Wouldn’t It Be Awesome If … You Earned a Graduate Degree Abroad?

My friend Ali did! She returned to the states recently after earning a masters degree in Italy. She lived and worked in two different cities, traveled all over, got a degree, and met an Italian man who moved back to the states with her! A pretty successful run in Italy I’d say. Here’s her story:

Name: Alison Gemgnani
Age: 25
Where you studied abroad: Milan, Italy and Rome, Italy
How long you lived abroad: Milan (September 2008 – May 2009), Rome (June 2009 – December 2009)
Degree you received: Master in Public Management, Bocconi University School of Public Management

Why did you decide to get your masters degree abroad?
I knew I wanted to return to school for a masters degree. I was unsatisfied with my current career path and started researching different programs in Public Administration, Public Policy, and Public Management. I also looked at graduate school as an opportunity to travel abroad – be it for a semester, a year, or an internship. While conducting my search, I came across several reputable schools in Europe so I decided to apply to them, as well as some “Just kidding, I would rather stay in the US schools,” mainly in New York City.

Thankfully, I got into all the schools I applied to. The tough part was deciding. I loved the idea of going to Europe, especially Italy, for many reasons: international perspective, ability to travel, and family history. It was a difficult decision but certainly one that I do not regret. It wasn’t easy leaving friends, family and embarking on this journey alone – especially knowing I would miss birthdays, holidays, and other moments that make you long for home. All in all, I am so thankful and happy that I took this leap because it has truly shaped my perspectives, opinions, beliefs and I will always have the fondest of memories and lasting friendships from my time in Italy.

How were you legally allowed to study abroad for your program?
The program was international – we had students from India, Sweden, Russia, Honduras, Italy, Greece, South Korea, and so on – so the administration of the school helped students with the legal processes. On my end, I needed to apply for a Student Visa at the consulate in Philadelphia which required proof of financial support, proof of healthcare, and other documents stating that I was only there for study and not to take welfare from the Republic of Italy. Once I was there, I needed to a apply for two things from the Italian government: Codice Fiscale (which is the fiscal code that is similar to a social security number – just not as difficult to get) and a Permesso di Soggiorno, which is a legal “Permission to Stay,” required of anyone who plans to reside in Italy for over three months.

How did you make it work financially?
The currency exchange was very unfortunate, and living in Italy is very expensive. I relied on money I had saved, money from my parents, and student loans from the government. One benefit of my program was that it was an intensive one year program – meaning classes were held from 9 to 6 PM, Monday through Friday, every week. Because of this tight scheduling, we were able to accomplish all of the required coursework in a shorter time which financially means one year of tuition, one year of living expenses, and one year of not working.

I did open an Italian bank account for this reason: so I could make one large deposit when I arrived in Italy and then would be able withdrawal that money without having to worry about ATM fees and conversion fees. The exchange rate remained pretty constant (and horrible!) for the majority of the time I was there so it made more sense just to deposit the money and have easier access. It wasn’t always the easiest dealing with my financials as you can imagine. Sometimes I would have my parents wire money to my American account and then I would withdrawal that from an ATM (but of course there were fees attached). My best suggestion for anyone who might be thinking about earning a degree abroad is to talk to the administration at the school and ask their advice. I am sure they have dealt with similar situations and could be very helpful with this process!

How did you find a place to live?
I received the names and contact information of my classmates before leaving for Italy. I knew I wanted to have a roommate and so I reached out to everyone to see if anyone would be interested in sharing a place. My future roommate contacted me and we then decided to start searching as soon as we both arrived in Milan. Thank goodness he was Italian! We would have never found anything otherwise. It was a very nerve racking process but it proved to be an amazing experience. I would correct his papers and he would take care of paying the bills!

What’s the best part about studying abroad as an adult?
Going to Italy alone was one of the scariest things I have ever done. I was lonely, nervous, isolated, and homesick. But the second I started meeting my classmates, I never looked back. I was happy to have the experience of working for a bit and living on my own previous to attending graduate school. I was also happy to actually meet Italians in Italy! In college, study abroad programs place American students together in American dorms and they attend American classes together which is still a great experience, however; I was excited to have the opportunity for full immersion. I can truly say I experienced Italy and its culture.

Do you have advice for anyone who wants to earn a degree abroad?
It’s not easy. It can be overwhelming, but it is worth it. Find a program that suits a career path that could be pursued in the States as well. You’ll want to find work if and when you return home! Also, try to familiarize yourself with the language beforehand. This is something I did not do and really regret. Although I am trying now!

Thanks for sharing your story, Ali! I’m so jealous!

Wouldn’t It Be Awesome If … You Grew Your Own Food?

My friend Meg does! She lives in an apartment but manages to take care of a huge garden  (she rents a plot at a local community garden) and a little indoor apartment-friendly garden.

A garden allows you to eat fresh, eat local, and eat healthy. Just ask Michelle Obama who recently planted a vegetable garden at the White House — this first since Eleanor Roosevelt’s Victory Garden during World War II.  Read on for a ton of amazingly helpful information about starting your own garden.

Name: Megan Costello
Age: 24
Occupation: Outreach Specialist, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Location: Madison, WI

Why did you want to start a garden?
Wisconsin is a land of “four seasons” so you take what get. Winter is depressing so spring, summer, and fall are our chances to make up for lost time. A garden is a great way to do that. I always had a garden growing up — an 8 by 8 foot raised bed, courtesy of my pops! — so I’m somewhat familiar with our weather, soil, vegetables, etc.

What are the benefits of growing a garden?
Last year was the first year of my real outdoor gardening life. I do it because it’s a ton of fun — it makes me get up on Saturday and Sunday and go outside and appreciate the weather. The benefits are also personally rewarding. Is there nothing greater than working hard and getting something in return? I put a seed in the ground, water it, watch it, pick bugs off of it, and then it gives me ripe tomatoes.

Before gardening, I never really believed in this whole local/organic-food-tastes-better mantra. Until last year. I’ve never had tomatoes that tasted like the ones I grew. Was this what sunlight tasted like? I could eat 20 grape tomatoes in one weeding session. I ate green beans right off the plant — I’d just sit in the dirt and eat them raw and unwashed. And the broccoli — I’d eat half of it before I got home. It was the most vibrant green ever! I thought something was wrong with many of my plants until I realized that, “Oh, so this is really what food is supposed to taste and look like.

A garden is also great exercise. Getting the soil prepped in April is insanely good on the arms and shoulders. Last year I hauled about 30 wheelbarrows of mulch and spread it out myself. Watch the back! Not to mention the hours spent hunched over picking beans and weeding. I think I had stiff legs for 10 weeks straight.

As an apartment dweller, how did you manage to start both an indoor and outdoor garden? What were the first steps?
Google, google, google. I started scouring the internet. I read about friends on Facebook that had gardens. I started following fellow garden nerds on Twitter. I searched for garden blogs. I read the monthly news updates and garden manuals courtesy of my community garden — probably one of the best ‘field guides’ available for outdoor gardening.

You have to read and learn. A garden is easy: seed, dirt, water, sun. But there are timeless tricks of the trade that are important to understand. For example, I can just plant asparagus and eat some green yummies this spring, right? Wrong. Asparagus takes 2-3 years to mature. And rhubarb. And raspberries. And strawberries. Burn.

And those delicious local watermelons I see at the farmers’ market? Talk about FAIL CITY in Wisconsin’s Zone 5 region. Live and learn.

For those who don’t have access to an outdoor garden or even a porch or a stoop, I highly recommend checking out the Window Farms movement — a hydroponic, DIY indoor garden grow station.

I’m in the process of building a 3-plant air lift system indoors for herbs and greens. This will be a great supplement during long Wisconsin winters.  Check out the “How Tos” on the Window Farms website — you will not be disappointed!

And for even more ridiculously nerdy and interesting information, check out Will Allen’s Growing Power craze in Milwaukee, WI. This is DIY urban gardening like you’ve never seen before.  Fish + poop + water + plants = food.

What were the costs, time, and tools associated with your gardens?
Costs for me are very minimal.  My outdoor plot is $35 a year to rent. I pay $15 to have it rototilled in the spring. I buy about $10 worth of seeds and the rest I am able to get for free from my community garden thanks to the support of local gardens and greenhouses.  Thank you, Madison!

Time is a biggie and time is money. Initially, prepping your garden is a ton of time.  Estimate 30+ hours for a plot of my size (20×25’) to prepare the soil and get things ready for planting. I have to haul about 20+ wheelbarrows of mulch onto my plot, weed, and clear away debris. Once the plot is rototilled, the rich mulch is mixed into the nutrient-sapped soil. This process is extremely helpful and will preserver your soil in the long run. If you don’t have a rototiller? Guess what? Get digging.

Once the soil is ready and you’ve planted (minimal time), I spend about 10+ hours/week at the garden — a few times during the week and at least 4 hours during the weekend for weeding. Weeding is like traffic — no matter what route you go, at some point, you will get stuck in traffic. You will have to wait. And wait. You will have to weed. And weed.

Necessary big tools are spades (shovels), pitchforks, a hoe, and potentially a rake. Small tools: garden shears, gloves (a good pair!), hand shovel, and string.

For indoor gardening and a project like a Window Farm, the game changes drastically.  My system will be built using recycled bottles, tubing, a fish tank pump, and clay pellets.  I’m leaving the fish and poop out.

What did you plant? How much of it are you actually eating?
Well, I had a 20×25′ outdoor plot last year.  That’s 500 sqare feet or more than half the size of my apartment. YIKES.  I planted:

  • 4 sugar snap peas — yum.
  • half row of yellow beans (approximately 10 feet) — I froze a lot of these.
  • half row of green beans — amazing.
  • half row of cranberry beans — for soups!  Perfection!
  • half row of spinach — amazing.  I would say 6-8 garbage bags of spinach (14 gal size bags).
  • half row of lettuce — so much!
  • 8 tomato plants (all heirlooms – cherry, grape, zebra, black, roma, oh my!) — alas, many died due to the tomato blight, but I still had tons of tomatoes.
  • a big patch of arugula — spicy deliciousness.
  • 2 summer zucchinis — the size of toddlers.
  • 2 cucumbers (fail)
  • 16 watermelons (fail)
  • 3 yellow bell peppers (half-fail)
  • one jalapeno — salsa success!
  • 2 chives — mysteriously appeared.
  • 3 swiss chards — stalks as thick as your arms.
  • 3 siberian kales (4 feet tall)
  • 3 cauliflowers — giant heads!
  • 3 broccolis — so much!
  • 6 leeks — the size of baseball bats.
  • 15-20 golden delicious beets — beets coming out of my ears.
  • Herbs:  parsley, thyme, cilantro (2), basil (4), dill — much success!
  • Flowers:  mums, zinnias, marigolds (many kinds) — great flowers all summer!

I ate everything. I also had to give a lot away. I had grocery bags full of greens. Turns out that my friends and coworkers actually like getting free food! What I didn’t give away and I didn’t eat, I blanched and froze. I still have a few beets and beans left over — they’re great for soup and stir fry in winter.

My Window Farm adventure won’t have as big of yields. I will be growing mostly fresh herbs and greens and hope to have my hydroponic system up and running at the end of this month.

What is the best part?
Sunlight, summer weather, being outside, free food (essentially “free”), flowers on my kitchen table all summer, butterflies, fresh herbs, bringing in free food for my coworkers — office bonus points!

Last year, this bird would always come watch me when I was weeding.  This is not a joke.  It was a brown bird and she would wait for me. After I weeded, she would fly down to the ground and pick out the bugs I had uncovered from pulling weeds. This happened about eight times, but only when I was by myself. (So basically I could be making this up. But it really happened. I was like Snow White.)

What is the worst part?
Perpetual dirt under my nails. Broken nails. Calluses on my hands. Finding dirt all over my house and in the weirdest places (fridge door?  toilet?).  Destroying many pairs of shoes. Plants dying (tomato blight, bottom-rot, flooding, drought, pests). But the worst:  the first fall frost and the signal that winter was coming.

Any words of encouragement or advice for someone who’d like to start a garden?
Just start! Start small. Go get a five gallon pot and put a patio tomato in it. Start an herb box and start with the easies: basil, parsley, thyme.

Read Robin Mittenthal’s Garden Manual and How Tos — it’s comprehensive but you won’t be disappointed.

Humans have been raising crops and plants for a thousands and thousands of years so don’t think you’re incompetent.  You can do this.  I think you’ll like it.

Thank you for sharing all of this information, Meg! Follow Meg’s gardening adventures by clicking here.

Photos by Meg Costello.