Studying abroad: adventures offered in Italy

Study abroad programs provide students with the opportunity to work toward their degrees, usually for a semester at a time, in another country through their “home” university. While COVID-19 made travel difficult, study abroad programs through UNC Asheville have resumed.

According to the UNCA Study Abroad Office, such programs provide experiences that, not just in terms of location, are so different from studying here on campus.

“Students sometimes, but not always, may be taking courses in a different language, and they are certainly exposed to traditions and expectations in higher education that differ from those in the U.S.,” said Deaver Traywick, director of institutional planning and accreditation support from the Study Abroad office.

Lilly Huebner, who studied in Milan, Italy during the fall 2021 semester, said she visited six countries, trying a myriad of new things and making friends from all over the world. 

Huebner studied at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, or the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, a private university in Milan. Huebner explained she decided to study abroad on a whim, something she wanted to do before she graduates.

Once she decided to study abroad, Huebner said she faced a myriad of experiences and tasks that were far outside her comfort zone.

“I went to Italy, Milan, the university, completely alone. No other student went,” Huebner said. “The first time I went to a grocery store was exhausting. I spent over two hours there. I just kept looking and translating with my phone.”

Huebner compared the types of courses she took in Italy versus the U.S. as a student studying English literature.

“I took a culinary class because I didn’t have any other requirements that could be fulfilled by the study abroad options of courses. I took a course on the literature of the mafia. I took a course on the literature of Italian short stories and screenplays. I took another literature course on the female character in Italian literature as well,” Huebner said.

Anne Slatton, senior lecturer of mass communication at UNCA, planned a Maymester trip to Ireland and Scotland this year. These types of study abroad trips with UNCA professors differ from usual trips in a few ways, but the most prominent is the curriculum. They differ in that the curriculum comes from either a UNCA professor or a professor in an entirely different country.

“From a professor’s standpoint, I don’t know that it’s super different from my classes here. I have to come up with a syllabus, and I research ways in which it could be more integrated into the tourism aspect,” Slatton said.

Academics aside, Huebner said one of the things she was anxious and excited about was meeting people and making friends.

“First off, I was given a roommate,” Huebner said. “There was one huge dorm building off campus that housed everyone from basically the U.S.”

While studying abroad, in her free time, Huebner traveled extensively across Italy and throughout Europe visiting countries such as Germany, Switzerland, France, England and Spain.

“I went to Italy and I was allowed to, you know, go out. I haven’t ever been able to. It was definitely an experience and an exhausting experience, but it was fun,” Huebner said. “Most of the travel I did, it varied. Within Italy, I traveled by train all the time. Train was the way to do it.”

Huebner said a specific interaction on one of those train rides served as one of her most memorable experiences while traveling throughout Europe during her time abroad.

“Then one day, I was on a train and a girl sat down in front of me and we had a conversation. I asked how she was and her life story. She told me, and she seemed pretty safe, and she said, ‘Hey, you want to come meet me at my place in Switzerland? I’ll show you Switzerland the local style.’ I was like, ‘Hell yeah.’ Later on, I ended up hopping on a train and going to a stranger’s house in Switzerland, and it was the best experience of my life,” Huebner said.

While she studied abroad, Huebner said she felt the COVID restrictions in Italy were stricter than in the U.S. and as a result, felt safer, especially using public transportation so frequently. 

The Study Abroad Office acknowledged the effects COVID has had on the program.

“COVID brought all study abroad to a halt during 2020-21, and it is only slowly returning. All countries in the world currently have the highest level of travel warning by the U.S. Department of State, so students who choose to study abroad have to acknowledge the dangers of traveling and living internationally during a pandemic,” Traywick said.

Slatton’s trip abroad is finally possible after trying since the pandemic began, but many uncertainties still remain.

“My biggest fear is what if someone gets sick when we go over there and how do we deal with that,” Slatton said.

In European countries, the equivalent of a vaccine card is called a green pass. It is a digital way to prove vaccination or recovery from COVID.

“It’s like a QR code, and you scan it on anything around you, which I think is actually a little bit smarter than using these paper cards that we have because having it digitally means you can’t lose it,” Huebner said.

Like in the U.S., the debate over vaccines is just as evident in other countries. Huebner said while staying in a hotel in Genoa, Italy, she witnessed an anti-vaccine protest.

“In that city, Genoa, all of a sudden I heard noise, like just people shouting in the street. So my roommate and I, who was there with me, ran downstairs and emptied into the street and we just saw people chanting ‘No green pass,’” Huebner said.

Huebner said it was interesting to see similar things happening in their own way all over the world, like seeing people gathering in the streets.

Of her many experiences, travels and stories shared, Huebner said she recommended the study abroad experience. She suggests immersing oneself in the culture of the country as much as possible, from language, to people and the food.

“Last semester was the end of my junior year, right, and I’m like dude, shit, next year is my senior year, I gotta study abroad. So, on a whim, I just applied,” Huebner said.