A post-reflection on my time abroad

Studying abroad was something I always considered doing, but ended up becoming a necessity. I was at a place in my life where the world had become too small and my days felt like they were full of old habits and just getting through the motions.

As much as I prepared, packed, and studied the country of Italy and Greece, I don’t think anything could have taken away the nerves. I did not know anyone else going, did not speak Italian or Greek, and I was pretty sure it was the first thing I had ever done on my own. I sobbed on my flight to JFK, like I’m sure I made the whole plane super uncomfortable. The scariest part of it all was that I knew it wasn’t something that I could just give up halfway through and retreat back to my comfort zone. There was no way to predict what would happen after I got off my flight or what would happen in 6 weeks.

It’s hard to explain how you change through study abroad, but you definitely do. I’m not sure if it’s the freedom of exploring a whole new culture or how adaptable you become when problems arise or how you start recognizing people from your neighborhood and feeling like your part of something completely separate of your life back home.

My favorite thing that I can take away from study abroad is how much I learned about other people. I learned A LOT living with 7 other American girls in a small apartment in Trastevere. I learned about how to get along with your travel partners as you run around Europe on the weekends. I bonded with an old lady in Italian village who spoke no English with only hand gestures and a lot of smiling. Being a tourist is easy, but being a study abroad student requires you to make deep connections with people. Those human connections are what made my travels complete!

So, if I had to give someone any one tip, it would be to jump into your travels with both feet! Meet people, explore places, and run far away from your comfort zone. This can be an experiment to see how much you grow. Make a country 1000 miles away your 2nd home. It’s hard to not let fear take over in an unpredictable situation, but look at the unpredictability as potential!


Elshadai Smith-Mensah

Travel agent or super adaptable/independent/confident traveler?

For the five weeks I studied in Rome, I loved getting to see Italy’s different regions, seeing the differences in culture, and trying amazing food. Every weekend was a different part of the boot, but the comfort of coming back home to apartment in Rome was always something I looked forward to.

Before leaving for study abroad, I knew that I wanted to take some time after to travel on my own. I did not know where or if I would do it with others or on my own, I just pushed back my flight a week. The closer I got to my summer session, the more nervous I was about this specific week. During my program, I knew I’d at least have a meal plan, a roof over my head, and all of the resources my program presented on the website. But after my program, I would be on my own…

Throughout my 5 main weeks, I became really good at traveling. I learned how to navigate the bus/tram/metro system. I learned how to schedule time in wisely. I understood the perfect balance between touring and exploring. I’m proud to say that I am now a professional at avoiding tourist-y places to eat. By the time I needed to travel on my own, I felt comfortable enough to follow through it.

My heart was set on going to Greece! I loved the Mediterranean, I grew up in the Greek Orthodox church, and Greece seemed to be one country that was always out of my reach to visit. Two of my roommates were staying for the second session in Rome, so they had downtime and decided to tag along. But before they would agree to anything, they wanted to know how much it would cost (because that’s pretty reasonable.) The only problem was, this trip was not a trip because I had nothing planned, had no idea where in Greece I wanted to go, how to get there, what we would do, where we would stay, etc., etc., etc.

I went to the Pinterest and started reading hundreds of blog posts. I asked peers at my international school where they would recommend going. I researched different tour groups and cruises to see example itineraries. I finally decided that we would visit the islands of Mykonos and Santorini, and the city of Athens, but what would we do? So, I went back to researching once again. Pinterest is SUPER helpful for seeing what the highlights of each place are. Airbnb/Booking.com/Hostelworld are great websites for figuring out cheap housing accommodations. Transportation is tricky depending on what country you are going to, but we would have to at least fly into Greece, so any good discount flight website worked, we just planned our trip around the cheapest flights.

If I wrote about every detail of the best week of my life, this blog post would turn into a book. But the main takeaways that I gained from planning this kind of impromptu trip was that I felt completely independent. After planning every detail from how we are going to get to and from an airport/ferry dock, to where we are going to sleep at night, I feel like I can plan a trip anywhere in the world.

I also learned how to be adaptable. I wish I could say everything went smoothly, but that is not how the world works. We ran into some trouble at airports (future tip: make sure to put your exact name from your passport ***middle name too*** on your plane ticket, to avoid a hefty fine!) and sometimes you realize no one speaks English around you, and you don’t know Greek (future tip: download Google translate.) Normally, I would need about an hour to calm down in a situation like either of those, to clear my head and not panic. When you plan such an extensive trip, you feel adaptable enough to go with the flow, find another option, and really learn from the bumps in the road. Sometimes (all the time) the plan will change, and that’s okay!

Lastly, I felt really confident. To go from not riding the TARC in Louisville because no one had ever showed me to jumping on planes every other day, it really made me grow as a person! I accepted challenges, not running from them. I got wayyy out of my comfort zone, and did things that now make for awesome stories. I got to do things that I had always wanted to do in some of the coolest places in the world like riding ATV’s in Santorini, boating in the Swiss Alps, seeing the 1975 in Milan!!!

When you study abroad, find time to get to see one place you’ve had your heart set on. It may seem like a lot of work or additional expenses, but following through will teach you a lot about yourself and how cool some places in the world are.

Happy travels,

Elshadai Smith-Mensah

Surviving (and Thriving!!!) during your first 24 hours!

Before jumping on my plane to Rome, I thought I was the most prepared person on the planet. I had completed all my paperwork, packed like a professional, read countless blog posts, talked to study abroad alum, and made a Pinterest board with even more information. Sound familiar?

Well, when my plane touched down in Italy, it felt like those months of preparation disappeared and I had no idea what to expect. While jumping into new things is half the fun of studying abroad, here are some tips to make sure you thrive in your first 24 hours!

(Granted, I’m studying in Rome, but hopefully these are applicable to you too!)

  1. Jet lag is not a force to recon with!: Right now you are excited to see the whole world, but I promise, first day you are going to be exhausted from gaining/losing hours. Try your best to adjust as soon as possible! The best advice for this is to change your phone’s time to the country you are going to. This way, you have some sense of what you should be doing and when. If the people in your new country are asleep, you should be too! Also avoid naps, it will just throw your whole body clock off!
  2. Bring a good amount of cash with you (and small bills if possible!): On your first day, you’ll want to explore and eat on-the-go. In Rome, cashiers are reluctant to take your card, and if you try to pay for an 2euro espresso with a 50 euro bill, they’ll be mad at you. Have a few 5-10 euro bills and you will be set!
  3. Find the comfiest shoes you own and plan on wearing them 99% of the time: get ready to walk A LOT! You’ll be so mesmerized walking around your new city that you won’t even notice that you’ve walked 5 miles…. But only if you wear comfortable shoes! I never wore Chaco’s before this trip, but now they are my prized possession.
  4. New outfit, new person!: Pack a set of clothes in your carry on! While this is good advice, just in case you lose your luggage, I can guarantee that you will be tired, stinky, and a little overwhelmed once you get off your plane. Changing into new clothes will make you feel ready to take on the city!
  5. Become a sponge: you are going to be exposed to a whole new culture in a foreign country, and you’ll absolutely love it! Be open and learn, because this can really set the tone of your whole trip!

Ciao and happy travels!

Elshadai Smith-Mensah