Fit It In: The Top 5 Things to Pack to Study Abroad

By Gillian Gurish – API Florence Peer Mentor

Gillian is a senior at Converse College in South Carolina, and studied with API at Lorenzo de’Medici – the Italian International Institute in Florence, Italy during the spring 2010 term.

This post is a nice compliment to a recent blog entry by API staff member Kim Karalekas entitled 5 Amateur Packing Faux Pas 🙂

One of the most common questions I get as a Peer Mentor is: what should I bring? It’s a good question, one I was certainly concerned about as I began the daunting task that is packing. The concept of fitting my life for the next 4 months in a strange country into a couple suitcases and a backpack is intimidating, to put it mildly. And so, just one short year after successfully shoving the last shirt into my duffel bag, I sit here and ponder the question of regret. Without further ado, I offer my list of what, in my humble opinion, are absolute must-haves for a semester abroad.


1. Good walking shoes

Yes, you might feel like the uber-tourist in your grass-stained-but-oh-so-comfy Nikes, but let’s be honest: you are going to be a tourist more than once over there! Wherever you are studying, chances are pretty good that your feet will be your primary vehicle. Plus, sneakers can be very helpful if you get caught in the rain, and are a lot less clunky (and don’t scream ‘American’ quite as loudly) as rainboots. Of course, feel free to bring your stilettos too for many a fun night out – but please, don’t forget walking shoes. For your soles’ sake.

Ok, I promise to keep the terrible puns to a minimum. But c’mon, souls, soles?!? …Ahem. Moving on…

Pack layers for all kinds of weather

2. Layerable clothes

While we’re on the topic of fashion, let’s go above the ankles. Layers are your and your suitcase’s best friend – they pack small, and you can wear them in any kind of weather. A couple lightweight shirts, a sweater or two, a windbreaker and you can’t go wrong.

THIS is worth remembering

3. A journal

This may be a brand new hard-backed notebook with a funky globe print on the cover fresh from Barnes & Noble, or a blog you spent hours designing and thinking of the perfect site name for – either way, bring one. You really, really will be glad you did. Studying abroad brings up too many emotions to count. I mean, you’re thrown into a totally new culture, with 3 new people you have to learn to live with, and no__________ in sight – you’re gonna need an outlet for those whirlwind feelings. It’s also a wonderful way to record your favorite memories. For me, going back and reading my blog posts from those few short months brings back so many happy memories and feelings. I can see the Duomo rising into the sky on my way to class, taste the dark chocolate gelato from my favorite gelateria, hear the bad pick-up lines from the vendors in San Lorenzo market all over again. This is one I can’t stress enough – you definitely won’t be sorry you brought one, but you might be if you don’t.

My "one thing"

4. “The one thing”

You know that question, “If you were stranded on a desert island and could have only one thing, what would it be?” Ask yourself that as you pack. As much as I talk about not bringing things that will just take up precious space in your luggage (and I do mean precious), this is an important one. Because when you are sitting in your apartment, thousands of miles away from anything and everything familiar, you are going to need your first Beanie Baby ever that you brought with you to college. Or the guitar that you’ve practiced with every day for 8 years. Or your all-time favorite book that you turn to every time you feel upset, lonely, stressed. I underestimated the importance of my yoga mat and didn’t bring it – about a month into the semester, my dad ordered me one from Amazon and I turned to it constantly for the duration of my time in Florence. Whatever that one thing is, bring it – because that is a good use of luggage space.

And last but not least…

5. An open mind

This is probably the most important thing you can bring with you. Studying abroad is not easy, and for all the wonderful experiences you’ll have, there will be just as many challenges. One of the most valuable things I learned – perhaps even the most valuable thing – was the importance of optimism and endurance. Because when you miss your train to Prague, or it rains on the day you planned to go to the Roman ruins, or the vendor at the market glares darkly at you for not having the correct change, the best thing you can do is laugh. It is a truly beautiful thing to become immersed within a culture, to learn a totally new way of life from the inside out – but it is not easy. With an open mind, however, those challenges are immediately easier to overcome. Let me give an example: You are at a cute little hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Paris, eating lunch with a friend. When the check arrives, you ask if the waiter could split it for you. He turns red, then purple, then proceeds to yell something sinister-sounding in French at you and you feel like crawling under the table. Instead of getting angry, or writing it off, look at it as a learning experience: don’t ask for split checks! Culture shock is inevitable, but it doesn’t have to last long if you can find the proverbial silver lining. Not only will you be happier, but by keeping an open mind you will learn more about your host country, and maybe feel just a little bit more like a local. Don’t leave home without it.

And there you have it. What are you waiting for? Dust off that duffel and get packing!

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