Student Stories: the point of view of an international student. How is studying abroad in the US?

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My teammate took this picture of me when we were all in Puerto Rico for a tournament.

My name is Silvia Grassini, and I am a  rising Senior International Business major at Towson University. I am also a student athlete, I play Volleyball in the varsity team here at Towson.  This summer, I interned in the Towson Study Abroad Office.

I am an international student from Padua, Italy. My adventure in the US started in 2017, when I transferred to Towson. I started as a sophomore, since I transferred some credits from back home in Italy.


This is a picture of my hometown, Padua (in Italian, Padova). Did you know that “Prato della Valle”, the square you are seeing in the picture is one of the biggest ones in Europe?

My experience in the US

To all the readers interested in studying abroad, I’d like to share my experience studying abroad at Towson University. Maybe seeing America from an external point of view can make you realize things that you never thought about before.

The first point I decided to analyze is whether or not America matched my expectations. Well, the answer is definitely yes. Coming from a European setting, I expected America to be more globally oriented and to have a lot more commodities. For example, I imagined big shops and huge groceries stores and the expectations weren’t disappointed. Just walking into a Wegmans makes my heart race for how everything is laid out nicely and the variety of goods offered is breathtaking.

Besides my shopping addiction for everything that is aesthetically pleasant, I was very impressed with how many people have a job and attend college as the same time. I don’t think I saw a lot of people attending university and working at the same time back home in Italy. I think this is a very important factor for students’s futures, being able to manage homework, study sessions and at the same time a job without falling behind.

My student-athlete experience

From the student athlete point of view, I realized how much more staff are ready to help you and how many more facilities are available when someone wants to workout. Even outside the regular practice schedule. I have probably never been in better shape than I am right now (I mean I really have to work out a lot though, considering all the food that I eat 😊) both mentally and physically.

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This is my volleyball team roster as last year! Can you guys guess what is my jersey number?

At first, however, the changes that I experienced while playing volleyball were overwhelming: of course, being in a different country, things are different; after a period of adjustment, I realized ultimately that if you put effort in whatever thing you do, you’ll not only see improvements (and sometimes rewards as well), but also you’ll achieve a level of personal satisfaction that will keep you motivated and active.

My final advice

Concluding this post, I must say that studying abroad really opened my eyes up, so much that I’m looking forward for the next study abroad experience! You’ll probably see me on the Australian beaches next spring! To all of you, I would say that even if at first changes may seem scary, with a little bit of adaptability there is no obstacle you can’t overcome; the final result of starting an adventure abroad is an enrichment that changes you for the better, not only as a student but also as a person.

Student Stories: Being A Legally Blind Student Abroad

Post originally found on CIS Abroad. Guest author: Aly Hathaway, Semester in Aix-En-Provence – Institut Americain Universitaire, Fall 2018, Wagner College.

My name is Aly Hathaway, and I am a Senior French Studies major at Wagner College. I chose CIS because the staff were super helpful, and I knew that it would help me make the most of my study abroad experience.

Starting out, I had so many questions

FA18_Semester-in-Aix-en-Provence_Aly-Hathaway_Wagner-College_I-am-I-can-e1554929355797-768x769.jpgEver since I started taking French courses, I had dreamed about studying in France. However, when it came time to filling out the paperwork and moving forward with the process, fear almost got the best of me. The idea of throwing myself into an unfamiliar situation with my visual impairment terrified me.

I was interested in the Semester in Aix-en-Provence program, but I had so many questions that I didn’t know if anyone would be able to answer them all.

Will my French professors understand my disability and accommodate like my U.S. professors? How would I navigate airports? A new school? And even a new city alone?

It turns out that, while these questions may have seemed unanswerable to me, all I had to do was ask.

Support from CISabroad

CISabroad quelled my nerves, greeting me with open communication and warmth. Suddenly, I had the courage to ask my program manager these questions, and the answer was simple. I would never be alone; not in the sense that someone would be with me physically to hold my hand all the time, but rather there would always be someone willing to help.

“CISabroad staff showed me from the get-go that I would be safe and accommodated during my travels, and they were absolutely right”

After talking to my home university’s disability services office and Joan (my CISabroad program coordinator) it appeared that we were all on the same page when it came to making my academic success in France a priority.

My school sent Joan a letter listing my approved accommodations, and Joan served as liaison between myself and IAU College, where I attended school in France. She made sure that the school was aware of my condition, and in response, IAU assured us that my accommodations would be met.

IAU also told us that they would inform my host family, and that after about a week or two, I would have no problem finding my way around Aix given its small size and warm people. It was settled. I was going to France!

Arriving in France

When I arrived, I was not disappointed. And when I say that Aix-en-Provence welcomed me with open arms, I mean it quite literally.

After my cohort’s orientation in Paris, we took the train south to Aix together. When we arrived at the Aix train station, we were greeted by our site director, Christelle, who helped us find our host families. I nervously stood on the platform until a woman took me into her arms and greeted me with the famous French “deux bises” or two kisses–one on each cheek. I was startled at first, but she then introduced herself as my host mother. She then drove me to my new home for the next four months.Aix-en-Provence-France-street-scene-800-x-533

Settling into Aix-En-Provence

The next day, my host mother took me on a walk to explore the city. She told me that she wanted to make sure I could find my way around, so she showed me the route from her apartment to the school. Aix is a beautiful little city, and as we walked through the antique markets and cobblestoned streets, I realized how excited I was to be familiar with my new home.

I will never forget walking into the house after my first solo journey to and from school for IAU’s orientation. She was sitting at the dining room table, a big smile on her face, hands clapping. She was so proud (and relieved) that I found my way home.

After about three weeks, it seemed like everything was coming naturally to me. I no longer needed to use Google Maps to navigate the city, and I was getting the hang of taking five classes entirely taught in French.

My professors treated me like any other student in class, but would also routinely check-in with me in private to see if there was anything else they could do to help.

Overall, I managed to do very well in my classes, and by the end of my program, I had navigated through eight different countries.

I learned that no matter where you go, if you think you may be lost, there is someone always willing to help you find your way–all you have to do is ask.

Looking back, I couldn’t have done this without CISabroad

In retrospect, none of this would have ever been possible without the support of my family and friends (the American and the French), and companies like CISabroad, who believed in me and helped make my dream of studying abroad come true.

I was fortunate enough to experience firsthand CISabroad’s dedication to showing students that, with the right resources, no barrier is insurmountable when it comes to studying abroad. All it takes is a little spark of courage, an initial conversation, and a positive outlook. I never once felt alone throughout my time in France, and it feels amazing to know that there are now people cheering me on from another continent, while I carry them with me here in the U.S. And now I can continue to explore the world with the confidence to navigate and the courage to ask for help.

How I Survived a Year Abroad with Food Allergies (And How You Can Too)

Margaret Geanacopoulos is a Senior at Towson University majoring in International Studies. For the duration of her Junior year, Margaret studied abroad through a TU Exchange Program at Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka, Japan. Margaret also works at the Towson University Study Abroad Office as a Peer Advisor.

IMG_5642Around the time I was seven years old, I decided that I was going to live in Japan someday. Growing up with Japanese movies, manga, and music, I always felt a strong connection to Japanese culture and wanted to experience it for myself. Around that same time, I was diagnosed with Celiac Disease, meaning I would have to adhere to a strict gluten-free diet for the rest of my life. Bummer.

However my allergies didn’t deter me from following my dreams anyway. When I was a junior at Towson, I studied abroad at Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka, Japan for 2017-2018 academic year. Although I was aware that many Japanese foods such as Ramen, Udon, and Melon Bread (which surprisingly doesn’t taste like melon) were made with gluten, I had no idea how much of a struggle eating gluten-free in Japan would be. Things as inconspicuous as soy-sauce, miso soup, and even rice-balls had gluten snuck into them. However, after a year of trial-and-error, here are some lessons that I learned that made travelling with food restrictions much easier.

Do your research

Before I left for my year in Japan, I spent a lot of time online researching what Japanese foods I could and couldn’t eat. Not only did I learn what foods to steer clear of, but I also found lists of gluten-free snacks and even entire restaurants that were gluten-free in the cities I would be travelling to. If your allergies require medication or the use of an EpiPen, make sure you have a sufficient amount before you leave and research how they could be potentially refilled if you’re staying for a long time. Besides saving you a lot of time and stress, knowing what foods to look out for and researching restaurants in your area ahead of time will let you focus on the more important aspects of your time abroad like making connections and gaining experience.

All three of these pictures were taken at restaurants that were completely gluten-free or had dedicated gluten free options! (Pictured: Gluten-free Okonomiyaki in Hiroshima, Gluten-free Carrot Cake at “Sunny Bread” in Seoul, and “Cafe Littlebird” in Tokyo, which is completely gluten-free and has dairy free options!) 

Make a plan (and bring snacks)


Whether it was cooking a meal for myself to bring to school or stopping by a convenience store to buy some granola bars before a long day out, it’s always important to be prepared. At school, my friends usually ate at the cafeteria for lunch. I would check online what their menu would be for the following day, and if there were no available options for me I would meal prep a lunch the night before. When you’re travelling with friends who maybe don’t have any food restrictions, you never know when the group might spontaneously decide to stop and get something to eat. In case you might not be able to find something you can eat, it’s a good idea to have a couple snacks on you so that you can enjoy your time with your friends and not focus on your growling stomach.

Communicate your needs, and don’t feel bad about it

In American culture, it’s fairly common to ask for substitutions in restaurants or for restaurants to have designated allergen menus, so back home I had always been very vocal about my allergies to waiters and was met with minimal resistance. However, in Japan the culinary culture is very different. I had read online that most Japanese restaurants will be offended if you try to make substitutions to their menu or sometimes won’t allow it at all. When I first arrived I felt embarrassed having to ask if there was gluten in dishes, especially when the language barrier created some misunderstandings between me and the staff. Overtime I noticed that if I explicitly stated that I had an allergy and that’s why I was asking about their food, servers were much more understanding, and often went out of their way to accommodate me. There is nothing to be ashamed about having allergies. Don’t be afraid to communicate your needs! The more you do it, the better your experience will be.

*PRO TIP: If you’re not fluent in the language of the country that you’re studying in, you can print out cards that state your allergies that you can give to servers if they don’t speak English.

Don’t sweat the small stuff

I know firsthand how frustrating and scary travelling with allergies can be. For me personally, food is a huge part of my life and not having the stability of knowing when, what, and where I could eat would cause me a lot of anxiety. However, these challenging moments could never compare to the amount of life changing experiences I had while I was in Japan. While it’s important to do your research beforehand and be conscious of your allergies once you arrive, don’t let food restrictions become the main focus of your time abroad. Travel to new places, meet interesting people, and take advantage of all of the wonderful opportunities in front of you.


Some of the amazing friends I made with our homemade Japanese-American Thanksgiving!

Student Stories: Derek Margulies

In the 2019 minimester, I studied abroad in South Korea at Yonsei University. As a half-Korean, I wanted to go to South Korea to learn more about Korean culture and gain confidence in speaking the Korean language in order to communicate with my family in South Korea better. The program at Yonsei offered multiple field trips, one of which was a Korean cooking class. I chose to take the Korean cooking class because I wanted to learn how to cook my favorite Korean dishes.


Before starting the class, we were introduced to a brief history of Korean nutrition. Here, we learned about the different meals that are prepared for different occasions in the year, how different rice grains are stored and prepared, and the value different foods have within Korean culture. Then, we were led into our cooking class.


The dish we were preparing for the day was bulgogi, a popular meat that is served in Korea. The class was led by a chef who had professional experience cooking bulgogi for over 30 years. In the lesson, the chef not only taught us how to prepare bulgogi, but also taught us how to prepare a bean sprout and carrot mix, which served as a side dish, and how to incorporate different vegetables into the bulgogi, such as mushrooms, carrots, and onions. After savoring all the smells from cooking, each student ate their newly-cooked meal. Each student received additional food that was prepared beforehand, including rice, kimchi, and pepper paste. To enjoy the meal fully, students could wrap all foods mentioned above in a large leaf of lettuce. With this class, I can confidently say that I can prepare bulgogi independently.


Have a story like Derek’s that you want to share? Email: 

Great Ways to Stay Money Smart While Abroad

Zenab Bakayokois currently a senior at Towson University. She studied abroad with CEA for the Spring 2018 Semester in Paris, France.

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One of the toughest things about study abroad was staying financially responsible — and for those of us without much money to spend, I have some tips!

I had a wonderful semester with CEA. Paris is a truly special city and I feel honored that I had the opportunity to study there. Many of my tips will focus on being in France, but relate overall to the study abroad experience.

Maximize your opportunities:

No matter where you travel, there are many ways that you can have fun free of charge. Not only will this help you save money, it also will teach you a lot about your host country. My best experiences in Paris were at free events!

As students, many museums and sights are free — so make sure to always travel with your student ID! It will save you more money than you think. Here are some examples:

  • Musée D’orsay
  • Musée du Louvre
  • Picasso Museum
  • Salon d’Agriculture
  • Jardin du Luxembourg

Fun fact: MOST museums are free the first Sunday every month in the EU! (Exclusions do apply so make sure you do your research.)

CEA excursions are also a great way to maximize your opportunities without spending money! These include a trip to Bruges (a city in Belgium), a circus in Paris, a trip to Chantilly, a weekend trip to Provence, and more. These excursions allow you to learn so much about your study abroad location while avoiding excessive spending.

Credit Cards/Debit Cards:

From my experience abroad, credit cards proved very beneficial. I would strongly advise students to look into them and research your options. Credit cards allow you to budget and balance your expenses.

I would personally recommend the Student Chrome Card from Discover. I used it mostly to purchase transportation tickets. I think the Discover card was good to have because it wasn’t widely accepted in Europe, which prevented excessive spending. They gave a $20 student credit reward if you had a GPA over 3.0, and they had lower rates to accommodate students. I definitely would recommend it! Remember to research the best credit card fit for you.

As for debit cards, make sure to check with your bank so you know if there are any ATM fees or charges for international use. American banks normally charge a base ATM fee ($5 with PNC bank), no matter how much you withdraw at a time. Be aware that many cards will charge a small foreign transaction fee for use, and that’s pretty normal.

International Travel:

While being abroad, you’ll definitely want to visit other countries — and there are many ways to do this while remaining fiscally responsible.

Train tickets are normally much cheaper for travel than plane tickets when bought months in advance. Last-minute, train tickets sometimes prove more expensive than plane tickets.

My advice: Plan your trips once you arrive. Use a planner, write out your assignments, and plan your trips around your academic obligations. Try to plan with your new friends to save money on accommodations. Many of the activities I did abroad were free; I mostly spent money on lodging, food and transportation. Even with this, there are ways to plan strategically. You can save a good chunk of money by purchasing your tickets (plane or train) a few weeks in advance!

Want another genius steal? After looking up a plane ticket, use a “new incognito” window. This will filter out your search. Normally, air companies use cookies that save your previous searches and as a result increase the price of the ticket you’ve been looking at. Sometimes it will be the same price in the new incognito window, but you might be able to snag a cheaper ticket!

Final takeaway:

You can still have an amazing experience while living within your means. Other students may have more financial freedom, but it’s in your best interest to be wise about your finances while abroad. Everyone is in college, after all — there will be many students trying to travel and save, so plan with them!

  • Plan your monthly budgets and be strict when it comes to your spending; do not allow yourself to overspend.
  • Don’t let your finances be a dark cloud over your experience! Be smart, strategic and organized, and you’ll be shocked at how far your money can stretch.


Originally posted on:

Para servirles: Making a Difference While Abroad

TU Abroad Stories: Dorian Andrews (Part 4)

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“The Friday classes were over, and my host family waited for me by the school as planned. We set off for a 3-hour journey to my host parents’ hometown in Shizuoka. Though night came quickly, we still stopped to look at the lights illuminating Kakegawa Castle, castle built in the 15th Century built by a retainer of the Imagawa Clan: Asahina Yasuhiro. The next morning, we enjoyed freshly-picked fruits and a wholesome breakfast made by my host father’s parents. The scenery is beautiful there. There are many streams and farms in the neighborhoods. Everyone is so friendly. It reminded me of the small-town I grew up from in Alabama. That afternoon, we visited Okuni Shrine, a highly-ranked shrine in Shizuoka. It has the title of “Ichinomiya”, meaning it is among the top ranking shrines in Japan. Here, I witnessed two or three Shinto-style weddings. The women wore the traditional white headdress and kimono, something I saw during my first week in Japan at Yokohama. If I ever had the chance to participate in a wedding like that, I would be so thrilled! I took a paper fortune as well, and it is guiding me even to this day. Next was Hamamatsu Castle, the home of Tokugawa Ieyasu. If you do not know, he was the first Shogun of Japan. The castle is widely respected for the beautiful stones that make up the castle; stones that are only seen in Shizuoka. Immediately afterwards, I experienced my first trip to a private-room onsen. It was amazing! The rooms had a separate bathroom, bench, and bathing area (along with the hot spring itself). My host dad also surprised me by taking me alone to Sunpu Castle, the historical site of Ieyasu’s lifetime. At this castle, a young Ieyasu was a hostage for the Imagawa Clan. Fast-forward to about 50 years later, Ieyasu gave the position of shogun to his son Hidetada and renovated the castle. He continued to rule Japan while living in Sunpu before his death in 1616. It is nothing more than a museum-styles vicinity now, but it is still quite beautiful. Lastly, I visited my host mother’s family and cradled in my arms a new addition to the family: Sakura. That night, I drank organic nihonshu (Japanese sake) with the host dad and grandfather. We talked a lot about Japanese history, one of my favorite aspects of Japanese society. Playing with the kids, visiting specialized souvenir shops, eating katsudon (rice, egg, vegetables, and deep-fried pork cutlets) for the first time, and having unforgettable talks with my host parents makes this weekend the most memorable time of my Japanese experience.”

–Dorian Andrews, Tokyo International University Exchange, Calendar Year, 2016

TU Abroad Stories: Samira Barnes

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“Traveling abroad was one of the best experiences of my entire life. Often, Americans think of themselves as separate from the rest of the world but this trip opened my eyes to all the connects and parallels we have with other cultures. Before my trip I was excited, but the experience was 10x more amazing than I could have ever imagined. Everyday we learned something in a classroom or from the locals, giving us different perspectives. I truly believe studying abroad has made me a more open minded person and has definitely made me want to travel more and encourage other students to do the same! The trip opened my mind up to some many different ideas, culturally and academically, and I will always remember my time in South Africa.”

–Samira Barnes, TU Inequality and Resistance in South Africa (Faculty-Led), Summer 2017


TU Abroad Stories: Dorian Andrews (Part 3)

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“The Ghibli Museum is a showcase and tribute to various Japanese animators who have worked under the banner of the animation studio Studio Ghibli. It is located in Inokashira Park in Mitaka, about an hour and a half away from my former exchange school, Tokyo International University. On a breezy Sunday, I went with my friends John and Tya. The tickets were set for 4:00pm, so we walked the many streets and enjoyed the nature of Mitaka. The park connected to the museum is beyond gorgeous, with many residents and visitors alike playing and relaxing there. The line at Ghibli museum was long, but it did not take us long to get in. The reception was very nice, and the women who greeted us tried their best to speak in English. However, us three were participating in our second semester of Japanese classes, so we practiced Japanese the entire time. The workers were glad to speak to us in Japanese; I’m sure it made their jobs much easier! Miyazaki Hayao is easily to most well-known of the Studio Ghibli animators. Many tourists come to the museum only knowing of him. His famous works include: Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle and KiKi’s Delivery Service. The giant robot we took a picture with is from Miyazaki’s classic, “Laputa” or “Castle In The Sky” in English. Once you enter the Hogwarts-like environment, there are many rooms to enter into. There is a lounge area in the shape of the Catbus from “My Neighbor Totoro”, a replica of Miyazaki’s office, storyboards and traditional film machines used by him, and many souvenir and merchandise shops. The most memorable part for me was using an old-school machine and a piece of film I received after entering the museum to retrieve a single shot from a famous Miyazaki Hayao movie. I hope you get a chance to go to this magical wonderland someday!

TU Abroad Stories: Emily Trumble

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“Since I went to Ireland, I’ve really opened my eyes to the world around me. Being in college makes it really hard to keep up with news and such, but my professor for study abroad made me realize that there are so many perspectives in the world that it is ignorant to know only your own. I made really great friends in Ireland and we were never afraid to talk about news and current events, something I don’t usually do with friends in social situations. Having people to do that with it amazing and I would have never had the opportunity to meet such wonderful people had I not done this Study Abroad.”

–Emily Trumble, TU Education, Ethics, and change in Ireland (Faculty-Led), Summer 2017