My Study Abroad Experience Was Nothing Like I Expected
Alexa Jo, Spring 2020, Florence
May 4, 2020

We asked our Spring 2020 bloggers to reflect on their experience with the global COVID-19 outbreak while they were abroad. 

I’m just going to say it…my study abroad experience was nothing like I expected. I’m sure every study abroad student has said some iteration of this upon returning home, but this semester was different. The first month was a whirlwind of new people, new foods, and new places. It was the scariest, most challenging, anxiety-provoking, exciting, happy, curious, educational, gratitude, and growth-filled time I have ever experienced. By the end of week five, I had felt both like I had just gotten there and like I had been there for months.

My last sunset at Piazzale Michelangelo

I knew I would grow through this experience, but I didn’t expect some of that growth to come from an early departure. For years I had dreamed of where I would travel, who I would meet on my adventures, and of the new appreciation, I would have for cultures outside of my own when I studied abroad. I longed for diversity in my life and knew living in a foreign country would provide that to me. I worked countless hours at three different jobs to financially prepare for the adventure of a lifetime. Everyone told me it would be the best thing I ever did. Everyone told me how fast the time there would fly…and boy did it.

Sunset over the city

When the news of the Coronavirus outbreak first came to the surface, I hadn’t thought much of it. Within a matter of days, the illness went from “that’s not a threat here” to “Italy is the number two leading country in the number of cases.” I didn’t know whether I should be planning my next weekend trip or planning my departure. One-by-one, US schools began to pull their students back home and programs were suspended or canceled altogether. It was kind of a domino effect. When I heard of the first school doing it, I thought it was crazy. I felt sad for my peers who had to unwillingly leave because of the threat of possible danger and didn’t seriously think it would happen to me. Within that week, SAI had suspended our program. They held out as long as they could but ultimately it was an issue of safety and the great unknown. Everyone in the Florence office was patient, understanding, and kind to the confused students calling and coming into the office, even though they weren’t always treated with kindness in return. I was pleased with how they handled a situation no one could have prepared for.

Once I had accepted that we would be leaving, in many ways I was sad and in many ways I was happy. I was sad about the things I didn’t get to do like take a cooking class and go to a soccer game. I was sad that I had to say goodbye to so many wonderful people I had just met. I was sad about the money lost. I was sad that I had to sacrifice the semester I had anticipated full of traveling, exploring Italy, and making memories with new friends. I was sad that out of all the semesters to study abroad, I picked the unlucky one to be cut short. This experience was expensive: monetarily, emotionally, physically, and mentally. I was drained. However, I felt a lot of happiness too.

Admiring the Ponte Vecchio

I am happy because I had travelled internationally alone for the first time and now, I’m confident in doing so. I am happy because I got to see multiple Italian towns and now, I know where I want to go when I am able to return someday. I am happy because I met locals at the market. We learned each other’s names and they helped me practice my Italian. I am happy because I met so many wonderful people and created bonds with them that I plan to hold on to. They taught me about myself and about others in ways I couldn’t have learned had I not met them. I am also happy because I am proud. I am proud of myself for adapting to a whole new life quickly and creating my own community when I felt alone. I am proud of myself for being able to navigate the fresh market and order in Italian. I am proud because I practiced staying calm in stressful situations where I would have been stricken with anxiety in the past. I felt proud of myself for taking risks and pushing outside of my comfort zone. I felt proud of myself for handling it the way I did.

Once I came home, the severity of the spreading virus only got worse. The whole world went on lockdown it seemed. I was thankful I was home and not in my 8-person apartment for the better part of two months. I am so thankful for the wonderful memories I have made and the things I did get to see. It’s more than a lot of people do in a lifetime.

Soaking up the last few hours in Firenze

Ultimately, I mourned over what could have been but also realized that it was never ours. We were never promised that this wouldn’t happen, we just expected that it wouldn’t. If there’s anything I know it’s that everything in life happens for a reason. There is purpose for pain and when something bad happens, there is something even better waiting. I look forward to the glorious thing that will come from what has been devastating to so many. Until next time Firenze…

Love always,
Alexa Jo

Alexa Jo is a Spring 2020 Florence student from Winona State University.

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About SAI

SAI is dedicated to providing academic and cultural learning experiences abroad that enhance global awareness, professional development and social responsibility. We concentrate our programs in Europe, with a focus on in-depth learning of individual European countries and their unique global role in the geopolitical economy, humanities, and in the arts.