Rachel-Jean Firchau ‘15 is a PR/Ad and Communication Studies double major who studied abroad in Florence, Italy in the Spring of 2013. She shares her journey from study abroad to her career in travel, and how her journeys have helped show her just how far she was capable of going.
Hey there! My name is Rachel, and I graduated from Chapman in 2015. I was born and raised on the island of Oahu into a multiracial (Filipina and Caucasian) family. By the time I was 13, I made the decision that I would go to college outside of Hawaii so I could experience the rest of the world. That’s where Chapman (and studying abroad) came in! Studying abroad is such an amazing opportunity to take when you’re young, because it allows you to not only experience a new place for a long amount of time, but to get to do so alongside friends and peers who are on the same journey as you. As a self-proclaimed extroverted introvert, I didn’t realize back then (I studied abroad in 2013) just how pivotal this experience would be in shaping who I’ve become in the years since.
My Study Abroad Experience (Spring, 2013)
To give you an idea of my personal journey through study abroad, I want to rewind to the very first day that my semester started. I found myself at the airport in Florence by myself at the end of January 2013, flustered and anxious after a 24-hour trip from Hawaii. The first moments after landing are some of the most intimidating, because you have no idea what to expect, how to carry yourself, or who to reach out to if you have questions. You’re hyper-aware of all the warnings your parents gave you before saying goodbye (watch out for pickpockets, never give out your address, don’t accept anything from strangers…), and you’re terrified you’ll make a mistake. All these worries flashed through my head on repeat, and the first few weeks were honestly a little taxing as I tried to perfect my Italian, navigate the twisty, windy city that was my new home, and put in the effort to make some real friends along the way.
As time went on, I found my strength in numbers. I made a handful of both local and American friends I could feel confident walking through the city and going on weekend adventures with. Within a month, we were taking trips to Paris and Ibiza and even Greece on a whim, and even starting to boldly use our choppy Italian to navigate daily life together.
By the middle of the semester, on occasions where I couldn’t find anyone to travel with, I booked a spot on a group trip with strangers who were also studying abroad in Europe, and I ‘solo’ traveled for the first time to join that group in Portugal. Once the end of the semester rolled around, I was taking overnight trains to new countries and joining on group excursions by myself to cities throughout Italy.
The girl standing at the airport just 4 months prior could have never, ever expected herself to be capable of any of this. But you learn a lot about yourself when you put yourself in a new and unfamiliar situation. If there is anything I have realized, it’s that I am so much bolder and braver when I challenge myself in new and unfamiliar situations. It’s in that sweet spot of vulnerability and openness to new things that you really grow to new heights. And that’s a lesson I’ve taken with me in the years since returning from Florence, graduating from Chapman, and navigating the uncharted territory of building a career.
What I Do Now
Since study abroad, I’ve landed a travel-facing job in digital advertising and launched a travel blog called Rachel Off Duty. Now, I spend the bulk of my time sharing stories and advice to help other young women get out and see the world. In the past 6+ years, I’ve traveled solo, with my boyfriend, and with friends, but there is something really special about traveling in a group that is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. When you travel in a group, you get to share first-time experiences and discoveries with others. You get to let new destinations and cultures move you, and you get to see the impact these places have on those around you, too.
My firm stance on the power of group travel ended up launching me into the newest project I am working on in my career: being the brand ambassador for Contiki, a travel company specializing in social trips across 6 continents for 18-35 year olds. I recently went on a 9-day trip to the Mediterranean (Spain, France, Monaco, Italy, and Vatican City) with Contiki, and it was one of the most incredible 9 days of my life. Now, I get to share just how awesome I think Contiki is, and why everyone should experience at least 1 Contiki trip in their lives, with the world!
Six years on from study abroad and several solo and group trips later, here are 5 lessons I have learned in my travels that I believe all young, open-minded travelers will find along the way.
5 Lessons I Believe Study Abroad, and Group Travel in General, Can Teach You:
- That you are more powerful, and more capable, than you ever imagined possible once you step outside your bubble
- That people are far more similar than you might expect
- That a smile, a positive nonverbal cue, and a couple of words learned in the local language can go a seriously long way
- That differences don’t have to be feared
- How incredible the tiny, but mighty, space you occupy in the world can be
In a lot of ways, we become the best version of ourselves when we travel, because of the 5 lessons I mentioned above. If there’s anything I wish I knew when I was in college, it’s that I should take the leap and seek out new, unfamiliar experiences more often.
So, how do we get these experiences as college students trying to graduate in 4 years?
Adding More Travel to Your Life (even if you’re still in school):
Take a look at the programs available to you to see what works with your schedule and goals. My recommendation? Let the programs guide your decision, not the destination! I would not have picked Florence if it weren’t for the PR classes available, and it ended up being the best decision I ever made. That said, while full-semester study and summer international internship programs are incredible, they aren’t always ideal for everyone. Consider traveling over interterm or summer on a Travel Course instead – there are programs available for both.
Find short- or long-term opportunities to go abroad and contribute to the local community. Vetted, ethical volunteer organizations will ensure you are doing something that has an impact (not just something that looks good on paper). If you can, seek out volunteer programs aligned with your studies, like those focused on public health, teaching, or caring for wildlife.
You don’t need to wait until you are studying abroad to take advantage of your winter, spring, and summer breaks and start traveling. Something I wish I had known when I was in college was that there are countless programs ranging anywhere from 3 days to several months that are available to young adults looking to go abroad, especially for their first time. You get to travel in the comfort and safety of a small (or large!) group, all while feeling empowered to navigate the world and learn about local cultures along the way.
*For Chapman students looking to take a trip during interterm, spring break, or summer, I recommend looking into Contiki! My code, CONTIKIRACHEL, will save you 10% off any 7+ day trip you choose.