The memories you make when you study abroad are memories that stay with you. Although every student’s experience is different, chances are high you’ll meet one or two people abroad that will always hold a special place in your heart.
One of the big pieces of advice we give to new alumni is to keep in touch! Stay in contact with not only API, but the friends you make during your study abroad journey. Nurture those enriching relationships that you make and you’ll see your study abroad experience continue to be rewarding, even years down the road.
Today we’re interviewing Noelle Willecke. She currently works as the Assistant Director for International Student Services at Columbia University’s International Students & Scholars Office. She’s also a 2004 alumni of our Florence Semester Program. Recently, she and her roommate Toni were able to reconnect over a 14-year-old bottle of wine!
API: Tell us a little more about how this came about. Where did the wine bottle come from?
Noelle: We were at a wine tasting that API actually set up for us. This was the third wine that we tried and we both really liked it… Honestly, I don’t remember whose idea it was. I’m assuming it was mine because I was taking a wine tasting class and we were learning about vintages, saving wine, and storing it until it reached its peak. So I think we just came up with this idea of “We should buy the bottle now, wait until it reaches its peak, which would be 14 years from that year, and then we should get together and drink it.”
We made that agreement and we pinky swore on it; we have that picture of us pinky swearing about it, and no one believed us! They were saying “Oh, there’s no way you guys are going to keep in touch; there’s no way you’ll get together in 14 years!” But we did stay in touch! We visited each other a couple times and then we did do it 14 years later!
API: What was Florence like in 2004 for you and Toni?
Noelle: I felt like I was in this amazing little snow globe, as if there was a bubble around us because the city is so historic. It just felt like all that mattered was Florence and everything else was separate. It was a wonderful feeling.
I think I was very fortunate in that when I studied abroad, social media was not a big thing. I still used a Discman; iPods had just come out! We really spent so much time connecting with people face to face, and that was wonderful. When I went back two years later, it was cool to go back because I knew a lot about Florence so I felt a bit like a “local”.
API: It’s pretty interesting to think about not having a smartphone abroad!
Noelle: We walked around with maps! We would try to not look like a tourist. Whenever we would open a map, we’d go to a corner of a building or church and try to open up the map so people wouldn’t spot us as tourists.
Toni is the one who taught me how to text message; no one I knew was texting back then. It was huge in Europe though. It was cheaper to text, so that’s what a lot of us did. We got phones when we were there that we would use to text each other. It was a totally different experience back then.
API: How would you say studying abroad has helped you in your adult life, career and friendships?
Noelle: Studying abroad completely changed my life. Toni was the one who taught me how to create a community around me. We explored a lot but once we found like a cappuccino place that we liked, we went to the same cappuccino place. We found a lunch spot we liked so we went to the same lunch spot. We really created this community around us.
When I finished my study abroad experience, I wanted to do that again. I initially thought after college, I would go back to Italy. But I just had this feeling that it would be “too easy”; I knew the city, I knew Italian decently by then, I knew the people, and I just wanted to have that experience again of trying to connect with the community and culture on my own. After college, I moved to Barcelona, Spain and I did a teaching/training certificate to teach English as a second language. I lived there for a year.
At the end, I decided I wanted to make a career out of this. I had to, in some way, live in this world of international education. I went to grad school for it and taught English for another two years. Then I moved into working with international student services. My entire career trajectory was based on that study abroad experience.
API: What advice do you have for incoming study abroad students who might be a bit nervous about meeting their roommate?
Noelle: I think that’s a normal feeling to be nervous about who you end up living with. When you study abroad you’re kind of at that age where you sort of already have a group of friends and you know who you like. But these study abroad experiences… the whole thing is such a learning experience. I went into it thinking whoever my roommates are, I’m just going to try to learn from them too. I lived with three other girls; we were all from different parts of the U.S. with different backgrounds, religions, and families.
A good example: I came from a place where nobody did sororities; in my college it was not a thing. One of my roommates was going to school in the south where everyone was in a sorority, that was how you had a social life. Instead of thinking “okay, we’re just different, we’re not going to get along,” I just tried to learn from it. I asked her to teach me about it, show me pictures and tell me about life there.
Even if you may not leave with them being one of your best or lifelong friends, it’s still an opportunity to learn and grow. You’re not just learning about the language and culture of where you are, but from your roommates themselves. I would say go in with an open mind and bring pictures from back home! It’s fun to share your background with everyone.
API: Anything else you’d like to add?
Noelle: Another piece of advice I give to anyone studying abroad is the thing that Toni taught me about creating a community around you. I’ve carried that with me my whole life. I’ve moved a ton through Europe and the East Coast, and everywhere I go, I try to create that community around me. Try those coffee shops and lunch spots and settle in on one you really like. You end up making a friend there and it will really connect you to where you are and makes you feel comfortable and like you’re a part of the community around you.
Even in Manhattan, I’ve done this as I’ve moved to three different areas in the past nine years. Every time I move to a new area, I think “I don’t know anyone; I don’t connect with this neighborhood!” Then I remember, “Oh! Do that thing Toni taught you!” Soon I go to the same pilates studios, farmer’s market vendors that I see every weekend, and soon it feels like my community, and my neighborhood that I’m a part of!