grateful for all of the opportunities I experienced and the memories I made.

Studying abroad has changed the way I think about and understand global issues. My world and my mind have opened up to what is around me - it truly gave me a global perspective and reinforced my interest in travel.

Thanks, Sydney!

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Topics: Interviews, Florence, Italy