Since returning from my semester study abroad, I have been very active in passing on everything I have learned through my experience and sharing my stories. I think one of the best ways to learn is either by experience or someone who has. Sure, you can read a guide book or manual on how to travel, learn about culture, or where the top ten best parts of a city are; but the best advice always comes from someone who has been there, tried it, failed at it, or found the most amazing hidden gems along the way.
One of the things I have found the most important is writing reviews for programs for future study abroad students. When I was looking into all of my programs, I couldn't find many stories or past study abroad students experiences. I had so many questions and I was always asking my advisors from my independent program. Don't get me wrong, they had 9 out 10 of the answers. It was the personal experience of having been on that program or having lived in the city that I wanted to go to that was missing. And personal experience from another student would have helped tremendously.
A few weeks ago I wrote a review for GoOverseas for my program, a Semester at the University of Westminster, which I did independently through CISabroad. They reached out and asked if I would also do an alumni interview, so there would be a more detailed description of the program with personal stories and insight. How could I say no?
Without further delay, here is my interview from GoOverseas:
Grace is a senior at Columbia College Chicago majoring in Photography and minoring in Art History. After a high school trip to Italy and Greece, she knew living out of a suitcase and learning from experience was the only way she wanted to live her life. Since then, she has been fortunate enough to do two study abroad programs to build her portfolio and travel experience: a summer in the Australian Outback and a semester at the University of Westminster.
Why did you choose this program?
I choose the Semester at the University of Westminster for two reasons: academics and location. Academics, because it was one of the few schools that offered photography courses. And location because the school was in the heart of London. It offered easy access to transportation around the city and out of the city. Whether it was to the countryside, trains, or the airport. There wasn't going to be a question of "how will we get there?" or "how expensive will it be?". I knew any trip I wanted to plan once I got there was going to be doable.
What did your program provider assist you with, and what did you have to organize on your own?
I did an independent program, CIS abroad, and they assisted me with the academics courses and getting the courses approved for academic credit, the financial process, transition into the program, and just about every question that I could think of they answered.
They have an amazing staff that help you through the stages of applying and getting you abroad, and their on site staff go above and beyond to make you feel comfortable and at home abroad.
While I was abroad and ran into some trouble in another country (my passport was pick-pocketed), my on-site coordinator contacted them on-site coordinator in that country and she was able to meet up with me and help through. They are an amazing team and I am truly grateful for all they do. I organized my credits and classes to make sure I would come back to school with everything in line for graduation, flights, finances and expenses while abroad, learning about my new "home", and pre-planning potential trips.
What is one piece of advice you'd give to someone going on your program?
Never go a day without going out into the city to explore. Even if you aren't feeling well, the weather sucks, or you're just tired. Get out there. You are only living abroad for so long, so take advantage of every precious day and explore. You don't even have to go far to find something you have never seen before. Trust me, in no time you will know the city like a local and will have a little pride to be able to say you wandered the city everyday.
What does an average day/week look like as a participant of this program?
An average day at Westminster is your normal rise and shine for classes. Depending on your campus, you can either walk to class or hop on the tube. When the "study" part of studying abroad is done for the day, the fun begins and the daily adventures around Regent & Oxford Street, to Big Ben, or jump on the Tube to find a new part of the city to wander around for the day. At the end of the day, if you are not making a mess with friends in the tiny on-campus kitchens as everyone tries to make dinner, you will probably be at a pub (okay, the pub thing is a once, twice a week thing,not everyday!).
Blenheim Palace, home of Winston Churchill and my unruly hair.
Going into your experience abroad, what was your biggest fear, and how did you overcome it and/or how did your views on the issue change?
I think my biggest fear going into my program was I wasn't going to meet people who wanted to travel as much and as far as I wanted to. I wasn't afraid to do one or two solo day or weekend trips, but I didn't want to get to a point where I was always traveling on my own because I couldn't find anyone to travel with. When the time came, I rarely ever traveled alone when I planned a trip and asked friends if they wanted to come. From my experience, everyone that studies abroad wants to get the most out of their time there, have a very hard time saying no to a new adventure, and are always up for exploring something new. I think that vibe, putting a bunch of traveling souls together, is the most amazing part of studying abroad and what makes the bond between the friends you make abroad so strong: you are constantly on the move, in cramped quarters, making mistakes and learning as you go, and laughing and having fun along the way (all while taking in the best culture and experiences the world has to offer).
What did you learn about yourself from studying abroad?
I have done two studies abroad, and looking back I have learned five lessons from my journey:
You can see my alumni interview on GoOverseas and other great alumni interviews, program reviews, travel tips, city and tour reviews all by fellow travelers.
xx A Traveler's Bliss
Paris. February 2016.
Ever since I can remember I have had one consistent dream: to go to the city of lights and love. Last February that dream can true, but with a twist. It didn’t have a fairytale ending. My friends and I planned the perfect weekend in Paris and a day trip to Versailles.
It started off a little rough; I had to get up at 3am to catch the 6am train from London to Paris, but no complaints along the way. It was worth it. When I got into Paris, we went straight to Versailles for the day and then back to see the Eiffel Tower sparkle by dinner. The only time we weren’t on our feet was when were on the metro or eating. The day flew by so we tried to spend as much time sitting by the Eiffel Tower and taking in it’s beauty.
I mean, we were in Paris!
After sitting under the Tower and making our plan for the next day, we made our way to the metro to go back to our Airbnb for the night. It was late, we were tired, and that’s where it all went wrong.
It was late, and we let our guard down, and we were so close to our destinations, we stopped for once second and didn’t pay attention to our surroundings. That voice was in the back of my head say, “Something isn’t right. Why is that lady in line twice?” But I was so tired and could already see myself in bed, so I just shook it off and carried on.
While we went through the turnstile for the metro, a friend saw the woman try to “come through behind me” but the bar stopped her. When my friend caught up to me and told me what she saw, I got a sinking feeling in my stomach.
She robbed me. She stole something. She pick-pocketed me.
It is the worst feeling. I had no idea what to do, where to go, or how to react.
But we adapted and we learned.
So now, I am passing on what I have learned about having your passport stolen, to you.
You can only plan for so much, and planning for disaster is usually not one of them. So where do you even begin when you are in the middle of your adventures abroad and disaster sticks?
When it comes to your passport there a few precaution steps you want to take before you leave - for the never wanted, cross your fingers, and pray to every God - kind of just in case. It helps to have a few copies of documents with you while you are traveling in a documents folder. While it is nice to have them saved in a folder on your phone, you can’t take your phone into the Embassies/Consulates.
You want to have copies of:
Travel Visa (if needed)
List of Contacts (since you wont’ have you phone in the Embassy, so it’s nice to have number written down just in case)
Copy of Birth Certificate
Trip Itinerary (with Contacts and address of your tours / where you are staying)
Tip: Keep copies in a folder on you at all times and keep a folder with copies locked up in your hotel room.
Us Embassies & Consulates App - This app is hands down amazing and I totally recommend downloading it before any trip out of the country. It has all of the Embassies and Consulates addresses, phone numbers, and hours programed in it so all you have to do is click on the country and nearest city you need.
Surviving and Thriving in the Aftermath after it Happens:
While there isn’t much the police are going to be able to do (I am so sorry, not what you ever want to hear!), pick-pocketing and theft are common crimes, it is still important to go and fill out a police report so you can take it with you to the Embassy. You will need it as proof to file at the Embassy for a temporary passport since they cannot issue you a new “full” passport.
As the sad saga continues, you will want to go to a bank and have some money with you to pay for a new passport. A stolen/lost passport fee is $110USD. If you forget, you can withdraw money at an Embassy, but the exchange rate will be incredibly high. You will also want some extra money ($5-10USD for new passport photos, food money, and a little spare).
*If you have credit cards, I'm sure they will take that. I was in quite the pinch, and honestly don't remember, all I had was cash. My credit cards, ID, passport, the little cash I had, and just about everything you need were taken. I had some amazing souls get me by.
You can get passport photo at the Embassy when you get there, but if it makes you nervous and you can get them in a souvenir/travel shop before you go.
When you go to the Embassy, try to go first thing in the morning when it opens and go fifteen minutes early. There will be a line, but because you are a citizen of the Embassy and your passport was stolen, you can go to the front and skip the line. You will need to show any ID you have, or the copies, and the police report.
When you get in, you will go through “airport security” and only take in the essentials. Your documents folder, police report, money, and new passport pictures (if you have them).
The rest is just your basic paper work, waiting game, and paying for your new passport. When you get your new passport, it will be a “temporary passport”, good for traveling up to six months. When you return home you will send your temporary passport in and they will send you your new full passport. Since you paid for your passport at the Embassy, you just have to fill out some paper work, send in new passport photos, and send it in!
I hope you never have to go through this process, but if you do…
Just breathe, don’t worry, and it will all be okay.
Take it from someone who knew nothing and learned it on the go.
xx A Traveler’s Bliss
So. Who had a good week??? Yes, no? Still hung-over? Moving to Canada? If you’re reading this and it makes no sense, you have either been avoiding the news for the last year and a half in America (you lucky duck) so just Google US Election 2016 and then go back to avoid it all again for the next four years.
After the last week, I found the rollercoaster effect of emotions made it hard to focus. I couldn’t help but try and find a “happy place”, going through my photo archive to find something – anything really – that could take my mind far, far, away.
And then I hit the jackpot. The thousand or so photos on my phone from my day in Disneyland Paris with my travel buddy last March. Yes, I am the fool who will somehow crank out thousands of photos in a day and not think twice about it.
Disneyland Paris is about 20 miles east of central Paris, a 30-minute drive or an hour by the metro (you can also take the EuroStar directly from London to Disneyland instead of going into Paris first)
My lovely travel buddy, Kelly, and I stayed in an AIrBnB near Eiffel Tower and the Arch De Triumph. We took the metro and it took us an hour to get to Disney in the morning.
The theme park itself opens up all of the rides at 10AM, but they open up the gates and let you start walking around Main Street around 9AM. When we arrived around 9:30, some of the characters were already out to meet and greet visitors. Disneyland Paris has two parks: Disneyland Park, similar to Magic Kingdom, and Walt Disney Studios Park, similar to Hollywood Studios. Because it is two separate parks, you need two different ticket admissions for each. Disneyland Paris has promotions during the down season where you can get two tickets for the price of one or discounts. (EU students can get discounted tickets at the gate. We were pumped because we got the student discount for our tickets and got two for one).
Disneyland Park has five lands. Some main attractions within in them:
City Hall, Main Street Railroad Station, Liberty Arcade
Phantom Manor, Woody’s Roundup, and Pocahontas’s Village
Pirates of the Caribbean, Aladdin & Agrabah, Indiana Jones
Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, “It’s a Small World”, Peter Pan, Pinocchio, Dumbo the Flying Elephant, Mad Hatter’s Tea Cups
Space Mountain: Mission 2, Buzz Lightyear Laser Blast, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids
Walt Disney Studio Park main attractions:
The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, Rock ‘n’ RollerCoaster: Aerosmith, Toy Story Playland, Art of Disney Animation, Aladdin’s Flying Carpet
We were able to cover both parks in one day without rushing or waiting in long lines. My best recommendation is to try an plan you trip for a Monday through Thursday, the park is not busy at all, Friday is a little busy, and then the crowds are in on the weekends. The down season at Disneyland Paris is November/December to March, and usually the best time for deals and promotions. The weather can be a little dreary and cold with a few closed rides for the season and maintenance, but it doesn't take away form the magic.
Some Photography Park Tips:
- Get someone to take your picture: Offer to take another group or couple's picture first to break the ice and in exchange have them take yours! Don't be nervous to do a few to get your pose right or ask for a reshoot. Everyone will be happy to get their perfect photo.
- Use props! Take pictures of:
Your Mickey/Minnie Ears infant of the Castle or your favorite ride
Your favorite treat
Find "Hidden Ears", Messages, or Designs on the ground to take From Where I Stand photos
Souvenirs you buy! Pins, Mickey Ears, Mickey Mouse Gloves, Balloons, Alex & Ani/Pandora Charms/Disney Jewelry, Disney themed accessories etc
Tip: Buy some souvenirs before you go, like Mickey/Minnie Ear, shirts, pins, etc. You can get cheaper ones online at Etsy or Amazon
- On the rides (Spinning Tea Cups, Dumbo, Flying Carpet, Carousel, in the Castle, Phantom Mansion, etc.)
-Characters! If you know there is a specific character you are going to see google some "character poses" and questions to ask your favorite character
Blow a Kiss, Reach for the stars, "Peace Sign" it, Do a Princess or Character Pose, Laugh it Off with Your Friends, Touch Your Mickey Ears, Follow Me To Pose
I hope these mini tips for Disneyland Paris and other Disney theme park tips brighten up your day, leave your worries behind, and inspire you for the week.
xx A Traveler's Bliss
Always packing and always on the go.
It’s almost that time of year again! Yay! Many of you who are applying now for study abroad or are starting to receive your program acceptance letters for the spring are probably wondering, what am I going to pack? What am I going to really need?
One of the most daunting thoughts after making the most exciting decision of your life (to study abroad!) is what in the world are you going to pack? Where do you even begin??? Fitting clothes, cosmetics, electronics, personal objects, etc. into a suitcase, fingers cross to maybe two, and your carry-ons.
(Always check your airline to see what their checked baggage allowance is and how many carry-ons you are allowed to help you when you are packing)
One of the greatest tools I found while packing was a checklist made just for studying abroad. While there was never a “perfect” checklist made just for me, I was always able to use one and modify it to my needs.
After doing two studies abroad, a summer in Australia and a semester in London, I wanted to make a packing list guide for studying abroad. If there is anything I have learned, is less is more. You don’t need to pack all of your favorite shirts, an outfit for all of the “what if” occasions, or those seven pairs of shoes you can’t live without.
This is a preview of the Study Abroad Checklist. You Can Download it at the bottom of the page!
The most important part about packing is remembering that you are packing for 4-6 months, and while it will be hard to choose what to pack, you are going for the experience!
Even If you are not studying abroad next semester, but know you want to study abroad for a semester soon, try packing ahead. Pack lighter than usual for a semester to see what is really important, what you really need, and what you think you can’t live without (but then never wear!)
The most important part is making the list work for you. It is about staying organized, keeping on track, and not feeling overwhelmed when those last few days start creeping up on you before you leave.
And most importantly... Have fun on your study abroad!!!
xx A Traveler's Bliss
(hey - hey you. click the bliss above... do it.)