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Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences

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Mark Aghajanian

Majors: Economics, International Studies
Location: London, England
Program: London School of Economics & Political Science

hines1

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Sebastian Buffa

Major: History; BIP, Spanish minors
Locations:
Buenos Aires, Argentina; Cochabamba, Bolivia; Manyaleti, South Africa
Programs:

IFSA-Butler: Argentine Universities Program
SIT Bolivia: Multiculturalism, Globalization and Social Change
Global Engagement Studies Institute in South Africa

Christina Hines

Major: Classics; Italian, Film & Media Studies minors
Location: Bologna, Italy
Program: Indiana University- Bologna Consortial Studies Program (BCSP)





Mark Aghajanian - ENGLAND

Housing

LSE provides all its General Course students with housing (as long as you register for it on time). I had a single in a dormitory called Bankside House and shared a bathroom with one other person. There was a student bar in the basement, which was a nice place to hang out with friends. It was in a great location, right next to the Tate Modern and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. A lot of people complained that it was too far away from campus (it was a 25 minute walk), but I liked living in a different area from class. It gave me the opportunity to really get to know two different areas of the city.  

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Academic Planning

As an economics major, it was no problem finding interesting classes at London School of Economics that would transfer for credit at Northwestern.

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Courses

The UK school system is VERY different from Northwestern. At LSE, you take four courses the entire academic year and your entire grade in each class is based on a three hour final you take at the end of the year. There are also fewer lectures and class during the week and lots and lots of assigned readings.

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Leisure & Travel

One of the things I loved about London was how big soccer is there. As a fan of the sport, it was amazing being able to go to a professional game (there’s five professional teams in the city!) or to go to any park and play a pickup game. I also spent a lot of free time in pubs. There’s literally a pub on every street corner in London and all Londoners go to a pub after work or after school and have a pint or two with friends before heading home. It’s a great place to meet locals and hang out with friends.

I did a lot of traveling while I was abroad as well. London has several airports with cheap airlines like RyanAir and EasyJet that go to almost anywhere in Europe. I went to Spain, Denmark, the Netherlands, France, Scotland, Belgium, and Italy while I was abroad. There are really cool areas outside of London like the Cotswolds, Bath, and Oxford that are worth checking out also.

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Locals

I met almost all my British friends from either class or my dormitory. One of the great things about LSE is its diversity. I think only about 50% of the students are from the U.K., so you get to meet and befriend people from all over the world.

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Tips

I wish I discovered how amazing the English countryside was earlier. It’s nice to get out of the downtown of a big city every once in a while and there are really cool villages within an hour train ride from London.

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Health & Safety

Most of London is very safe and I never once felt unsafe in my entire year there. There are a few dodgy areas in London, but they are typically on the outskirts of the city. As long as you are aware of your surroundings and avoid the bad areas, you should be fine.

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Money Matters

Before going abroad, I put together a budget for how much I wanted to spend on food, housing, travel, and other expenses each term. To be honest though, I never kept to it and overspent severely. And to be really honest, I think it was the smartest thing to do. I might never live in a foreign country again, and I’m happy I never let a $100 flight keep me from visiting a new country or a $50 ticket keep me from watching an Arsenal soccer match.

A lot of my money went to travel. Although you can usually find cheap flights and hostels, I ended up paying a good amount for public transportation, admittance to tourist sites, food, and drink while traveling. As for budget advice, I recommend saving money before and after abroad while at home in the states rather than being frugal while abroad. You will enjoy the experience much more.

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Sebastian Buffa - ARGEntina, bolivia & south africa

Housing

I stayed in a homestay throughout all three experiences. While each was unique in many ways, the opportunity to live with a family was one of the biggest assets in feeling closer to each community I was trying to integrate myself into. In South Africa I lived with a single host mom and her incredibly cute two-year-old daughter, as well as Stone, a fellow GESI scholar. My Bolivian family had a mom, dad and three brothers, ages 21, 19 and 15. It was their first experience hosting a student so within a week I was considered the ‘fourth son’, and was pretty much treated as another member of the family. While I had to sacrifice a little bit of independence, it was well worth it because I was tight with all my brothers and built strong relationships with other Bolivians my age through them. In Argentina I had a host mom and a 23-year-old brother. It was the opposite of Bolivia in terms of independence; I had my own space and was more like a sub-letter than a family member. However, I got along really well with my brother and hung out with him a lot, meeting friends through him.

Overall, any sacrifices I needed to make to adjust to life in a different household environment were more than worth it because of how much I got out of each experience. I was able to ask questions about the culture and history of the places I was living, and definitely felt a closer connection to the cities/countries due to these relationships. I am still in contact with all three families.

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Academic Planning & Courses

South Africa: The GESI classes didn’t really fit into my major or minor at all, but they were two additional credits that counted towards graduation. I wasn’t pursuing the opportunity to fulfill a requirement so this wasn’t really a concern for me. The pre-orientation in Chicago is just about the only traditional ‘class-work’ I had. In country, we partnered with community members to start a locally sustainable and socially responsible business. It was ‘experiential learning’ in every way possible.

Bolivia: As an organization, SIT creates very unique programs across the world that each focus in on a specific theme. Because of this, within my specific SIT Bolivia program there wasn’t much academic flexibility before the Independent Study Project (ISP). I knew the classes I would be taking before I got there, and was eventually able to get both a history credit and an Ethics and Values distro upon returning to campus. Travel is a big part of the program, so over a month was spent on excursions to different parts of the country. On these trips we met with everyone from artists to activists, and even to members of the government cabinet. SIT is also an amazing way to pursue true experiential learning abroad, and the structure didn’t really get in the way of allowing me to feel independent in a new city.

One of the coolest aspects of SIT is the ISP, where students spend the last month on their own in any part of the host country, investigating a topic of their choosing. I made a documentary profiling five teens that live in a youth home and create hip-hop music with an NGO called Performing Life, which teaches street performance skills to street youth. It was the most time-consuming, exciting and, ultimately, rewarding project of my academic career.

Argentina: Before committing to stay abroad for the year, I talked it over with my WCAS advisor to make sure I could still graduate in four years. Once that was confirmed it was an easy decision. My Argentina experience was the complete opposite from Bolivia in terms of academic flexibility. My program has students direct-enroll in Argentine University classes, but we had the option of ‘shopping’ for classes at five different Universities in Buenos Aires. While it was time-consuming and sometimes stressful to solidify my course-load, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I was able to experiment with classes at all five schools, located across the city, and expose myself to a bunch of different academic and urban scenes that I may not have seen otherwise. There are extensive offerings at each school, and the broad array of courses to select would allow anyone to make progress on their NU academic plan while abroad.

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Language Learning

In South America, the homestays were indescribably important in helping me improve my Spanish. When I first got to Bolivia there were many conversations over meals where I would get lost and not understand the constant back and forth. However, being exposed to the language from the time you wake up to the time you go to sleep is the best way to get better fast. My family didn’t know English so if I needed to learn how to express myself and convey certain things out of necessity. I would highly recommend a homestay for anyone who is serious about improving their language skills as part of the abroad experience.

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Leisure & Travel

Sports have always been a huge part of my life, and definitely where I felt most comfortable meeting people. In Clare, my village in South Africa, I played soccer a few times a week with a bunch of kids and guys from the community. Even though I wasn’t great, it was a huge help towards building up relationships with a lot of people. In Bolivia, I played futsol (6v6 fenced-in soccer, on concrete, with a smaller ball) with my brother and his friends, and I played both basketball and soccer in Argentina. I also volunteered to help coach basketball at Club de Amigos, a local family-oriented club. It was a great way to informally practice Spanish doing something I love to do. Additionally, the contacts I made through that helped immensely when I made a small video project on the basketball scene in Buenos Aires for a film class I took.

In addition, I would explore new parts of the city when I had free time, and often found myself in conversations with locals. There is always a highly politicized crowd discussing and/or arguing over current events at la plaza principal in Cochabamba. In Buenos Aires, I lived a little bit outside of the ‘downtown’ area. Taking buses to every corner of Buenos Aires was a convenient way to zone out, yet take in the subtleties of the city.

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Identity & Diversity

Being a mulungu (white person) where I was in South Africa was definitely an experience. The biggest pro was being somewhat of a village celebrity. We went to a wedding, met the nduna (village chief) and were generally treated warmly as guests. People who spoke English were always interested in talking to us, which was a great way to learn. The main con was being judged by certain people who had pre-conceived notions of Americans, but that had more to do with my nationality than skin color. Honestly, it wasn’t an issue at all for me.

In South America I never felt uncomfortable because of who I am. Having a different background from most people I met was awesome because there is just generally more to talk about.

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Money Matters

This was definitely a concern for me while abroad, because I am on financial aid and didn’t really have too much spending money. In South Africa and Bolivia it turned out to be a non-issue. There was no place or reason to spend any money in Clare, and a favorable exchange rate in Bolivia helped make my money last.

Buenos Aires is definitely a more expensive city, and there were a few times I felt myself cutting corners, to an extent. However, there are easy ways to control spending. I always took public transport, and ate dinner with my host family almost every night because it was provided as part of the program every day, besides Saturday. Additionally, a good amount of kids on my program left the country to go on vacation. It was too expensive for me to do, but there are cost-efficient places to go/things to do in Argentina, which were amazing. Having to watch your spending in Buenos Aires was more of an issue than in my other two experiences. However, it wasn’t even remotely enough of a hassle to consider not pursuing the opportunity. Overall, completely manageable.

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Cultural Adjustment

I never really had too much difficulty with this. I went into each experience looking to adapt to my surroundings as best as I could. While I was willing to share things about my upbringing and how my family has different traditions/routines if it came up, I never imposed any of that on my homestay families. Just understanding that it was me, the American, that needed to adjust to a new culture, and not the other way around, was very basic yet pretty central to getting the most out of the experience.

Before each trip I tried not to do too much research. While it is important to understand the history and cultural context of where you will be living, I didn’t want to create an image in my head of what life would be like in country. I just tried to stay engaged everyday and be open to new and different things. In Spanish there is a verb aprovechar, meaning ‘to take advantage of’. We told that to ourselves all the time, and used it as a form of good-natured peer-pressure. I would try to limit the amount of time I spent in my room by myself, even if it just meant walking around with my host brother or meeting up with a friend for coffee.

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Christina Hines - Italy

Housing

My program didn’t provide me with housing. It required us to find our own apartments in the city and we were barred from living with other Americans. Even though it was a little stressful trying to find a place it was DEFINITELY the way to go! It forced you to start speaking Italian from day 1 and introduces you to a good number of Italian students right off the bat. I lived with 5 Italian students and they not only forced me to practice my Italian all day every day but they became my best friends in Bologna. It was so amazing to have a tight knit group of people that felt like a family when I was so far from home. I still talk to them all the time! Being friends with locals also opens you up to an infinite number of cultural, social, and linguistic experiences. I would definitely not be as fluent as I am now had I had a different housing situation. It was absolutely amazing and I wouldn’t have done anything else!

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Academic Planning

I managed to find almost all courses that fit into my academic plan! I had all of the University of Bologna classes at my disposal so I had a lot o options when trying to make everything fit. Even if a course doesn’t fit perfectly into your plan I would definitely encourage taking it. Take things that you’re interested that don’t fit in your major because you may not get an opportunity for that at NU. I enjoyed these new courses that I took so much I ended up turning them into a minor! So branching out academically may lead you to something you didn’t know you wanted to pursue. Go for it!

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Courses

An Italian university is definitely different than its American counterpart. The students are much more independent and the student/professor relationship is not as close as it is here. Basically the professor walks into a lecture hall, stands and talks for 2 hours, then walks out. Very few visual aids are used and since there is a very formal teacher/student relationship lectures can sometimes seem stiff. 100% of your grade comes from one final exam that is oral. It’s basically a 30 minute one-on-one interview with the professor. They can ask you to draw on anything from lecture or the textbooks and you have to be able to start talking immediately. It sounds intimidating (I was terrified before my first) but the professors are very understanding with foreign students! They fully recognize that because of a slight language barrier it’s difficult for you to talk for 15 minutes in detail about one specific topic like they’d expect from an Italian student. You definitely have to know the material and show that you studied but if you trip up a little out of nerves they are very, very helpful and encouraging. They want you to do well and if they can tell that you put in the effort and know what you’re talking about they’ll reward you for it.

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Internships

I interned at a film foundation in Bologna and it was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had. I’d taken one film class before coming to Bologna (it was through the Italian department) but I knew it was something I wanted to pursue (and something I may not have had time for back in Evanston). My program director was incredibly helpful with putting me in contact with the foundation. I got to participate in the planning of their annual film festival and worked directly under the festival’s coordinator. I was able to learn so much and it really helped me realize this may be something I want to pursue after I graduate. Everyone was very welcoming and nurturing and it was a great relationship to cultivate because it provides me with contacts when I try to return to Bologna this summer!

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Leisure & Travel

I traveled a lot first semester but as I settled more into life in Bologna I wanted to spend more and more time in the city. I had a solid group of Italian friends (with people from all over Europe thrown in!) and during my free time I just wanted to spend as much time with them as I could since I knew it was limited!

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Locals

My roommates were the best way to meet new locals. They had all been at school in Bologna for at least a year so they had their own groups of friends that they welcomed me into. We all became so close with each other and even with each other’s friends. Living with people my age made it so much easier to meet Italian students. Once again, BEST DECISION. I can’t say enough good things about the people that I lived with.

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Tips

It took me a while to realize that not everyday is going to be a mind-blowing day. I’m not always going to be having the time of my life. Some days will be dull, other days you’ll feel sad, but don’t be hard on yourself. This will be one of the best years of your life, but you don’t need to be 100% happy 100% of the time. Allow yourself to go through the ebb and flow of your emotions and you’ll have much less anxiety. Before you know it you’ll be back to thinking “This is the best moment of my life!”

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Identity & Diversity

Quite frankly I can’t think of any instances in which these factors came into play in a negative way. Aside from the occasional scoff at Americans most people were really excited to meet someone from the States! They were doubly excited and impressed when they learned I could speak Italian too so instead of a hindrance my nationality became a great conversation starter.

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Language Learning

Before I got to Italy I expected to be fluent in a couple months. The rude awakening is that it takes longer than that. You’ll be improving constantly but do not worry if by November you’re not having in depth conversations! It takes time to become comfortable. I was still learning and improving 12 months later! Just be confident and comfortable. Don’t worry about screwing up (the sooner you get over this and realize that no one is judging you, the sooner you’ll start to rapidly improve) people are psyched you’re trying to learn their language! They love it! So don’t worry, everyone screws up all the time. You have to or you won’t learn. Also, make the effort to speak as much as you can. With Skype, Netflix, Facebook and all of the internet it’s easy to just speak English all the time. RESIST THE URGE. It’s tough at first when you feel like you can’t express yourself fully but you’ll be SO happy that you put in that effort when you’re conversing easily with your friends. You’re there, speak the language! Take every single opportunity you can to practice and you’ll improve so much. (You have no idea how much you’ll miss it when you get home!)  

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Cultural Adjustment

My biggest piece of advice is to be patient with yourself. It will be tough, it will be overwhelming, it will be scary. Let yourself feel scared and sad. Don’t let it take over, but if you need to stay in on a Saturday when everyone else is going out to Skype your mom for 4 hours, take that. You’re not being a baby or wasting time. Eventually you’ll feel like you were born to live there, but it’s a definite process and denying yourself those small comforts will only give you more anxiety and make it harder for you to enjoy the experience. Don’t go overboard, though, you’ll definitely need to set boundaries and learn to be independent, but letting yourself be comfortable every once in a while is very necessary.

I can’t say that I had any preconceived notions about my host country but in general it is incredibly beneficial to go in as open minded as possible. There will be things that feel weird and uncomfortable and foreign but don’t write anything off right away because it feels a little strange. Learning new customs can be incredibly, incredibly rewarding and fun (and you’ll grow to love them!) You’ll quickly realize that the best experiences come when you’re out of your comfort zone. Embrace it and go with it!

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Readjusting to NU

Everyone will tell you that coming home is 500 times harder than leaving. It’s true. It’s tough. Even though you’ll look forward to certain things at home, you’ve just spent a year where every single day brought a new experience or a minor accomplishment (even after 12 months it was still incredible to realize I hadn’t spoken a word of English in a couple days). You’re constantly feeling proud of yourself and being exposed to new things and when you come home it’s hard to feel like the things you’re doing are half as interesting. Menial tasks that were exciting abroad become painfully boring here. It’s difficult to stay satisfied with going back to normal life. Perhaps you feel like you can’t relate as well to your fellow students because your time abroad has changed your view on things. These are all really difficult things to cope with but try to spin it in a positive way. Take that discontentedness and turn it into motivation to find a way in which to continue with your language development or find a cultural center in Chicago for the country in which you studied. Have it push you to trying new things and put yourself out of your comfort zone so you don’t feel so stuck when you get back home!

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