Indiana University Overseas Study

The “ugly American” stereotype is so often perpetuated, that it is often assumed that all Americans are the same: loud, arrogant, and disrespectful. Sitting down at a restaurant in Prague, the waitress asks where I am from and openly rolls her eyes and grunts after hearing my response. Is it fair?  No.  But I can see why it happens.  A little over halfway through my semester, I have witnessed the “ugly American” stereotype being fulfilled in 4 different countries and in over 10 cities.

While on a tour of a museum in Budapest, a couple of American students walking alongside me were making fun of our Hungarian guide’s accent. They were laughing so loudly that it was difficult for me to hear what the guide was saying.  Loud and disrespectful – the “ugly American” stereotype.  Once I went to a restaurant in a small town near Rome with some of my classmates.  The restaurant did not have menus and none of the employees spoke any English, so needless to say we had a very difficult time ordering.  The owner of the restaurant, however, was very kind and patient and did his best to explain some of their best items.  One of my classmates was frustrated at the owner’s inability to speak English, and after he left the table, he called him an idiot.  Openly expressing the arrogant attitude that everyone should speak English -  the “ugly American” stereotype.  In Italy, people dress modestly and always for the season. For women, this means tights under skirts and dresses from October to May. Every weekend that I go out in Rome I see young, American study abroad students wearing short, tight dresses with bare legs in February. Dressing inappropriately – the “ugly American” stereotype.

Castel Sant'Angelo

My friends and I in front of Castel Sant’Angelo.

I was told that studying abroad would widen my perspective, and it has.  Through conversations with foreigners and observations of many American tourists and students, I have discovered why Americans are perceived so negatively internationally.  Of course, the majority of American tourists are perfectly respectful when in foreign countries, but it is those who are not that stand out and are the most memorable.  In one of my courses at school, we discussed “cultural intelligence,” which is the ability to observe one’s surroundings and adapt one’s behavior accordingly.  Tall, fair, and blonde with camera in hand – there is no hiding that I am a foreigner, but I do my best to blend in.  Each time I travel somewhere new, I become more culturally intelligent.  I have learned to be more observant of my surroundings, and to dress and act accordingly.  My friends and I have become more conscious of our noise level, and aim to never be the loudest in a restaurant. I always try my best to speak in a country’s native language before assuming that someone can speak English.  So next time you travel outside of the United States, put in a little extra effort to be more culturally aware, and let’s put an end to this stereotype.


Studying abroad, just as anything in life, comes with its ups and downs. Having lived in Spain for seven months I consider myself lucky to have run into such few conflicts or difficulties. At the beginning of every study abroad experience students are briefed on all the possible setbacks that could happen while living in a different country. However, no matter how many times we are told to watch out for pickpockets or told what to do in case of an emergency it is hard to believe that anything bad can or will happen to you while abroad.

soccer match

Friendly soccer match between Spain and Italy

One of the greatest fears of anyone traveling to Europe are the ever so infamous pickpockets. I cannot count the times I have been warned to watch my pockets while on the metro, never carry anything valuable into touristy areas or never take my eyes off my purse. While I definitely take precaution with my personal items while traveling I have never had an issue before and never believed that I would be pickpocketed. However, just a few weeks ago while taking a jam-packed metro to watch the Spanish national soccer team play Italy in a friendly match that is just what happened. The thought of possible pickpockets at such a crowded event definitely crossed my mind, however when my iPhone was taken right from my pocket I was in complete shock. To make matters worse I was then left with no way to take photographs of my favorite Spanish soccer stars during the game. While losing your phone has to be one of the greatest fears of any college-aged student, I can now say, after having gone a few weeks without a phone, that it is not nearly as bad as it seems. Sure, I am using a wind-up alarm clock from the 80s and communicating with friends and family via email, but I can honestly say that not having a phone has helped me not to waste my time abroad on Facebook or snapchat.

Las Fallas

One of many public sculptures created by local artists in celebration of Las Fallas.

Nearly a week after the mild crisis of losing my phone my friends and I went on a trip to Valencia Spain for a local festival called Las Fallas. Las Fallas is a festival unique to the city of Valencia that celebrates the beginning of spring, however it can best be described as a weeklong, nonstop, out of control party. Due to the popularity of Las Fallas many travel companies in Madrid offer low-priced bus rides to Valencia for the festival. However, these cheap rides come at a price. Buses left Madrid for Valencia at nine in the morning and did not return to Madrid until six a.m. In other words, I chose to go on a trip that entailed exploring a new city for nearly 21 hours straight with no sleep, all for the low price of twenty euros. The trip went well up until about 2 a.m. when pure exhaustion and confusion started to kick in. After losing our group my friend Clayton and I wandered the city in search of a place to wait and stay out of the cold until our bus’ departure at 6 a.m. Thinking we had plenty of time we started to look for a taxi around 5 a.m. to take us back to the meeting point. However, we soon came to realize that catching a taxi in Valencia is no small feat. Due to the lack of taxis in Valencia and innumerable amount of people in the city that night we soon realized that we would have to find an alternative route to the bus. At this point, pure panic started to set in. Now, nearly 5:50 in the morning with ten minutes to go before the bus left my friend called my nearly non-functioning Spanish cell phone to tell me that the bus would not be waiting on anyone and that I could try finding another bus the next day. With just ten euro in my pocket I then realized that I would be stranded in a foreign city with absolutely no way home. However, just at that moment, my friend was able to catch us a cab. I had never ran so fast in my life, but finally, exhausted, delirious and in tears I reached the bus that would take me home to Madrid.

The setbacks that present themselves while abroad, though tough and sometimes annoying, are a true test to the flexibility and ability to overcome difficulty that students who chose to study abroad possess. No one ever told us that studying abroad would be easy, and if they did I would not have been driven to do so. Studying abroad has taught me a number of things, and not just foreign language skills. The personal growth that I have experienced during my time in Spain is something that I believe to be unique to a study abroad experience. I am now fully confident that I can take on anything, anywhere.

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Kaleb McCain

It was one in the morning, I was thirsty, and after an entire day of airports, planes, and immigration troubles, my brain was too fried for me to speak any language, much less Spanish. The most I could explain to the driver was that I was a student from the United States as I passed by my first sights, sounds, and smells of Lima from the backseat of a taxi. We flew through neighborhood after neighborhood, barrio after barrio, down highways, avenues, and allies. I could feel the pulse of the city beating around me like the rhythmic thumping of a cajón. Casinos, skyscrapers, houses, gente, all filled the streets as we zipped along to the house I would call mi casa for the next five months.

El Malecón Sunset

The end of my first full day in Lima. Sunset over the Pacific as seen from El Malecón.

It doesn’t seem right, but already a month has passed since that surrealist midnight trip from the airport to my host home in Miraflores. Since then I’ve enrolled in classes (no Monday or Friday classes!), familiarized myself with a few of the combi routes, attended concerts, traveled outside of the city, tasted a variety of Peruvian foods, and met plenty of wonderful people who have helped me adjust to life here in Lima. Being reduced to basic grammar amidst this process in a new megalopolis is a humbling experience that can only be equated to childhood; that first night agua and gracias were the only words I could manage to sputter before passing out. Luckily, I’ve been placed into a house with a wonderfully sweet señora, Laura, whose daughter, Laura (but we’ll call her Laurita) is a professor at the university I’m attending – Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú. From the beginning, I’ve been blessed with a kind translator and mentor for a hermanastra, in addition to a caring and friendly host madre. My Spanish, or Castellano, is improving slowly but surely. While I can keep up with the majority of my professors’ lectures, I still have to ask people on the streets to repeat themselves, which generally leads to them talking louder instead of slower (I said I can’t understand, not that I can’t hear). I can order food, buy cellphone minutes, explain directions to taxi cab drivers, and hear which routes the cobradores are yelling from the windows of buses. However, I still lack the confidence to approach Peruvian students and start a conversation, something I’m hoping to improve upon moving forward.

Surviving as a foreigner – as a gringo – within a city of 8 million people in Latin America has led me to rediscover a simple fact of life: every day is a learning experience and every moment, place, and person is an opportunity to learn from. After one month abroad, I feel that I’ve learned more about my own culture, about my own experiences, and about myself than I ever have before.

And yet, how can I truly translate those experiences? How will you understand what I’ve felt after hearing the soulful melodies of a Quechan folk singer and her charango? How can you know what it is to sink your feet into the sand while looking down upon the oasis of Huacachina after a 5am hike to the top of the dune? Will words truly give you a sense of the taste of a pisco sour hitting the back of your throat, or ceviche on your tongue? How many adjectives does it take in order for you to smell the smoked sandwiches of La Lucha drift across the avenue as you sit in Parque Kennedy petting a tabby cat? Can my photos truly place you there on the beach of Huanchaco as you watch the sunset wash the Pacific in a thousand pastels of pink, orange, and red, the outline of surfers and caballitos set amongst the waves? Sure I can write it in a blog, take a picture, maybe even record a video, but the truth is that experience, unlike language, is untranslatable. “Se hace camino al andar.”


My travel companion Dink taking in the early morning view of Huacachina.

Now that I’ve finally fallen into the rhythm of classes, with each passing day, life in Lima is becoming more comfortable. Sure, I miss the sights and smells of springtime in Bloomington. Yes, I’m sad that there is no pizza here that can hold a candle to Mother Bear’s cheesy goodness. Claro, I miss my friends, my family, and my cat. However, the kindness and guidance of my friends, host family, and even strangers, has helped to curb my homesickness by making me feel that my new home is here in Lima.

A fluffy host sister.

A fluffy host sister, Misky, always helps me feel at home.

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Half Way There


I recently celebrated my six-month anniversary here in Madrid, Spain. It is crazy to think that I have been away from my friends, family and home for half a year. The fact that my time is half over has left me with mixed feelings. I can now say that I have successfully survived my first semester at a foreign university, have nearly completely adapted to a new way of life and survived a full six months abroad without any sign of extreme homesickness. When I look back at my time in Madrid I cannot believe all that I have accomplished and how fast time has gone by.

Templo de Debod

Exploring Madrid – Templo de Debod

When I first decided to study abroad for an academic year instead of a semester I had plenty of doubts. People warned me that I would miss home, fellow students told me I was crazy for choosing to miss out on an entire year in Bloomington and my family and friends begged me not to leave for such a long period of time. I also pondered all of these ideas before leaving. Right before I left for Madrid I again thought that I was completely crazy for choosing to leave my home for a year and I was overwhelmingly worried about the length of time I would be spending in a different country. However, the moment my flight landed in Madrid any doubt I had was left in the United States and I have never looked back.

Now that I am half way through my study abroad experience it is a great time to assess what I have accomplished and how I have changed during my time here in Spain. First, my language skills have drastically improved, as has my understanding of Spanish culture. The small cultural things that once annoyed me I have now found myself doing. I seem to have adapted the “no pasa nada” mentality that is ever so present in Spanish society. However, as proud as I am to have integrated into Spanish society I have a feeling that showing up late to everything, walking at a turtle-like pace and not eating dinner till midnight or later will not cut it once I get back to the states. At the beginning of the year my director told us that by the time we left we would find ourselves so accustomed to the Spanish way of life that we would grow to resent cultural costumes in the United States. At the time I thought she was crazy but I can now say that the thought of passing people speaking English on the street and shaking hands rather than kissing someone hello scares the living daylights out of me.

Basilica de la Almudena

Basilica de la Almudena

Knowing that my time in Spain is half way over has left me both happy and sad. I am so excited to return home in a few short months to see my family for the first time in almost a year. I am excited to eat all of my favorite foods, watch my favorite TV shows and enjoy all my favorite American things. However, at the same time I cannot believe how fast time has gone by and how quickly I will be leaving a place I now consider home. The past six months I have spent in Spain are without a doubt the greatest of my life and I can only hope that the next few months before I head back home will be even better.

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Papa Francesco

Megan Shaffer

Every Wednesday morning that the pope is in Rome, there is a “papal audience,” where visitors and Catholic pilgrims can come see the pope.  Papal audiences are held outside of St. Peter’s Basilica and are a sort of “mini mass,” with prayers, readings from the bible, a homily, and a blessing from the pope (when I was there, the words of the pope were repeated in seven different languages!).  The event is free, but you have to get a ticket in advance because it can get extremely crowded, with thousands of attendees.

St. Peter's Basilica

Papal audience outside St. Peter’s Basilica

I was raised Catholic, attending mass every Sunday.  Although I no longer practice the religion, I found the papal audience to be an incredibly exciting experience.  It felt like I was at a sporting event.  Before the pope made his appearance, there were many groups of  students and religious pilgrims that were announced over the loudspeaker.  The groups would cheer, chant, and even wave flags in the air after hearing their names.  There were people holding up signs, which included messages to the pope and the names of the groups with which they came to the papal audience.  When Pope Francis (or as the Italians say, Papa Francesco) finally made an appearance, the crowd went nuts.  People cheered and stood on their chairs, trying to catch a glimpse and a picture of the pope as he made a lap around the crowd in his “Popemobile.”  The people nearest the edges would hold out their babies, in the hopes that the pope would stop and bless them.

Pope Francesco

Pope Francesco

I feel as though Catholics often get a bad rap for being extremely conservative and unaccepting of those who do not follow the principles of the Catholic faith.  The Pope, although not directly reforming the laws of the Catholic church, is reforming its outlook.  Instead of condemning those who do not follow the laws, Pope Francis has emphasized the importance of acceptance and respect.  When addressing the issue of gays within the church, he said, “Who am I to judge?”  One of the core values of Christianity is love: to love even your enemies, because they are all the children of God.  Regardless of whether or not you are a member of the Catholic faith, the pope is an important world leader.  He preaches values which are applicable to all humans, regardless of their beliefs.  I think what made the papal audience such an exciting event was simply being in the presence of such an important, inspirational figure.

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Megan Shaffer

I had given very little thought about what cultural differences I might come in contact with prior to departing for Italy.  I, of course, had assumptions of what Italy would be like.  Some of these assumptions were based upon stereotypes: olive-skinned people with dark hair and coffee shops and pasta on every corner.  Some of these assumptions were based upon what I had heard: there would be a lot of English speakers and flirtatious, Italian men.  After a week in Italy, very few of my assumptions proved to be accurate.


espresso with breakfast

Making morning espresso with a moka pot

First off, not everyone looks stereotypically “Italian” here.  There are people who have immigrated here from all over the world, and just like in the United States, people do not all look the same.  It is true that pasta, pizza, coffee, and wine are sold on nearly every street in Rome.  Although these items are also available in America, it is very different here.  Coffee is not bought at Starbucks, and drunk on the way to work or class.  Coffee (which is the American equivalent to an espresso shot) is drunk standing up at the counter of a local coffee shop, while chatting with those around you.  Pizza is not delivered to your doorstep in a box.  You go to a local pizzeria, where you are cut off a rectangular piece of pizza, which is folded in half and can be taken to go.  Alcohol is not consumed in the “American college style.”  Alcohol is consumed for the taste, not for the feeling, with wine and beer often accompanying lunch and dinner.

Pizza al Taglio

Pizza al Taglio – take-away pizza by the slice

Contrary to what I was told, not everyone here speaks English.  In fact, I’ve found that very few people speak English well.  Not knowing the language has resulted in a number of issues.  First, I get lost…alot.  Not knowing where you are in a large, foreign city where you do not speak the language is extremely frustrating.   Second, I never know what food I am ordering.  Sandwiches and pizzas often do not have signs indicating their type.  Is it turkey, is it prosciutto?  I just point and pay, not really knowing what I’m going to get.  Third, I cannot ask for help.  My arm got stuck in a bus door once, and I didn’t know how to tell the driver to stop and open the door.  It was painful, and awkward.  Fourth, people will come up to me and begin speaking in Italian, and it makes me feel so stupid.  I just shrug and say, “English.”  Lastly, Italian men do not holler at women in the streets.  I am no more acknowledged walking down the streets of Rome than I am walking down the streets of Indianapolis.


Aperitivo – a small snack and drink before dinner

The beauty of living in a foreign country is that it not only allows you to learn about another culture, but it also allows you to learn more about your own culture.  For example, I had never given much thought to the concept of time prior to coming to Italy.  If I had to be somewhere at noon, I got there a few minutes before noon.  I didn’t think anything about it.  I pretty quickly discovered that in Italy, no one is in any real hurry.  There is “Italian time” and “American time.”  If an American says that they want to meet you for dinner at 7:30, they will be there at 7:25.  If an Italian says that they want to meet you for dinner at 7:30, they will be there at 7:45.  In the United States, being on time is extremely important, and as a result, everyone always seems to be in a rush.  Italy, as a whole, is much more laid back.  Waiters wait to bring the check until you ask for it.  Businesses might open on time, they might open 20 minutes late.  What’s the hurry?

The United States, in general, is a very ethnocentric nation.  Living abroad has helped me to be more open in my views and my perception of what is “normal.”  So instead of complaining about the changes in my life, I have learned to be open to the customs of the country and to both adapt and accept them for what they are.  Do I miss taking a giant mug of Folger’s to class every morning?  Yes.  I have grown to love the strong flavor of espresso? Oh yes.

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Kaleb McCain

As the snow melts away in Bloomington, drawing the students out to the grassy fields of Woodlawn for their first game of frisbee, Spring begins to sneak her sunny, blue skies in between the polar vortex days of an Indiana winter. However, at this moment I am not concerned with having a picnic in Dunn meadow or taking a peaceful walk down the B-line trail because I’m too busy scrambling to line up my ducks before departing for a semester abroad in Lima, Perú – moving out of my apartment, receiving all the necessary vaccines, notifying my bank, buying a current converter for appliances, packing my bag, getting to Atlanta to catch our departure flight, finding a host family in Lima, filing my taxes, having that final meal or drink with friends and family, and yes, even writing this blog. But don’t pity me; I’ve had over two months to prepare for these moments.


Never a bad idea to pack extra underwear.

On Tuesday, I vacated “the condo” – a third story flat located in the Villas (Stadium Crossing to the newer generation of students). “The condo” housed a variety of occupants including my two older brothers, a couple of cousins, and plenty of wonderful friends over the last seven years. Yes, there were a few bad apples that brought bedbugs amongst other things, but the end of such a grandiose residential dynasty only adds to the feeling that I’m closing one door (literally) and opening another.

During my final visit with my grandma we played a couple games of Yahtzee – the standard activity anytime someone comes to visit Grandma. As the dice clattered around inside the cup, I found myself thinking about one of Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcasts. In the podcast, Mr. Carlin discussed how remarkable and extraordinary a situation must be in order for a population to realize that they themselves are living through a moment of significant change in history. Then a thought struck me – I as an individual am living through a moment of significant change in my own life. Fate is funny. Sometimes these moments are brought about by some minute decision, such as deciding to eat lunch in the Wright food court with a cute girl, which leads to being in a romantic relationship for nearly two years (she’s studying in Lima as well!). But no, this was one of those momentous decisions, like taking a new job or having a child, that can have such a great effect on one’s life that you feel the ripples of consequence stretch back from the future and alter your reality before the event has even transpired. “It’ll be a wonderful experience,” said Grandma as we wrapped up our game of Yahtzee. Wonderful is only the tip of the iceberg.

The parts of my life I didn’t stuff into my backpack now lie stacked in the entrance of my parent’s home. Kitchenware, camping gear, clothes, office supplies, a couple guitars, and random trinkets sit in duct-taped boxes until my return in August. August. Five months. I can’t help but wonder, what all will happen while I’m gone? How much will my sister-in-law’s new kitten grow? Will Tom Crean learn how to coach offense against a zone? Will my little cousin be walking and talking? It seems like a long time, but I know it will fly by before I even have time to grasp it.

Last Meal

The last lunch.

With a little luck and a lot of help, I’ve managed to line up the majority of the aforementioned ducks in the last couple weeks. There were definitely moments of anxiety brought on by the sheer magnitude of the decisions and plans being laid in front of me like a set of trembling dominoes. I didn’t even know where I would be staying in Lima until two weeks ago. Who wouldn’t feel that anxiety? I’m an American student who grew up in rural central Indiana, traveling to a country I’ve never been to where a language I can just barely understand is spoken, to live in an enormous city with a woman I’ve never met. But hey, life’s an adventure. Either the reality of the decision has escaped me or my anxieties have simply subsided, leaving behind a sense of excitement, curiosity, anticipation, and wonder that are smoking inside me like the barbecue ribs that I chowed down on for my final lunch in the United States.

View all posts by Kaleb


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