Studying Abroad in a Crisis

Students around the world started this year with goals, aspirations and trips planned. Hoping to grow as individuals and improve their language proficiency, many of these individuals ended up facing uncertainty, canceled programs and in some cases evacuations. Like everyone else, CIEE has taken this one day at a time, basing decisions in the best interest of our participants and their safety. Working together as a global team to support our students and their families. For which, we cannot express our thanks enough to each and every single team member who has helped us face this uncertain time. We’d also like to extend that thanks to our participants and their families for their patience and flexibility. One student who was particularly adaptable was Nathaniel, who had been in Ivrea, Italy since September but who chose to remain in Italy even after his program was canceled. We appreciate his willingness to share his experience with us and his positive outlook throughout this strange adventure.

His experience started off normally…

“I participated in the CIEE High School Semester Abroad programs to Italy for a full year, enrolling in a high school there and living with a host family. The first month was great, being introduced to the area. I was pretty bewildered by things, but in a good way. Everyone was really welcoming to me being there. It was a great location, beautiful city. Like it’s the smallest place I’ve ever lived in my life. It was kind of nice though, how once I got settled in there, I noticed that I would come across people that I had met somehow much more often, because it was on a smaller scale than like here in DC.”

School was a little unique but manageable…

“School started at 8 instead of 8:30. So I had less time to get prepared in the morning.  And I would take the bus to the school with my host brother. His birthday was actually 8 days before mine, so we had a joint birthday party!

I didn’t get a choice in the type of classes, it was predetermined. The classes in the high schools in Italy are specialized, so I was in the economic and social class and his was a sports type class. But later, as I was learning more about the different types of classes in the school, I was able to talk to my counselor about trying out others, by the end of it, I was in 4 different classes. I was still in my original class most of the time, but I was also going to two classes that were applied science. In those classes, I would do graphic design using AutoCAD and then I was also in my host brother’s class each Friday for 2 hours.

My class was interesting, like immediately I realized my classmates learn their history in French. They had a program, where if you passed a final exam you could also go to college in France. Another thing that was a bit surprising, was there weren’t afterschool activities. Like I would be in club in school at home.

I’d say at the beginning my skill level went from like a 1 to an 8 or a 9 at the end. I wouldn’t really say I’m fluent, but I’m definitely an intermediate! I can understand almost everything, I can watch movies or hear people talk and understand. At first, I was having some difficulty when spoken too but gradually I was fully able to understand what people were telling me and then I could fully understand the lessons at school. For a while, like if people weren’t talking directly to me, I would kind of like zone out because it required a lot of metal processing to understand what they were saying. But later it became just slight work understanding what people were saying or understanding the radio.”

By the second month, he was dreaming in Italian at his unique homestay…

“My host parents, they were great. I got to travel around quite often. I would go around quite a bit with them for the first few months. Then I did quite a few day trips. My host father was the former goal keeper and goal keeper coach of the Torino Soccer team. So I got to go to a lot of their games. I wasn’t really a fan before but now I am. My host family wants me to come back and visit and we would definitely go back to see another game. Here in the states I have a brother but he’s much older than me, like I’m already an uncle. So it was nice to have a brother my age. And because of him, it made it a lot easier to get accustomed to the community there. And then I also had a host sister who was sometimes there, she went to school in Florence, so every once in a while, she would come visit the family.”

Then things started to change…

“In my city there is a carnival every year, called the ‘Battle of the Oranges’ and so I participated in that, but it was cut short. I remember the first day of the carnival in my city was around the time the virus was really spreading. The carnival was 3 days and at the end of the 1st day they announced that it wouldn’t be continued for the next two days. And that was also when it was announced that school would be closed for the following week, and then after that there was another announcement of school being closed for 2 weeks, and then a whole month after that. After a week they started doing online classes which are still closed. And around that time, my host mother was quite persistently asking what my parents were thinking and if they were thinking about having me come back to the states.

They preferred me staying there, like now, probably they wouldn’t have as much. But one of their worries about the virus was me traveling. Especially, initially, when Americans were asked to come back, things were confusing, so a lot of the airports got crowded. And since the virus spreads because of traveling and I was already pretty much locked down with my homestay. I felt safe staying with them.

I was staying optimistic through the whole time, just wanted to wait things out. From CIEE, we got the first email about if I were to stay, what we would need to do, or I could leave. Which my parents and I agreed I would stay. And then about a week later there was the next email, saying that services would be suspended, that there would be people on the ground but the program would be suspended so going home was brough up more as an option. There was still the option to stay, But it was too much of a health responsibility. So 3 or 4 days later, my homestay told me they were not comfortable with continuing to host me. And since the agent on the ground couldn’t move me to another homestay, basically the next few days after that I had to pack up and then I returned to the U.S.

It was depressing finding that out. I was quite sad. And then I was really trying to work things out to be able to stay but there was nothing I could do. It was ultimately their decision.

My parents were saddened by it, but they knew it was my homestays decision, but they didn’t want to argue so they just had me come back. Looking back on it now, it probably was the best decision, since the situation keeps getting worse and worse. I would have just continued to be locked down there.

If I had to do it all over again, I would have kept waiting it out and remained as optimistic as I was. Also, while I was stuck at home, I was learning A LOT of Italian, watching movies and shows. I had a tutor who we started doing lessons via skype, and I’m actually continuing to do so here. I’ll be taking Italian at University, when I start in the fall. And also, I bonded a bit more with my family. Like we would watch family movies, which we hadn’t done much before. And we would play board games together. And before the situation started really getting drastic, we went on a few hikes.

I thought that CIEE handled it really well. The whole time, I’ve received consistent, well provided information from CIEE. I felt supported the whole time I was staying there, continuing to get emails as the emergency of the virus worsened. My parents were the same as me, they felt fully supported by CIEE. They liked that you stayed flexible the whole time.”

Life lessons were learned one way or another…

“The main take away is no matter how much you think you have things in control your ideas of what’s to come next can easily go away or lose their importance. For most students: really try to enjoy your time there as much as you can, explore your city and hang out with friends. Because I knew I had limited time there from the start I really wanted to get as much out of it as I could. I feel like I’ve taken that with me, that concept, like if there’s something you want to go see or do, do it now rather than later.

When it was time to leave it felt really abrupt, because I was leaving all my teachers, classmates, friends without getting a chance to see them because no one was allowed out. So try and spend as much time with people and remain in contact with your friends. It would be good, if you do have to leave abruptly, to let them know you are leaving. When I found out I had to leave, I posted on Instagram telling everyone I was glad I had met them and I received a lot of great feedback from people I had met, even people I hadn’t spoken to too much beforehand.”

When asked for suggestions about the future….

“Staying positive would be a good one. You never know how fast things could get better, like things got worse pretty fast but I wouldn’t suggest leaving immediately. Because my Italian proficiency, even my family noticed, really got better during that time. No matter how much you want something to go a certain way, you have your decision making but everything is temporary, you never really know what’s next to come.”


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