First year away: An untraditional introduction to NYU life

Some NYU students choose to immerse themselves in a new culture instead of New York City for their first year.


Aaliya Luthra

Many first-years in Liberal Studies and Stern have spent their first years of college abroad, immersing themselves in different cultures outside of New York City. (Illustration by Aaliya Luthra)

Madeline Carpinelli, Staff Writer

As one of NYU’s more unique study abroad offerings, students in Liberal Studies and the Stern School of Business have the opportunity to spend their entire first year abroad, with LS programs offered in Florence, London, Madrid or Washington, D.C., and a Stern program offered in London. These students’ experiences are a world apart — quite literally — from those of the typical first-year in New York City. Adjusting to life as a new college student becomes much more complex for first-year abroad students, who are adapting to a new country, language and culture as well.

As a part of her program, first-year Grace Zhang, who is in the Liberal Studies Core program, will take a set of core-curriculum classes for her first two years, before transferring to another school within NYU to complete her degree. She’s studying at NYU Florence this year, but that wasn’t her initial plan when she applied to college. 

“I actually applied to the CAS program,” Zhang said. “Then, when I got my acceptance letter, it said that I was expected to go to Florence, and I kind of just took that as a fortuitous opportunity. I really liked art history too, so it was a win-win situation.”

At NYU Madrid, Global Liberal Studies first-year Alex Piccio takes the same core classes as Zhang, but will continue the program, making GLS her major, instead of transferring to another NYU school. The benefits of studying internationally are particularly important to Piccio, who hopes to work for the United Nations or pursue international law after she graduates.

“My language skills have improved greatly,” Piccio said. “I feel much more in tune with what’s going on in the world around me, and I am always discovering something new here.”

Saijel Burkett is a student of the Stern first-year cohort in London. Prospective students can indicate their interest in the program, which currently consists of only 30 students, in their application to Stern.

“I really enjoy learning about other cultures and experiencing new ways of life,” Burkett said. “So I was like, ‘Oh, I get to go to London. Why not?’”

NYU students spending their first year abroad do not experience a huge “urban campus without walls” like their peers in New York. Instead, Zhang adjusts to her new life as a student on the 57-acre NYU Florence campus, situated on the grounds of a historical villa full of olive groves and gardens.

“It’s a really nice campus,” Zhang said. “There’s a valley and our dorms are on one side and most of our classes are on the other side, and we have to walk down and up the valley, but honestly the view makes up for it. Across the valley, there’s more buildings and then behind the buildings, there’s a huge garden. It’s never-ending. It’s like a maze.”

Language barriers add a particular sense of alienation to the first-year experience at NYU Madrid and NYU Florence. But for the university’s globally minded students, it’s nothing that a bit of Duolingo can’t fix.

“[Use] Duolingo before you get here,” Zhang said. “Just do it for like five weeks. That would help a lot with the basic phrases. I came without knowing anything, but my friends kind of knew their way around.”

“The language barrier can be daunting, especially when ordering at restaurants where most workers don’t speak much English,” Piccio said. “Thankfully, Madrileños are very gracious to us non-native speakers and are usually patient and willing to help.”

One experience that all European first-year-abroad students have in common is the painful student visa application process. While they bond over their shared frustration, it also causes some students to miss the first few days — or even first few weeks — of orientation events and classes.

“I can confidently say that the visa process was — excuse my language — a pain in the ass for all of us,” Piccio said. “I was relieved to find out that getting a second expedited passport is actually legal, and so I was able to travel out of the country during summer while my documents were being processed. But if I hadn’t known about that, I would probably be arriving now like some of my classmates who unfortunately missed the first two weeks of classes.”

Zhang said she also faced similar problems getting her travel documents processed in time for the start of the semester.

“My mom has a Chinese passport and she wanted to bring me to Italy, but it was impossible for her to get [a visa appointment],” Zhang said. “We basically drove all the way to the Los Angeles consulate five times. On the third time, she barged her way in and we got a visa. That was pretty annoying.”

Adjusting to a new environment, diet, school and overall lifestyle, while simultaneously fighting homesickness is a familiar first-year experience for many, whether you were desperate to leave your hometown or not. For many first-year study away students, this feeling is amplified.

“I’ve learned that no matter how sick of my home that I thought I was gonna be, I still get homesick,” Zhang said. “It does take time to get used to a new environment, but the people honestly do make it a lot better. Spending time alone and exploring the city also makes it a lot better.”

There’s no doubt that this program is a unique experience, but the tight-knit student communities and smaller-scale orientation activities inevitably mean that first-year students will get a more low-key welcome than their home campus peers. Additional events are hosted for first-year students in place of the traditional New York City NYU Welcome, although this still creates a very different introduction to life at NYU.

“I’ve been seeing all of the stories of the, ‘Oh my gosh, New York freshman week! This is what we’re doing,” Burkett said. “I’m really happy that I’m here because it still allows me to meet a lot of people, but I can see them every day and I can learn their names. I can learn things about them and actually know them. Whereas in New York, I feel like there would be too many people and too many things. It would just be a little bit too big.”

For these students, there’s no shame in saying that when they read their acceptance letter, their minds first went to, “Oh, drinking age!” If cheap vodka, dorm parties and fake IDs can be considered a defining aspect of the NYU first-year experience, then spending your first year away is a whole different world.

“A ton of people smoke and drink here,” Piccio said. “You go to the discoteca at midnight and don’t come home until after 4 a.m. Any time before 4 a.m. is ending the night early.”

Nevertheless, the easy access to alcohol and new environment require a higher level of responsibility, restraint and self-control which, unfortunately, a lot of first-years do not have.

“A lot of the kids that haven’t really drank or smoked at home, you can kind of tell that they’re abusing it a little bit,” Zhang said.

“I’m not a big drinker,” Burkett added. “I went out to a pub during the first week and I was there for three hours with everyone. We were just singing and talking about literally everything. Everyone was drinking and I just had my little cup of water. No one acted like it was weird or anything.”

First-year-away students are not only exposed to the social and cultural norms of their host country — they are also encouraged to learn from the local community in their studies, exemplifying the NYU city-as-classroom ideal. For example, Stern students at NYU London are guided through explorations of British industry and economy. Burkett recalled a planned field trip in which students got to go behind the scenes at one of the country’s biggest stadiums.

Each study away site organizes trips and experiences for students to get to know each other and explore nearby towns and regions.

“They had a Ceilidh, which is an Irish dance, and we actually learned the dances,” Burkett said. “It was really funny and everyone was laughing and smiling and joking because no one was actually doing it correctly. That one was one of the best.”

“I was a bit sad to be leaving my home in Washington behind for a whole year, and thought I was going to miss the nature there and the scenery, but there was an activity hosted here to bike around the Madrid Río that helped me feel better,” Piccio said. “When I was biking with my friends, feeling the soft breeze on my face, and seeing all the pretty trees and the happy people around the river in the park, it was like instant therapy for me and I began to feel at home in Madrid.”

There is a lot for students to get out of this experience, whether it’s checking some countries off your bucket list or gaining a broader global perspective.

“I hope to get to know my professors on a more personal level, like really understand what they’re trying to teach and honestly connect what I’m learning to the world around me,” Zhang said. “I am in the beating heart of [the] Renaissance, and we’re learning about the artwork. It’s really fun to see what you’re learning and [it comes to] fruition in real life.”

Contact Madeline Carpinelli at [email protected].