Emily Townley is one of the three psychology students who studied in Perugia, Italy last semester. During her study abroad experience, she was able to travel to Switzerland and Venice, engage Italian school children in English language learning through fun games during her class’s field trip, go paragliding, eat some truly delicious food, meet some incredible people, and all around have a fantastic experience abroad (except for that one trip to the hospital in the beginning). Read on to learn more about her experience abroad. Enjoy!
To start off, can you tell me a little about you?
I am a Psychology major with an Art History minor. I’m in the Honors Program and part of Psi Chi. I’m originally from Richmond, Virginia.
Where did you study abroad? Why did you choose to study there and what was it like? Was it different from what you were expecting?
I studied abroad in Perugia, Italy. If the name sounds familiar to you, it might be because the Amanda Knox trial happened there. Luckily no drama like that occurred while I was there.
I never planned on studying abroad in Italy. In fact, I was looking more at Northern European countries like the Netherlands or Denmark since I had already been to Italy. However, when I saw that the Umbra Institute (the school I studied at) offered a multicultural psychology program, I began considering it more seriously. After looking up pictures of the gorgeous town, I decided that this was where I was meant to be.
Overall, Perugia met my expectations of being a charming, Italian hilltop town. If I had to pick a way that it was different from what I was expecting, it was much livelier than I expected it to be. When I had gone to Italy before, my favorite places were the smaller towns like Siena, rather than the hustle and bustle of cities like Rome. However, I did fear that Perugia would get to be too quiet and I would begin to get stir crazy. That never happened though! The hardest part of the small-town life was that if I ever wanted to fly somewhere, it was a three-hour train ride to the airport, but I got used to that.
What were some of your favorite moments while abroad?
One of my favorite moments while abroad was when my friends and I went to lunch in Cortona, Italy. Cortona was only an hour train ride away from Perugia, so it was a great opportunity to see some of Tuscany (also one of my friends loves the movie Under the Tuscan Sun which takes place there).
It was about 2:00 pm when we arrived which was a bit late for lunch in Italy and we were very hungry, so we just went to the first place that was still open. And what a place it was! When we first sat down, we were given fresh prosecco which immediately clued us in that this was no ordinary restaurant. After ordering, we were then brought fresh, warm bread rolls and then a small, artfully plated bowl of pea soup. Our entrees were then brought out and none of us could talk because we were just so amazed at how good the food was. Finally, we ordered dessert which was the grand finale of our fabulous meal. I ordered an apple pastry which was presented inside of a chocolate dome which then had melted chocolate poured on top of it to reveal the pasty in the shape of a rose. At this point, our friends and I were almost screaming in delight. The rest of our day we couldn’t stop talking about how surprising the meal was and how it was the best dining experience we had ever had.
Another one of my favorite moments happened during my solo trip to Switzerland. I had wanted to go see the Alps for a very long time but had tried to keep a realistic mindset that I might not make it out there while abroad. Flights were expensive and my schedule was already busy; I figured it was a lost cause. However, the planets aligned in the end, and though I had to go alone, I managed to find some train tickets that would take me to a town right in the heart of the Swiss Alps: Interlaken. While there were many magical moments that happened while I was there, like watching the sunset from the Harderkulm and paragliding, probably the most striking moment was when I was in the mountain top town, Mürren. It’s only accessible by cable car which made it feel like it was almost out of a fairy tale because of the lack of cars. It’s hard to describe exactly how it felt to be so high up in the mountains and to see the snow-capped summits of the Alps in person. In some ways, it was the most peaceful I’ve ever felt.
What were you most worried about in terms of studying abroad?
Honestly, I was very scared about not making friends. I went to camp for three weeks every summer when I was younger and never really connected with anyone despite going for five years. I was very nervous the same thing would happen again, except this time I would be stranded in a different country for four months with no one to hang out with. Luckily, those fears were unfounded! I formed some great friendships while I was abroad with some wonderful people that I hope I get to travel with again in the future.
Did anything happen that you weren’t expecting? Were there any moments that particularly struck you while abroad? Tell me about them.
There was certainly one thing that happened that I was not expecting. That would have to be my five-day stint in the hospital my first week there. I arrived on Friday and by Wednesday I found myself in an Italian ER with a stabbing pain in my side. That pain turned out to be a kidney stone! Once I was in the hospital and on pain medicine it wasn’t as scary anymore but [everything] leading up to that point was quite stressful. My mom was ready to drop a few thousand dollars to fly over to be with me (and thank God she didn’t). The care I received in the hospital was phenomenal and I was lucky enough to have another girl in my study abroad program there with me for some of the time so I wasn’t alone (she had a seizure on the bus ride from the airport :O).
What did you learn while abroad? This is not limited to just coursework (though certainly talk about the types of courses you were able to take) but also about the culture or cultures you interacted with and, cheesy as it is, yourself as well.
Something that makes the Umbra Institute different from some other study abroad programs was their emphasis on the “study” portion of the phrase. For many people, they would find this annoying, and I definitely did at times too when I just wanted to travel, but I couldn’t because I had an Italian exam or another field trip to Assisi. However, I’d say it was definitely beneficial in the end. It has made the transition back into Roanoke a little smoother because it’s not like I took a whole semester off. Also, all the classes I took were really interesting and taught me a lot! I took two art history courses to go towards my minor and two psychology courses to go towards my major. While the art history courses were interesting in their own right, I’ll just talk about the psych courses considering this is a psychology blog post.
The two courses were Human Development in Culture and Criminal Behavior. They were both taught by a wonderful professor, Doris Kessenich, who was a joy to learn from given her experience in the fields she was teaching. Our class sizes were very small (maybe eight people) so they would be extremely discussion based, which normally would worry me, but I just felt so comfortable in her classes that I participated a lot. We even took a surprisingly fun field trip to an Italian middle school as part of the Human Development class where we got to help the kids with their English skills by playing games like Heads Up.
On a more personal level, I learned to be a lot more independent. Before studying abroad, I had concluded there was no way I would ever travel by myself. My friend, Becca, had studied abroad the semester before in Spain and had sworn by traveling by herself, but the prospect scared me. I was worried I would get lost or miss a connecting train or flight or a multitude of other world ending catastrophes. But, when push came to shove, my desire to travel to Switzerland outweighed any of my previous fears. And when everything went smoothly in Switzerland, I found myself doing it again to go to Venice on my own. While there were definitely some aspects of traveling alone that annoyed me (mainly not having anyone to take pictures of me at sites so having to rely on strangers/selfie sticks/self-timers), there were also some huge upsides! I got to make my own schedule, got to decide exactly what I wanted to do and when I wanted to do it, and I was able to make more spontaneous decisions that I could never make when traveling with other people.
What do you miss the most?
The ease of travel is definitely something I miss a lot. Things are a lot cheaper in Europe, more efficient, and closer together. For just $50 and about five hours of your time, you could find yourself in a completely different country and culture. Back home, you could drive for five hours and still be in Virginia.
I also miss the friends I made abroad. Luckily, my program was for American students, so all my friends live in the U.S., but we’re still pretty far out. Just in my friend group there was someone from California and another from Minnesota, so it will be hard to see them in person in the future. Thank God for technology though!
One last thing I definitely miss is this pasta I would get all the time in Perugia. It was called Pasta alla Norcina and I always got it at this one restaurant called Ferrari. While there were many other delicious foods I had while abroad, this will definitely be what I miss the most, especially because it was a specialty to the area.
Tell me about your plans for the future. How will you apply what you learned while abroad to help you?
In my Human Culture in Development class we learned about the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity. My final paper for the class, I wrote about how I believed I developed along this model. By the end of my study abroad experience I believe I had reached the Adaption stage, which is when one is able to behave and think in ways that are in line with the new culture. In other words, I think I learned how to be more culturally sensitive and how to adapt better when in other cultures. In the future I hope to find my opportunities to travel and I hope that I can be able to adapt more easily to new cultures because of my time abroad.
Do you have any advice for other students interested in studying abroad?
Don’t be afraid to travel on your own. Making friends isn’t as scary as you think because everyone is nervous about making friends, just be yourself and you’ll find your crew. It might depend on the program, but remember it is called study abroad so be prepared to actually do some schoolwork. Savor every moment, it goes by faster than you think.