Why did you choose SYA?
One night, my parents and I attended a presentation about SYA at Milton Academy and we were absolutely blown away by the organization of the program, the authenticity of the study abroad experience and the promises the director made. To be completely honest, I didn’t believe everything that was promised. How could a 16-year-old become fluent in a foreign language in a few months and then begin to dream in that language? How could I learn to love another family that isn’t my own and call them “mom” and “dad”?
But in the end, I knew that it was too good of an opportunity to pass up and with the help of a scholarship from SYA, I left for Viterbo. I still can’t believe that everything, and I mean everything, that the director promised was delivered. I have found this to be an extremely rare quality in organizations and not always the case with study abroad programs. I am thankful that I was fully and authentically integrated into the Italian language and culture.
What impact did the year at SYA have on your college career and beyond?
I studied art history for the first time when I was abroad at SYA Italy and was introduced to ancient and Roman art right at the source. This subject quickly became one of my greatest passions and I knew I wanted to major in it in college. This led to me to do research on the best art history and I really couldn’t imagine returning to the U.S. to study from a projector and text book after having lectures in Italian right in front of masterpieces in the Vatican Museum. I eventually found the American University of Paris (AUP), a university that was similar to SYA in its pedagogy and mission to create global citizens. In Paris, I studied art history every day in arguably the greatest museums, galleries and libraries in the world.
I also decided to attend AUP so that I could have a second overseas adventure. While French didn’t come as quickly or as easily as Italian did (I never lived with a host family while in France!), I really enjoy learning about a new culture and studying a new language. And there’s the added benefit of being only a two-hour plane ride back to Italy.
How is your year abroad benefiting you now?
First, and most important, I feel like a true global citizen. While abroad at SYA Italy, I became more open-minded and adaptable. These skills served me well when I moved to different cities, met new students and collaborated with co-workers from all over the world.
Secondly, it led me to study in Paris and then Edinburgh, and eventually to work back in Paris. I have met so many amazing people that have become close friends and I don’t think I would have gotten to know them otherwise — SYA truly changed the trajectory of my future. I should also note that I am still very close with my friends from SYA and see them whenever possible.
What are some of your biggest challenges?
Something that I often struggle with is wrapping my head around my generation’s dependence on social media and what will become of it. I believe it is an incredibly important tool for brands and it can also be helpful in bringing people closer together. However, I also believe it has led to more severe issues. As a result, I find most people in my generation are constantly planning for the future instead of living in the present.
Studying abroad in Europe, both with SYA and afterwards, has actually forced me to live more in the present. When I was a student at SYA, most social media platforms that are used today didn’t even exist. My dinners with my host family or afternoons in the piazzas eating gelato with friends are still some of my happiest memories. I worry about young people who become so connected at a much younger age and if they’ll have these same types of experiences.
But at the same time, without these advances in social media I couldn’t talk to my family in the US or my friends spread across the globe so easily. I am someone who does not necessarily want to keep checking on my social accounts but end up doing so. It is a topic that challenges and worries me.
What would you say is your biggest achievement so far?
My biggest achievement to date would probably be graduating first in my class from the University of Edinburgh in my master’s marketing program. I didn’t begin the year with a lot of academic knowledge of the field and the program itself was one of the most difficult things I have gone through. I feel extremely proud and honored to have graduated top of my class, in part because I feel my marketing knowledge and skills are already paying off in my career.
SYA taught me to face challenges head-first and the resilience I gained from my year abroad at SYA Italy definitely contributed to my academic success in Edinburgh.
How would you describe your work at News-Decoder?
News-Decoder is a not-for-profit with a mission to help schools create better global citizens. My role as community engagement and business development manager involves working closely with our academic and media partners, managing the organization’s internal and external communications and strategizing with the founder, Nelson Graves. We offer a platform for youth from all over the world to engage with global issues and to get outside their comfort zone by reporting on the world’s biggest problems and connecting with our correspondents and other youth.
SYA is one of News-Decoder’s founding members, so my work keeps me in regular contact with the current students at SYA. News-Decoder has one student ambassador at each SYA campus. These students and I often chat informally about how fantastic studying abroad during high school is and about all of the things that change over the course of the nine months. Moreover, I get to promote the great multimedia content that the SYA students produce and publish on our website.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
My mom always tells me, “live the life you’ve always imagined.” As a young professional just starting my career, I always remind myself to march to the beat of my own drum and live the life that I want to live.
Any other fun stories to share?
Yes! The last time I was back in Viterbo, my host family prepared a big meal to welcome my boyfriend and me into their home for lunch. After we said our hellos and sat down, my host mom suddenly fired several questions in Italian at me because she wanted to make sure that I didn’t lose my language skills. Some things, no matter how much time goes by, never change. And what a beautiful thing that is.
About Alexandra Gray IT'13
Aside from returning to the U.S. for her final year of high school at Moses Brown School (Providence), ever since Alexandra left for Viterbo with her SYA class, she has lived in Europe. Alexandra studied art history and international business at the American University of Paris. While in Paris, she obtained an internship at a travel start-up that eventually led her to work as a freelancer while completing a master's degree in marketing at the University of Edinburgh. Following her graduation in 2018, she began working as the community engagement and business development manager at News-Decoder in Paris, a nonprofit news service for young people to learn about international affairs and engage in a borderless conversation. Alexandra still maintains a close relationship with SYA friends and her host family, and she tries at visit Viterbo at least once a year.
Pictured above, from left: Alexandra with Lauren Heuser and Nelson Graves of News-Decoder; Alexandra in Edinburgh; Alexandra in Viterbo with her host sister.
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