A CAPA Alumna Interview: Taisia Smith
Meet Taisia Smith, an alumna from George mason University who majored in Legal and International Studies with a concentration in African American Studies, who studied abroad in Florence in spring 2017. Below, she talks about why it was hard for her to leave her family to study abroad, how incredible the food in Florence is, and how her experience changed her and her long-term goals.
CAPA WORLD: Tell us a bit about yourself.
TAISIA SMITH: Hello! My name is Taisia Smith. I am a 22 years old and I attended George Mason University. I studied abroad in Florence, Italy during the spring semester of 2017 which so happened to be my last semester in undergrad! Yes, that’s right, I am now Mason Alum! I graduated with a BA in Legal Studies and International Studies with a concentration in African American Studies. I have many different interests and hobbies but I spend most of my free time writing, reading or netflixing. I love being outside so I find myself finding a nice spot and relaxing because life is stressful and breaks are most certainly needed.
CW: What were your thoughts (what were you excited about? worries? wonders? Etc.) when you were sitting on the plane to your host city? And what about the plane ride home?
TS: I am going to be completely honest with you- I cried halfway across the Atlantic Ocean. It started when I had to say goodbye to my younger siblings before I even got to the airport and did not truly stop until the plane was two hours away from Charles De Gaul airport in Paris. To make matters worse I decided to watch Finding Dory, and five minutes into the movie the tears came a little harder and it was just a mess- I was a mess. In my mind I kept thinking “Taisia you are honestly crazy”. However, In my defense, the longest I had gone without seeing my parents and siblings before that was two weeks, so four months was like a lifetime to me and I didn’t really think about that until I was on the plane. I was so nervous no matter how much research I did and no matter who I talked to beforehand, I still had no idea what to expect when I was to reach Italy.
On the way home I was so happy. I remember talking to so many people on the plane and at the airports because they were so fascinated that I was a study abroad student. I felt fulfilled boarding the plane in Florence. I had done something that I never thought I could do. I had made it and I had a great time. I was excited to see my family and my friends and to just be home in general. Plus I was graduating in three weeks so the plane ride home I was on cloud nine!
CW: What surprised you about your host city? What did you discover that went beyond your expectations or stereotypes that exist of the city?
TS: What surprised me the most was the age of the buildings and the architecture of Florence. Seeing medieval buildings everyday was so cool to me because nothing in the states is that old- nothing at all. Florence is beautiful, my favorite part of my day was walking across the Arno on the Santa Trinita bridge and marveling at my surroundings. Later on in the semester I was completely taken aback at how many tourist arrived in mid-March. By the end of my stay doing simple everyday things like going to the grocery store was a process because of all the tourist flooding the streets. Some days I didn’t want to leave my apartment it was so bad! Being from the DC-metro area I’m used to tourists, but the amount of people flooding the streets was unmatched to anything I have ever seen. It was like walking through Disney World in the middle of the summer season every day. Going to class having to bob and weave in between massive tourist groups… a mess.
CW: Reflect on keeping in touch with friends and family back home. How did you keep in touch? How often? How did it make you feel after you spoke to them? What recommendations do you have for other students on this topic?
TS: I had a really great support team. My friends are more like my sisters so communication was not an issue. At first it was tricky trying to figure out who was free and there was a six hour time difference. They really didn’t understand that concept at all so they were calling me at two in the morning for a couple of weeks but we worked on that. We have always had a group chat and they didn’t make a new one when I left (I would have objected to that anyway) so I always was in the loop. I facetimed my friends every week, usually while I was cooking myself dinner at night.
My family was a little bit different, we didn’t talk everyday but we talked once a week for sure. My mom would facetime me every Sunday usually in the evening and I would talk to her and my dad for an hour or so, same with my siblings. Snapchat was also a good way to keep in contact with people at home. Someone was always messaging me asking about whatever I had posted or just to check in. After speaking to my friends and family I always felt better. They reminded me how cool I was for living in Italy and most importantly they always reassured me that I made the right decision to go, while also telling me how boring or stressful things were at home. For other students who want advice on communicating with people at home I would suggest social media updates for the people who are not in your immediate circle. People love going on Facebook and seeing that you are doing well or what your newest adventure is, and Snapchat and Instagram are good outlets as well. For best friends and family, facetime dates are essential. Pick a day when you know you will be freest and I guarantee that they will clear and hour to talk to you. At first it will be tricky but after a month in you will look forward to your weekly facetime dates, trust me!
CW: Did you find that there was a sense of community at CAPA? Was it easy to make friends on your program? Tell us about some of the relationships you built while in Italy that you won't soon forget.
TS: I liked CAPA a lot. The staff and professors were great. At first it was awkward because I came from a school with only twelve students in the program versus other schools with over fifty. However, over time I did make friends due to many field trips or connecting with someone because they were from the same coast as me! I still keep in contact with some of the girls that I had classes with despite living across the country. I follow a lot of my former classmates on social media so we may not necessarily talk but the occasional “you look great” comment under an Instagram picture happens from time to time.
One of the most cherished relationships I built while in Italy was with my art professor. I adored her, she was so cool and taught me so much. I never thought in a million years that I would learn so much about life and most importantly myself in a watercolor class. Jamie pushed us to artistic limits while also letting us express ourselves through various projects. She was great and spending three hours a week with her was the highlight of my week.
CW: Talk about your favorite local foods. What did you try that you had never tried back home? Did you find a favorite place to shop for food? Did you try to make any local recipes?
TS: Wow, where do I even begin. My favorite part was in fact the food. I honestly ate ravioli at least twice a week, I kid you not. I would go to Conad (the local grocery store) and buy the pre-made ravioli and have the best time. It was ridiculously good, I was obsessed. My favorite local restaurants were definitely Al’Antico Vinao and the Oil Shoppe. The Oil Shoppe is right by CAPA and the owner, Andrea, and Fay, his assistant, are super nice and love talking to students! They have the best paninis you will ever have. Al’Antico Vinao always had a line but it was so worth it. I was also a frequent customer at Gusta Pizza at which I always got the gusta pizza because it was the best item on the menu.
My absolute favorite food to eat while I was there was gelato. I could probably write an entire article on gelato alone. Where to get it, what flavors to get and so on. I was completely obsessed with mango and kiwi flavored gelato. There was a small shop by my apartment that did a euro a scoop and I would go about three to four times a week… I wish I was exaggerating. La Carteria was my absolute favorite gelato shop. The mango and wildberry gelato was the best thing that ever happened to my taste buds. Like I said I could go on forever but you probably get the gist… I love gelato.
A food that I never had tried was gnocchi. Let me tell you that the three cheese gnocchi at Osteria Santo Spirito is in fact life changing. I can’t even express to you how good that pasta is. I’ll put it to you this way- if you ever find yourself in Florence make a reservation and order that, you are so welcome in advance. I ate out a lot but I love to cook so I found myself cooking a lot while I was there. The food was so fresh therefore simple recipes like chili or chicken and risotto were nothing less than amazing. I miss the food so much.
CW: What was a day in the life like for a CAPA Florence student? Was there such a thing as a “typical day”?
TS: I did have typical days- well, as typical of a day you can have when being a study abroad student. Yes, I was abroad but first and foremost I was a student meaning I did have work to do. Never a ton but a paper is still a paper. I did end up having a weekly /daily routine. Typically my days would consist of going to class or volunteering in the mornings, a nap in the early afternoon, I would probably go to the grocery store or get gelato possibly even visit with friends, cook dinner around 8 and I would either go out or watch Netflix / read one of my many books. Having a typical or normal day liked this for one helped my pockets out tremendously but it also helped me relax. That was the best part of being abroad in my opinion. For the first time in years I did not have 100 things going on. I had no meetings, I wasn’t working, no strenuous course work I could truly relax and that became a daily routine that I miss so much being back in the states.
CW: Did you travel outside of Florence? What are the challenges you faced and advice you can offer other students?
TS: I did travel outside of Florence! In fact I visited over seven countries and I also traveled all throughout Italy! One piece of advice I would give other students is to PLAN PLAN PLAN. Not only is planning ahead the way less stressful option it is also the more economic option. For myself one of the biggest struggles was budgeting my money so that I could properly travel. The good news is a plane ticket in Europe is not that expensive so I was able to make it work but it was still stressful at that time and could have been avoided. When traveling pack light! If you are anything like me that’s almost impossible but I learned that less is truly best because running to a connecting flight or train will happen. Have traveling buddies! I learned that there are many different kinds of travelers and knowing your type of traveler will save a lot of drama and stress in the long run. Some people only shop when they travel, others sight see and take a thousand and one pictures of just about everything, others go with the flow, while some are the more expensive traveler where money is truly not a factor (must be nice, that is not my story). Then there are the travelers like me- sensible, love sightseeing, love food and also love having a great time. I plan things ahead and if they happen they happen, if they don't they don't, and as long as I’m having a good time that’s all that I care about. Ask your travel companions what their priorities are and communicate with each other. And most importantly don’t be afraid to be by yourself! If you are in a country and your friends don’t want to do something or see something with you don’t be afraid to go alone. Just make sure that you are checking in and have a meeting point with them, make sure it’s safe to go alone (some countries I would not recommend this in) but for the most part it’s all good to go see the Mona Lisa or the Sagrada Familia by yourself!
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 highlighted any particular global issues in a different way?
TS: I have seen a lot changes in myself. For one, I am way more aware of how busy Americans are. It’s not that healthy in my opinion. The most important lesson I have learned is to relax and enjoy my surroundings. I used to sit in the Piazza for hours at a time just watching how social Italians are. How they genuinely listen to each other and have hearty conversations. I find myself sitting outside way more and just breathing and unplugging. I also am way more aware of the world outside me. My thinking has truly expanded to a Global scale. When discussing various issues with people I always include some sort of global perspective. People really live a completely different life outside of the states and now that I have experienced another culture I feel like I can articulate the world around me better. I have met so many people from literally all over the world. From Norway to Senegal, Brazil to Scotland I have been extremely fortunate. I got to see just how big the world is but I also got to experience how amazing (and not so amazing) people can be. I learned so much about myself in my four months abroad as well. For one I am way more independent than I once thought I was. I have also learned that I love people. I truly used to consider myself an introvert and being abroad taught me that that’s so far from the truth. Living in Italy has taught me so much I could go on about for days. This experience was one of the best things that has ever happened to me.
CW: What do you see yourself doing when you graduate? Did your experience abroad in any way shape your career goals and aspirations? If so, how so?
TS: Well, I did graduate and still have no idea. I just got my first full time job working at a law firm which is really cool but I still have no legitimate plan. Being abroad for so long has truly changed my perspective on what I want my long-term goals to be. I want to live abroad again and this time I want to move for a year or three. I now feel as if there is so much more to life than getting a married and having a good job. I now know what its like to truly live and not just survive. There are so many opportunities out there and great minds are needed all over the world. With so many issues such as climate change and even various political problems my focus in life has changed .Seeing Syrian refugees and other migrants in Europe really changed my outlook on humanity. I now have the desire to do more and be more. In all honesty I have no real idea as to where my life will lead me. I do know, however, that I am not the same girl that was crying on the airplane to Paris seven months ago!