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CAPA Study Abroad Alumna Interview: Alex St. John

Feb 23, 2015 8:30:00 AM / by Stephanie Sadler

CAPAStudyAbroad_Florence_AmbassadorSpring2015_Alex_St_John
A business major who planned ahead academically in order to study abroad, Alex St. John shares her experience below and why her sacrifice of spending a Summer taking extra classes was worth it. Having traveled to 15 countries, she shares tips on budgeting and traveling - specifically as a woman -  in Europe. She shares some packing advice that came to mind in hindsight and talks about the major change in mindset that will make her a more valuable employee in the future. 
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CAPA WORLD: Tell us a bit about yourself.
ALEX ST. JOHN: I am a Kelley School of Business student with majors in Economic Consulting and Public Policy Analysis. I am a student at Indiana University and studied abroad during fall semester 2014 with CAPA in Florence, Italy. I chose Florence because of my passion for art and art history. Outside of my studies, I enjoy painting, jewelry making, and about every other form of arts and crafts. Italy was also a great place for me to enjoy the outdoors.
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CW: To what extent did you know Italian before you left the US? What challenges did language present? Were you able to overcome them?
ASJ: I didn’t know any Italian before studying in Florence and was concerned with how well I would pick it up. I enrolled in CAPA’s Italian 1 class, which helped me achieve an elementary fluency of the language. I was surprised with how quickly you can pick up a new language when you are surrounded by it. I spoke Italian at the bakery, grocery store, bar, train station, and to people in the streets. I could quickly apply the things I learned in class to my life in the city of Florence.

CW: For students studying abroad with CAPA during upcoming semesters, is there anything you'd advise to pack that you wouldn't necessarily come to mind?
ASJ: There are a few things that I found very helpful in Florence that many people may not think to pack. The first is a handheld luggage weight. This is helpful for any plane travel within Europe or your trip home. I would also recommend bringing an extra pair of (inexpensive) shoes. The amount of walking and cobblestone streets can wear out or ruin shoes faster than you are used to in the United States. If you plan to study in Europe, bring a scarf. This goes for men and women. Scarfs are worn year round, are usually recommended for entering sacred religious spaces, and also allow you to adjust to changing weather forecasts.
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CW: Back in the States this semester, what emotions have you been experiencing? How would you explain reverse culture shock? 
ASJ: Coming back from study abroad was more challenging for me than moving to a new country for the first time. The best way I could explain the frustration of reverse culture shock is that you have had one of the best experiences of your life and cannot possibly convey all of it to your friends and family at home. There aren’t enough words or pictures to explain it all. Having been warned about reverse culture shock, I decided to treat my journey home like my journey abroad. I was open to both the great parts about being home and the hardships of missing the fantastic program that I was leaving behind.

CW: Did you record your experience through a blog or journal while abroad? Any tips from your own experience for others who wish to do the same?
ASJ: I kept a written journal during my semester abroad. I tried to make an entry every day or every few days with what I had done, my thoughts, reactions, or any observations I had. It seemed a little bit silly at first, but after a few weeks go by, you start forgetting the small things that have happened. When you’re abroad, every moment of everyday is new, exciting, and seems noteworthy of mention in an entry. The more I wrote down, the more I remembered. Some people found that keeping a blog was helpful but I did enjoy having a physical journal to bring home with all the great moments from my study abroad experience inside. I plan on saving it to look back at later in life.
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CW: One of your interests is art. Where did you go to appreciate art in Florence? How was the art scene there different from back home?
ASJ: One of the things I loved most about living in Florence was that art was around every corner. As a lover of art myself, I always make a point of seeking out the best art in museums or galleries wherever I go. In Florence, I never had to look very far. Some of the best and most famous Renaissance, Gothic, and Byzantine art lies in the museums, churches, palaces, and streets of Florence. My favorite places to see art were the churches, where the artistic masterpieces had been in the same location for hundreds of years. Seeing this caliber of art still in its intended location was fantastic.

CW: Did you travel outside of Florence? Where did you go? 
ASJ: I was fortunate enough to travel to 15 countries while studying with CAPA in Florence. Deciding to spend most of your weekends traveling or most of your weekends in Florence is a decision most students face. You can’t go wrong either way!!! I made it to these 15 European countries by bus, plane, train, or boat. Traveling this much does keep you moving at a fast pace and can be exhausting but I thought it was certainly worth it. I would advise future students to decide that you are going to be happy with however many places you get to go. You cannot see and do it all in one semester!
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CW: What are the challenges you faced and advice you can offer other students - in particular on traveling as a woman?
ASJ: As a woman traveling in Europe, you have to be more aware of certain issues. Even after being warned, I was still surprised with how often the women in my program faced harassment or unwanted looks while traveling. Some of this attention is impossible to avoid, but you can try to make yourself less noticeable by wearing more conservative clothing than you’re used to. The other issue is safety. Traveling in Europe is relatively safe, but I wouldn’t recommend traveling alone as a woman. Finding a travel partner in your program with similar travel goals as you is a much safer option than setting off on a train or bus by yourself.

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CW: Share a few of your favorite budgeting tips that helped you stretch your money while traveling in Europe.
ASJ: For most college students traveling aboard, money is a huge concern and making your money stretch to achieve your travel goals is tricky. My biggest piece of advice is planning your trips and expenses as early as possible. Once you have lived in your study abroad city for one or two weeks, try to budget the rest of your trips. If you want to travel other places, rank them in order to save money for the ones you want to do most.

Eating out every meal in any city will not allow your money to stretch as much as you might want it to. Grocery shopping and cooking meals is more challenging in some countries but planning out your meals so you can eat in will save you money in the long run!

I would also look at the total costs of trips you plan to take. Just because you get a cheap plane or train ticket to a city you want to visit does not always mean that it’s the cheapest option. Many trains and planes will take you to locations near the city you want to visit but you still have to pay for a cab or metro ride. Check these details before you go on a trip. Stay organized when traveling to save money and avoid expensive mistakes.

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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?
ASJ: I have always been a homebody type. Living in another country for a semester was something that I had to push myself to do. After living in Florence for four months, I began to see the extreme value of this kind of an experience. I became much more laid back and flexible. You start to see how other people live around the world and it puts everything in your own life into perspective. I realized both how lucky I am to have been born in America and also the many things about America that I would like to see changed. The most important thing about travel abroad is that you start to see yourself as a citizen of the world, which allows you to develop new empathy.CAPAStudyAbroad_Florence_Fall2014_from_Alex_St._John_-_Paris

CW: Did your study abroad experience have any influence over your career goals and aspirations for the future?
ASJ: One of the biggest surprises for me abroad was the fact that I visited a few cities that I could easily see myself living and working in. Being in business, I could very likely be placed in a career field where I am offered an opportunity aboard. Until my study abroad experience, I would have said that I wouldn’t have been comfortable with this kind of a position. Now I would not only be open to a career like this, but I would be very excited to move and live in another country. This was a huge change in my mindset but will also make me more valuable as an employee in the future.

Thanks Alex!

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Topics: CAPA Alumni, Interviews, Florence, Italy