Studying Abroad: Combining Old Experiences with New Adventures

By Sami Osborne

*Sami Osborne is a senior at St. Thomas Aquinas College. Learn all about his experience studying abroad below and the advice that he has for fellow STAC students.

“STUDY ABROAD MEETING TODAY,” proclaimed the email from STACtivities. It was a beautiful, sunny day in early September during my first year at a new school. Like most college freshmen, I was just trying to figure out my place and identity on this new, easy-to-navigate but overwhelming campus. I also struggled to fit in, given that I’m both totally blind and hard of hearing, and I felt like most people were looking down on me because of my disabilities and were therefore reluctant to befriend me. So you can probably imagine when such a bright light at the end of the tunnel opportunity suddenly arose while I was checking my STAC college email that morning. As my fingers slid across the crisp, bumpy dots of my Braille note taker, announcing that the study-abroad coordinator from St. John’s University was coming to campus, my immediate reflex was: “Oh my God, this sounds like such an awesome opportunity! I’ll definitely check it out this afternoon.”

The opportunity stuck out to me for a couple of reasons. First of all, I had formally declared my major studying Romance Languages, and was (and still am) hoping to use my BA in that major to pursue a career as a language interpreter. I am fluent in three languages: English, French, and Spanish, and also took up Italian for my first two years at STAC (as you’ll see very shortly).

Naturally being the language enthusiast that I am (some people might even call me a language “geek” or “nerd,” I am also very much interested in other cultures. This partly stems in the fact that my mom is from France (my dad is American), and I also learned a great deal about Hispanic culture from my many years of pursuing the language in school. When I was in the eighth grade, my family took a trip to Paris, and we spotted some kind of special institute for foreign languages. I really wanted to check it out at the time, but I had been told I should study here in America because of potential accommodation barriers I might face abroad. However, I was also told that I could always spend a semester or year in a foreign country and see what life is like there.

The second reason this meeting stuck out to me is because, like I just mentioned, my mom is originally from France, and I spent practically every summer of my childhood up there visiting relatives. So, when I found later that St. John’s University has a campus in Paris, it struck me immediately as a no-brainer since it was a city I was already familiar with.

My first class that day was Italian, and towards the middle of class, the professor, Dr. Roglieri, mentioned studying abroad when I raised my hand.

“Yes, Sami, do you have a comment?” Dr. Roglieri asked patiently.

“Yes, I do,” I replied. “I just saw in my email that there’s a study-abroad meeting this afternoon, and I think I’ll go check it out.”

“That’s right!” Dr. Roglieri said with delight and enthusiasm. “I strongly suggest all you guys try it out.”

I arrived at Room 123 in Maguire Hall promptly at 1 p.m., just like I had been instructed in the email. Upon entering the classroom, I noticed how reluctant (to use a low-key term) most students seem to be about experiencing things outside their comfort zone. Almost immediately, I noticed that I was the only student in attendance. Also present at the meeting were Dr. Heath Bowen, the study-abroad coordinator from STAC at the time, and Ms. Sara DeFilippi, the coordinator from St. John’s. Since I was the only student present, they began the meeting immediately after I gave them my microphone so I could hear them better. Ms. DeFilippi and Dr. Bowen started telling me about the different opportunities St. John’s offered for studying in Europe. They informed me that I could either study in Paris or Rome, Italy, and they also offer a program called Discover the World (DTW), where students spend five weeks in each country and even get to travel to Limerick, Ireland.

“Well, any thoughts on this?” Dr. Bowen asked me once they were through telling me about the different opportunities.

“Well,” I answered, “I’m actually fairly familiar with Paris, so I think I might study there.”

“Great!” Dr. Bowen replied. “Paris is a great city. So now, let’s tell you about the application process.”

Dr. Bowen then proceeded to inform me about all the paperwork required from the STAC side, while Ms. DeFilippi talked about the St. John’s side. One of the things Dr. Bowen mentioned was that since I was an American citizen and was staying in Europe for an extended period of time, I would need to apply for a student visa. I raised my hand (for some reason I thought there were other students at the time so I didn’t want to interrupt).

“I’m actually a dual citizen of both the United States and France, so I don’t think that really should be a problem,” I told him.

“Oh, great,” Dr. Bowen answered. “So then you’ll need to fill out the visa waiver form.”

I left the meeting that day more sure and determined that I was going to study abroad at some point during my college career.

I put off studying abroad for the rest of that year, since I was just getting used to college life, and also because I was planning to do it during the spring semester of my junior year anyway. Then, early in my sophomore year, my mom announced that we were going to travel to France over Christmas. She asked me to check with St. John’s to ask if we could take a tour of the campus during that time. So I emailed Ms. DeFilippi, who quickly informed me that while the campus was closed for the holidays, we were more than welcome to explore the chapel located next door. So the morning after we arrived in Paris (after spending Christmas at my uncle’s house in Dijon), my family and I boarded the metro that would take us to the neighborhood where St. John’s is located. After exploring an outdoor farmer’s market and then a trip to a nearby accordion store, we proceeded to St. Vincent De Paul Chapel. We ascended the stairs to the chapel (which would later become my landmark for when I would know that I was approaching campus), and entered the confines of the building.

The church held that familiar echo you hear when you enter a church, and I couldn’t help thinking, “Oh my God, this place is so awesome! I hope the campus will be just as thrilling.”

My mom described the layout of the building for me, but I wasn’t really paying attention. Looking back on it now, I guess part of it must have been that I may not heard everything she said given that you’re supposed to speak very quietly in a church, coupled with the fact that I was just too busy imagining what my time studying at St. John’s would be like.

Later, in April of my sophomore year, I inquired with St. John’s about how they could
accommodate me with all my needs, and I again inquired about taking a tour of the campus. Ms. DeFilippi immediately got back to me that given the small, friendly community St. John’s Paris Campus was, they would be more than willing to provide me with everything I needed, and she arranged for me to visit the campus that May.

So on Tuesday, May 8, 2018, my mom and I boarded a flight from Newark Airport to Paris for a week-long stay. We had to wait a week to take the tour—actually the day before we were due to return home. While we waited, we explored the neighborhood surrounding the campus, as well as inquired about the Association Valentin Haouy (the local organization for the blind, which coincidentally happened to be located only a few
blocks away from St. John’s), about how they could accommodate me and provide me with mobility lessons to help me get acquainted with the campus and the surrounding areas. Then, on May 15, we took the metro down to Vaneau station (the closest subway stop to campus).

Upon arrival, I immediately knew I was in the right place. We were greeted by the program director, Farida, as well as Isabelle, the Director of Academic Affairs, and Mattheieu, the Coordinator of Student Life. The three staff members just seemed overwhelmingly friendly and compassionate, and they said that they would do everything in their power to assure that my time on campus would be as safe and enjoyable as possible. The only thing I wasn’t too pleased with was the fact that they said the campus had no piano in the cafeteria (I am also an amateur pianist), which possibly hindered me from practicing for four whole months (though later I discovered that I could play the piano at the local train station). Farida implied that part of the reason for that was because they had no money (they even asked for possible funding so they could purchase a piano), as well as the fact that the cafeteria is shared by the priest, so I guess she was just a little concerned that the sound of piano playing would interfere with religious duties and affairs.

The following fall semester was spent filing away forms and paperwork for the Paris program for the spring. There was a course option sheet (which I filled out with Dr. Roglieri, who also happened to be my academic advisor), a letter of recommendation (which Dr. Roglieri also very graciously wrote for me), a flight itinerary form, the above noted Visa Waiver Exemption form, a transcript request form with the Registrar, and a residence life application. Most importantly, though, there was also a formal application with St. John’s due Oct. 14. I don’t remember all of the questions that were asked on that form, but I do recall the question, which read something like, “Please indicate what you are hoping to gain out of this experience.”

In my answer to that question, I said that I wanted to really get a feeling for what life was like in France by living there for four entire months, as well as possibly helping other students get acquainted with the experience, since I was already familiar with the country from past experiences with my heritage. Like most college applications, this whole process was definitely frustrating at times, especially when the people I corresponded with either didn’t come through or responded more than 24 hours later. I especially hit my breaking point in the beginning of November, when I was informed by St. John’s that I would need to turn in all the documentation by the end of that week, and if the papers weren’t all received by then, I would NOT be able to study abroad in the spring and would have to wait until the following fall. Luckily, though, once I told everyone involved about the situation I was in, they all came through within no time. Though this naturally caused me significant stress at times, particularly since I considered applying for St. John’s as one of my top priorities (the other being, of course, my schoolwork). This whole ordeal resulted in my doing all right (not necessarily the best that I could) by the end of that semester.

Fast forward to the evening of Thursday, Nov. 8. I was at home for the weekend,
checking my email, when all of a sudden, I received an email from St. John’s in my inbox. I braced myself, expecting the worst—my application being denied because of some missing paperwork or other cause

Instead, this is the first line from that email: “Welcome, Global Travelers!”

It was an email sent out, not only to me, but also to all students who were studying abroad at all programs that spring semester. The email was a newsletter containing guidelines on how to make the most out of the study-abroad experience, as well as outlining what the next steps in the application process were. A few hours later, I received yet another email, this time formally announcing my acceptance into the Paris program, not for the fall of 2019, or the spring of 2020, but for spring of 2019. That’s right, I would be leaving for Europe that January, just two months away.

That night, my Facebook post announcing my acceptance into the study-abroad program garnered the largest reception ever to any of my Facebook posts; I counted 34 comments and over 90 reactions from my Facebook friends congratulating me and feeling so happy that I was having this experience, which is something that most of them had likely missed out on for some reason or another.

The morning of Jan. 8, 2019 was a cool, misty day in my hometown of Nyack, NY
(naturally, as it was the middle of winter and not too cold). I wasn’t bothered by the weather, though, because I knew that I would soon be within the comforts of the airport waiting room and then arrive in one of my all-time favorite places in the world. At exactly 11 a.m., my mom (who was helping me get settled into this new life) and I took a cab that would take us to JFK Airport.

We had to wait a while for the plane, though, as it didn’t take off until 5 p.m. that day. You would probably be expecting someone traveling to a new, distant land to be nervous and scared while waiting for the plane, but I wasn’t feeling that way at all. To me, this felt like any old time I was going somewhere I already knew well (or so I thought at the time) to visit my family. This was just any other ordinary time and place. (Now that I think about it, I don’t know if most of the other St. John’s students were feeling nervous either, given that most of them were traveling with each other in groups since they knew each other already from attending St. John’s University in Queens, so I imagine they probably had the support and comforts of one another to talk to).

When we finally boarded the plane, and as it taxied down the runway and the safety video began to play, I started to realize that I was staying in France for a lot longer than I had ever stayed there (though I had not fully grasped the enormity of what I was leaving behind at the time). That didn’t come until the plane ride ended six hours later, when I realized I arrived at my destination and suddenly felt disappointment at not savoring the moment for a little longer.

We arrived in Paris in the early morning of Jan. 9. Although orientation didn’t start until a week later, my mom and I agreed to arrive a little earlier; that way I could get acquainted with the neighborhood, purchase some additional essential items for my dorm room, and meet my new orientation and mobility (O and M) instructor from Association Valentin Hauy. We had an appointment there the following Friday, and after some initial confusion over where we were meeting my instructor (it turns out that the mobility department is in a separate building from the main headquarters), I finally met the woman who would ultimately guide me through my study-abroad experience. Her name was Corine, and she seemed nice enough. She was even impressed that I was fluent in the French language, given that I was originally from the United States (she didn’t realize initially that my mom was from France and that I have been there before).

Once I informed her how I learned orientation best (I’m more of a visual learner and prefer to learn the route as I go along), she assured me that she would certainly be willing to accommodate that, and that was how most of her students learned anyway. She even gave me a remote control device that I could use at most major intersections. The unit has some sort of detection of when you approach a main street (you have to use your ears when crossing a side street), and all you have to do is press a button on the remote control, which will either say out loud: “Rouge pietons” (red light) or beep when the light is green. This was such a convenience for me, especially since there’s a major intersection right near the campus, which I had to cross later when getting to the subway station.

The following Tuesday was, you guessed it, move-in day at last. I didn’t have to move in until that night, and my mom and I pretty much stuck around the hotel room all day. Then, at around 8 p.m. CST, we took my large, heavy suitcase and piled into the metro (which was probably a move we regretted, since we took a cab on the way back). Once we arrived, I received my room keys and we proceeded upstairs to unpack and get settled in. When my mom left, I really didn’t know what to do. Even though I have been to Paris before, the dorm room was definitely eerie and unfamiliar, somewhere I have never stayed before. So naturally that’s when the nervousness and unease really started to peek in. It also felt that way because I was sleeping in a bunk bed, which is something I have not done in a long time. I pretty much fell asleep almost immediately that first
night. The next morning, I got up and decided to take a shower like I usually did in the mornings.

It was then that I realized that I had no idea where the bathroom was, and again, how eerie and unfamiliar the whole campus felt. I decided to check both sides of my floor for the bathroom, and I finally found it on the right side of my dorm room (my second trip around). I was still kind of surprised, though, when I arrived and suddenly turned on the water by accident while still wearing my bedclothes when the water hit my face. Luckily, I realized immediately that it was only the shower, and I got undressed and got in. Once I was done, I dried off, returned to my room to get dressed and get my hearing aids and phone, and proceeded to the cafeteria for breakfast. Locating the cafeteria was a whole new challenge, one I didn’t see coming at all. I was staying on the second floor, and I decided to descend the nearest staircase one floor (to the first floor) and then see what would happen. But I couldn’t find the cafeteria anywhere. I just located some storage bins and the place to put the garbage. Even worse, I knew there must be the ground
floor, but the stairs for that weren’t in the vicinity from the upper levels. I had to walk around the entire first floor just to locate that descending flight of stairs to the basement. I finally located the cafeteria after about half an hour of searching. I could tell it was the cafeteria by the procession of loud, enthusiastic voices talking and laughing away.

I immediately felt comfortable again, and I thought to myself: “Hey, this isn’t so bad. Those sounds are a good sign, and, hey, maybe I’ll even make a few friends while I’m here.”

I entered the cafeteria and found a table to sit at, but not before I settled at an isolated table to let my Facebook friends know that I had gotten there safe and sound the night before, as well as detailing my eerie, frightening experience with the shower and cafeteria. Once the post was sent to Facebook, I got up and decided to try and find someone to talk to.

“Hi, I’m Adrienne,” said a friendly, female voice at the nearest table.

“I’m Sami,” I replied.

“If you’d like, I can help you get your breakfast,” Adrienne offered politely.

“Sure,” I replied, eager for the assistance.

“What would you like? We have French bread (baguettes that you have with butter), or you can have an apple and an orange.”

“I think those all sound good,” I answered. Once Adrienne had filled my plate, the
other members of the table began introducing themselves. There was a boy named Parker, another one named Nathan, and another girl named Natalie.

“Do you go to St. John’s?” Natalie asked me.

“No,” I answered, “I attend St. Thomas Aquinas College, also in New York State.”

“Oh, okay. We all attend St. John’s University in Queens.”

I was immediately taken with how friendly and sociable everyone was. They just seemed so different from the people I knew back at STAC, so willing and open for conversation. Most importantly, it seemed like these students had accepted me for the person who I really was, rather than someone to look down upon because of my disabilities. We continued our conversation, with me asking the group whether or not they had been to Paris before. While Parker had apparently been there four times before for high
school trips and volunteer opportunities, the rest of them had not. I quickly informed them that I am actually half French and that I have been to Paris in the past to visit relatives. Natalie then told me that she is Haitian, and although she didn’t speak French fluently, she was familiar with the language.

After breakfast, it was time for the actual orientation sessions to begin. The first person to take up the microphone was Farida, who started by taking attendance to make sure everyone was there. Every so often, when she came across a name that was particularly appealing, she’d make a comment like, “Wow, you have an Italian name” (when she got to Paulo Brito or, “That’s Armenian,” when coming to Talar Hovsepian. When she got to the name, “Xiomery Encarnacion,” she positively exclaimed, “My God, that’s the greatest name I’ve ever heard!”

There were also two students from the Discover the World program with the same last name, and Farida even inquired as to whether they were related.

“Yes, we’re twins,” one of them answered.

It was pretty much straightforward after that. Farida, Isabelle, and Matthieu started
out by explaining their backgrounds and how they were affiliated with St. John’s University to begin with. Then Isabelle took it from there with some essential information on the city of Paris itself. Most of this information I already knew, and I even volunteered a few myself. Like when she talked about the subway system and how people could buy tickets, I interjected by talking about a card system (carte navigaux) that was efficient for weekly or monthly ticket purchases.

Then we had a short break, and I decided to introduce my table to some French music by playing my favorite song on my phone. Natalie even suggested I search for an opera by Puccini she really liked (“La Boeme,” which also happened to be in French).

After the break, the three staff members, as well as a new guy from India named Dheeraj (who happened to be the boss for the two resident assistants on campus, Daniel and Elena) volunteered information about the residence and laundry facilities. Then we had lunch, and this time it was Farida who helped me through the line. I was immediately surprised that she knew how to guide me in the correct form (by having me hold on
to her elbow). She informed me that she had done research prior to my arrival at the program, and the other students even saw the way I was being guided and took it upon themselves to do the same. After a brief phone conversation with my mom to let her know how things were going thus far, I decided to check Facebook and see if anyone had commented on my most recent post that morning.

I got lots of responses assuring me that everything was going to turn out all right, and one of my former high school teachers even made a comment that said: “You’ll eventually be the one giving directions.”

That one especially felt reassuring.

After lunch, Dheeraj decided to approach me because he said that he had seen my Facebook post (I checked in to the St. John’s Paris campus that morning), and he showed me how I could use the elevator to get from floor to floor. That felt like a relief to me, and I would always take the elevator from then on to get between my room and the lobby whenever leaving and re-entering campus.

Once orientation got back in session, Farida had us all meet in one of the classrooms and had us explain essentially why we were there in the first place. I pretty much laid out what I described earlier. Then we had this fun game where we divided into groups and had to answer random multiple choice questions about Paris. After that, we were instructed (if we wanted to) to meet in the front lobby to take a walk around the neighborhood with Matthieu. Farida escorted me back to my room so I could get my coat, and once we got back downstairs, she asked one of the other students (a Korean-American girl named Celina) to guide me on that excursion. She agreed with the same level of enthusiasm that the other students had shown that morning, and we had just as great of a time, chatting about ourselves while Celina also did her best to describe what we were seeing as we went along.

After we had walked a few miles, we stopped at a nearby cafe to get a snack. Then, since we walked a pretty good distance from campus, Celina, Natalie, Parker, and a few others all agreed that we would return using the subway. So Mattheieu gave each of us a
metro ticket, and we descended the stairs into the nearest station.

When we got on the train, we immediately realized that we were heading in the wrong direction. As the train began pulling into the next station, Celina and Parker (who were pretty good French speakers already) noticed that we had to step off the train immediately and head in the opposite direction. (I also noticed a few seconds later when the station was announced on the overhead speaker, since I know the map of the Paris subway system almost by heart). Once we got off the train, though, we realized that we didn’t have any more tickets—we had already spent the one given to us, so we had to proceed back upstairs and through the turnstile so we could take the other train. Once we finally got off at the correct station, I walked back to campus with Natalie while Celina headed to the Apple store to get the cracked, blue screen on her phone fixed.

After that incident, Natalie remarked that it was thanks to Celina and Parker’s quick thinking that we were headed the right way, otherwise we would have gotten totally lost and turned around.

The next several days would go by in a quick and hazy blur. We started classes the following week, and I signed up for four of them: Economics and Inequality, Advanced French Conversation, Art and Architecture, and Religions of the World. The Economics class was the one that went the longest—three hours, but it was also the shortest one in progression, since it was mostly comprised of DTW students who had to travel to Italy and Ireland after five weeks. I decided (with the approval of my academic advisor, Dr. Roglieri) to take a French class, because although I was fluent in the language, I had never received any formal instruction in grammar or comprehension. Since I was planning to pursue a career as a language interpreter, I ultimately decided it would be best to ensure that I was proficient in the language as I could possibly be.

The Art and Architecture class was my favorite one. It went on twice a week—Mondays and Wednesdays, with the Monday classes being held mostly in the classroom setting. On
Wednesdays, meanwhile, we would spend the hour and a half class period at a different museum in Paris, such as the Louvre (the most popular tourist attraction for art), as well as the Musee d’Orsay, the most popular attractions for native Parisians.

The Religions of the World class was mostly lecture-based, and was apparently the most popular course taken by students at St. John’s. The professors were also very accommodating with me and all my needs, and they really made sure to get to know all the students. I really liked that, and it made me feel much more at ease
with the lectures and other materials. The curriculum is also designed in a way so that it’s not as rigorous as a typical college setting, with only small papers and exams occasionally. They never really specified why that is, but I think it might have to do with the fact that the staff is more committed to having the students explore the city during their own time.

We had weekly meetings every Monday afternoon, during which we tried a different kind of French food while the three main staff members went over all the special events that were happening that week. We also had excursions on Monday afternoons, where we visited a different place throughout the city.

My favorite excursion was when we took a trip to La Defense, one of Paris’ tallest monuments located in the outskirts of the city. I enjoyed it because I had actually never been there before, and I asked one of the RA’s, Daniel (who was guiding me) to take pictures of the monument on my phone to share with friends and family.

At the beginning of April, we also had a picnic in the Parc de Lavilette, a park close to my grandmother’s nursing home. That was also fun because we got to eat and socialize with each other while walking around the park.

We also had a barbecue at the end of April to celebrate the ten-year anniversary of the Paris campus being open.

As far as my activity during that time, I really got to work on my independence skills during my four-month stint at St. John’s University. I had mobility lessons with Corine every Thursday afternoon, and we would work on something different every week. The first lesson was getting familiar with the campus, and then we went out and explored the neighborhood after. By the end of February, I was able to go shopping for my own food. The cafeteria only serves breakfast and dinner during the week at the Paris campus, so we all had to fend for ourselves with lunch every day as well as all meals on weekends. I decided to do my shopping at Framprie, which was the closest supermarket to campus.

I also hung out with my relatives in some way or another on the weekends, like going to one of their apartments for lunch or dinner. In the middle of each month, my uncle Pierre would come up to Paris from Dijon, and he would pick me up. We would have
lunch together, and then head to my grandmother’s nursing home and stay with her for an hour.

By the end of March, I was able to successfully take the metro independently. The first time I took the subway, I decided to have dinner at a Mexican restaurant I had eaten with at Uncle Pierre one Saturday night. The next day (Sunday), I then took the metro part of the way to my uncle Jean-Marc and aunt Florence’s apartment, where I ate dinner with them and three of my cousins (my aunt Florence met me at the first train station and took me the rest of the way, and then she drove me back to campus).

By the end of April, I was taking the subway to the nearest train station so I
could practice the piano, which is something I had not been able to do for nearly three months. So, as you can probably tell, I have been very, very, very productive during my study abroad experience.

Now, I know I’m probably starting to ramble a little, so I’ll close out this article by saying that this study-abroad experience has absolutely been a positive and life-changing experience for me, which was something I had been told but had not really expected to be. I would strongly encourage ALL students to take up this experience, regardless of what your major is. Just try and step out of your comfort zone and try something new and exciting you might never have imagined you could do. I can almost guarantee that it WILL be a new and life-changing experience in your lifetime. I would therefore encourage all STAC students to spend a semester abroad, at St. John’s University or otherwise, and at least try this whole new experience. I would also try and urge you, if you have already visited the country where you are studying, to try and not
be naive like I was back at the beginning, by assuming that just because you know the place, that you won’t really gain anything new from the experience.

Credits and acknowledgements:

I would sincerely like to thank Dr. Maria Roglieri (my academic advisor), Dr. Heath Bowen (the initial-study abroad coordinator when I was a freshman and sophomore), Dr. Nathaniel Amos Rothschild (the new coordinator when I was a junior and was applying to study abroad), Dr. Robert Murray (Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs), Ms. Sara DeFilippi, Ms. Maria Handler, and Ms. Lucy Amon (all study-abroad coordinators from St. John’s University in Queens).

I would also like to thank Farida Khatchadourian, Isabelle Kazan, Mattheieu Dessier, and Dheeraj A. Jayant from the Paris campus. All of these people have worked tirelessly to ensure that I and all other students have the best possible experience while studying abroad, either by guiding me through the application process, introducing new opportunities, or just being there for me whenever I had questions or just needed additional guidance.

A special “thank you” goes out, of course, to my parents, French relatives, and all the friends I have made at St. John’s, who have all guided and supported me through this new adventure. All of this, I can assure you, would absolutely not have been possible without the tremendous amount of love, support, and dedication from ALL of the individuals I have just acknowledged.

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