International Spotlight on St. John’s Gilman Scholars: Home Again

Collage of six Gilman Scholars
April 17, 2023

“Journals to Journeys” follows six St. John’s recipients of the Benjamin A. Gilman International  Scholarship as they prepare for their new destinations abroad, their first impressions once there, and their reflections upon returning.

“Home Again” is the final installment of the “Journals to Journeys” series.

Gilman scholarships help students with financial need broaden their access to study abroad and internships. An unprecedented eight St. John’s students received the award this year.

Home Again, Spring 2023

By Hailey Claude, Class of 2023, Psychology, Award $5,000

Hailey Claude selfie

I returned stateside this past December after studying in Italy for approximately four months and have had some time to reflect on my experience while abroad. Going abroad and forcing myself out of my comfort zone has taught me copious things about life. I immersed myself in various cultures and societies, and become more self-aware in my beliefs and attitudes.

As an American, I have my own customs, beliefs, and attitudes. At times it can feel like the way we live here in the US is also the way of life everywhere else in the world—but as I learned, it is not.

The most important thing that I have done for myself was to experience a different way of life. I learned about authentic Italian culture and lifestyles, which changed me for the better. It showed me that there are other ways to live and to have more understanding for cultures that are different from my own.

I could appreciate how slow life is lived in Italy. Rome taught me to cherish the everyday “small moments,” like enjoying a meal with friends and family and taking the time to talk to one another instead of always trying to rush through everything and not appreciate the moment.

The way I chose to live in the US was challenged greatly while I studied in Rome. This experience propelled my ability to see things from different perspectives. I learned about various cultures and strengthened my skills when presented with challenges; I realized that I am stronger than I thought.

I also strengthened my communication skills while I quickly had to adapt to my new environment. This improvement developed exponentially once I interacted with some local citizens and misunderstandings occurred. These experiences assisted me in my ability to adapt, mediate, and resolve issues through my communication.

Studying abroad was the best decision I have made in my life and set in motion my journey to become the person that I would like to be one day. The lessons and experiences that were gained from this adventure will always stay with me. I will forever be thankful for the opportunities that were accessible to me from the Gilman Scholarship and St. John’s University.

Home Again, Spring 2023

By Zoe Paraskevas, Class of 2023, Communication Arts, Award $5,000 

Zoe Paraskevas in front of the Trevi Fountain

Throughout my time abroad, I was introduced to many new concepts and ways of living. Although I had done my research on the countries I was visiting prior to departure, reading about a country and its culture and then experiencing it in person were two very different things. During the fall semester, I studied in three different countries: Italy, Ireland, and France. Adapting to the Italian and Irish lifestyles was much easier than expected, although they were both unique in their own ways and different than what I was used to.

I found the most challenging country for me to adapt to was France. During my stay in Paris, I immediately became very aware of certain cultural differences. The biggest one was the volume at which I spoke. My friends and I quickly learned that the French prefer silence and they whisper when they are at a restaurant in order to not disturb those around them. They never hesitated to shush us if we talked a bit louder than usual, which is normal in their culture, but considered rude in ours. It was truly fascinating to see how culture affects our everyday lives down to the tiniest habits of which we often aren’t even aware.

One way that French culture influenced me was in the way that I use time throughout my day. In the US, we have a workaholic attitude (at least in New York City) and we tend to be very preoccupied with our jobs, even during break times. In France, people do not discuss business outside of work (for example, at social gatherings), especially not during their lunch break. I experienced this multiple times in stores and even on campus. Staff would kindly tell us that this was their designated break time and that if we need anything we can address it once they are available.

This greatly changed my perspective and influenced me to use the time given to me throughout my workday wisely as well. It is easy to get preoccupied with work and forget to take a break, but it is also super important to use that break time to take pressure off your shoulders and refresh your mind before going back to work.

Overall, my time abroad taught me to adjust to new cultures and environments faster, understand people more fully, and push myself to be more conscious of what’s around me. This experience was challenging and life changing. Studying abroad allows you to explore the way other people live and to better understand how our differences are what make us unique in such a huge world. It was a wild ride, but I would recommend it to anyone. 

Home Again, Spring 2023

By Paige Callaghan, Class of 2023, Communication Arts, Award $5,000

Paige Callaghan sitting in front of the Trevi Fountain

After returning home a few months ago and completing my Gilman service project, I’ve had time to reflect on my journey abroad in Italy. I had the opportunity to learn about Italian culture in depth while spending several weeks living in Rome. With thousands of years’ worth of art, architecture, language, food and more, there was so much I had the opportunity to explore. I saw churches, museums, and landscapes that I’d only ever seen in pictures. Italy’s culture and people are one of a kind.

Spending extended time in a foreign country made me aware of the stark differences between American and Italian culture. As a Communications major, the distinctive way people act, think, and behave is quite interesting to me. I particularly appreciated the relaxed Italian lifestyle compared to my life here. There is an emphasis placed on enjoying the simple things in life like food and family. There was a strong sense of community, even between strangers, whether it was dancing and singing in a courtyard in Trastevere or children playing with glow sticks in the street. I admired this approach to life because it felt different to some of the values prioritized here in the United States. 

That being said, with these cultural differences, I felt it was important for me to adapt to Italian life while living in Rome. I wanted to visit as many regions as I could, so the metro, buses, and trains were my best friends while traveling. I started to treat every meal like an experience and every outing like an adventure.

Seeing firsthand how valuable it was to immerse myself in a culture completely different from my own has changed my perspective. Open-mindedness during travel is necessary to gaining knowledge and making your journey worthwhile. As I continue to travel in the future, I will do what I can to appreciate and participate in the various cultures I encounter.

My trip heightened my interest in global issues that I’ve incorporated into my academic life at St. John’s. As an International Studies minor, I take courses that expand my knowledge of the cultural perspectives all over the globe and how they impact worldly affairs. I have taken a Global Communications course centered around European communication and media. I am  currently taking International Terrorism to understand how global political issues can lead to violence.

After my time in Italy, I fell in love with the culture as a whole and want to expand my knowledge so I’m taking an Italian Language and Culture course. I’d love to gain an even deeper understanding of the history of the country and hopefully visit again one day.

Home Again, Spring 2023

By Kynidi Mundell-Hill, Class of 2024, Communication Arts, Award $5,000

Kynidi Mundell-Hill selfie

While traveling through the many countries my friends and I visited, I learned three things: you do not need to be fluent in a language to communicate with others, the culture on the continent of Europe as a whole is drastically different than in America, and I want to go back soon. I traveled to 10 countries and was able to effectively communicate with most people in each country I visited.

While in Paris, my friends and I formed a friendship with a waiter at one of the local restaurants near the school, even though there was a slight language barrier. Now we all have an online pen pal whom we continue to communicate with now that we are back in the US.

In addition, in Ireland, the hotel where we stayed was also housing Ukrainian refugees. One of my favorite memories is helping the older refugees. Even though I only spoke English and they only spoke Ukrainian, we were able to communicate with each other. This gave me confidence while traveling to all the countries I went to where English was not the primary language.

When I first arrived in Paris, I didn’t expect to experience major bouts of culture shock, but soon enough I was proven wrong. The Parisian lifestyle is different from that of any part of America. I was quick to judge and compare it to the US, but the longer I was there I learned to appreciate the French culture. Now, I am proud to tell people that it was one of my favorite places to visit.

Studying abroad brought me out of my comfort zone in more ways than one, and I am very grateful for the experience. As someone that was always hesitant to speak to new people or try new things, I am thankful that acting that way wasn’t an option while abroad. Studying abroad has changed my perspective on traveling for the better, and I cannot wait to go back to Europe.

Home Again, Spring 2023

By Syvanna Bay, Class of 2024, Business, Award $5,000

Syvanna Bay holding a pile of fresh spaghetti in her hands

Upon completing my semester abroad in Rome, I can wholeheartedly say that I have grown as an individual and acquired many global competencies. Living in another country that I had never visited before has opened my eyes to the beautiful cultures, foods, and experiences that are out there in the world.

I was initially very nervous to leave home for so long, but Rome became my second home within a matter of weeks! Having been born and raised in the Bronx, I never had much of an appreciation for my Italian heritage, specifically my Sicilian heritage. I got the opportunity to travel to Sicily and I was awestruck by its beauty. From the street food to the local markets to the beautiful beaches, I felt more in touch with my heritage and culture.

I also began to appreciate the architecture and history that is present on every street in Europe. Seeing things like the Trevi fountain, Pantheon, and La Sagrada Familia was a great learning experience for me. I feel more informed and knowledgeable about the culture. Even now, back home in the US, I’ll be listening to music or watching TV and I’ll recognize references to things I’ve seen abroad (like in Ed Sheeran’s song “Barcelona”).

While living in Rome, I became more patient. There were instances of language and cultural barriers (for example, iced coffee doesn’t exist in Rome!). I simply adjusted my eating and social habits to avoid confusion and frustration.

Part of studying abroad is learning how to adjust and adapt to the new environment around you. I also gained insight on European politics while being abroad, specifically the European sentiment on immigration and open borders.

My experience in Rome was unforgettable and one that I will cherish for the rest of my life. I feel like a more well-rounded, well-traveled, and well-versed individual. Thank you, Gilman Fund, for this incredible opportunity!

Home Again, Spring 2023

By Alivia Caba, Class of 2024, Marketing, Award $4,000

Alivia Caba wearing sunglasses taking a selfie

As I continue working toward my undergraduate degree at St. John’s University on the Queens campus, I can confidently say that studying abroad has positively impacted me as a student and individual since my return. Looking back on my arrival to Rome, I have learned so much through my personal, travel, and educational experiences.

Culture shock was not uncommon during the beginning weeks of studying abroad. However, I acquired cultural awareness as I continued through the rest of my months in Europe. This awareness gave me the opportunity to differentiate among the countries I traveled to in regard to the values, beliefs, social norms, and cultures. This exposure enhanced my social skills, problem-solving skills, and my perspective to the various ways individuals live.

One day in Rome I walked into a boutique without knowing that the store employee only spoke Italian. However, during my time abroad I had been practicing Italian in classes with friends and even workers nearby campus. Being that it was my first experience where I did not speak the native language, my efforts to adjust to the employee’s comfortability by speaking Italian made me feel a greater connection to the world around me. By reflecting on the differences from language to culture in comparison to my home, it helped me to better recognize the values that define me and to become more open to how others live.

Since my return, I have been asked questions such as, “Where did you travel to?” or “What was your favorite place?” While traveling plays a crucial role in my growth as an individual, I was also influenced by my classes with Italian professors where I learned about global issues regarding immigration in Europe, including refugees, asylum seekers, poverty and inequality, and different rules of law depending on the European country. 

I am fortunate that I have had the pleasure of being in nine countries and 17 cities. Each location has affected my personal development; I have gained a clearer global perspective.