Alumni Spotlight: Zak L’Italien

Stories that Shaped Us: Learning More About Yourself Abroad

Zak L’Italien is an ISA Barranquilla alumnus and a former ISA/TEAN Global Ambassador at Michigan Technological University whose experience abroad during Spring 2016 helped him achieve many of his life’s goals, including improving his literacy in Spanish, and made him discover new parts of himself.

We reached out to learn more about why he chose to go abroad with ISA Colombia and how his experience abroad has impacted him long-term. Check out his unique story below and hear his advice for others wanting to follow a similar path!

Collecting Coffee Cherries

When did your passion for travel and exploring other cultures begin?

My grandmother, Vera, was a great influence on me. Her first language was Spanish and she encouraged me and tried to foster my learning the language. We would often go on family trips to Puerto Peñasco (Rocky Pointe), Sonora, Mexico, which was a short drive from my grandparents’ home in Tucson, Arizona. I always admired her interactions with the locals, such as her natural ability to barter with street vendors and her compassion to help the local community by donating school supplies to students. My grandparents also lived abroad in many parts of the world because of my grandpa’s Air Force career. During this time, they would vacation to other countries and were exposed to a lot of different cultures, and they would spend hours showing me photos of their time in Europe, Africa, and other parts of the world.

During my childhood, I never quite appreciated moments when my grandma would teach me useful Spanish phrases, unique aspects of culture, or her thoughts on travel until she passed away just before my twelfth birthday. Around then, I began revisiting Spanish in hopes of recouping lost time. Throughout the next several years, I was rather diligent about studying Spanish on my own with Rosetta Stone-type courses, but never really had a chance to practice or solidify any level of fluency.

When I was fifteen, I also had an opportunity to do a short sixteen day tour of seven European countries with a concert band comprising high school musicians from all over the state of Michigan. This trip was an excellent experience that really jump-started my fascination of my own international travel, and opened my eyes to a completely new world that I now had the confidence to explore. While I had a great time and learned a lot during those sixteen days, I realized short-term trips didn’t allow me to learn about cultural intricacies. I knew then I needed to find a way to stay in a country long term.

What inspired you to study abroad in Barranquilla, Colombia?

Improving my Spanish was one of my main inspirations. I wanted to make my temporary home a place that was not necessarily a tourist destination – a place where I would be less likely to fall into habits of speaking English regularly, and where I knew the demographic would be kind and welcoming. This was largely my draw to Latin America.

First, I want to acknowledge that there are misconceptions about Colombia in general. In the US, we have media and content producers that profit off the country’s toughest times of drugs, violence, and displacement, namely during Pablo Escobar’s control. While the country’s image and situation has improved substantially, many people in the US continue think very negatively of the country, unfortunately.

When searching for programs through ISA, I was intrigued with Colombia because I realized I didn’t know much past American media’s portrayal. However, I knew there had to be more to the country. I then began to research more thoroughly and came across several examples of the rich culture it offers, further sparking my inspiration. To name a few of the things that I learned about Colombia before my semester: Colombia is the second most biodiverse country; it is home to the world’s second largest Carnaval celebration after Rio de Janeiro; its authors, musicians, and artists are some of the most widely known (including in countries where Spanish is not the predominant language); it is geographically very diverse, and offers interesting landscape and cityscape for whatever your interests are; it is one of the biggest producers of coffee and makes strides to increase the quality of production, while offering great variety of flavor profiles and processing methods for coffee connoisseurs, among countless other positives.

I also owe a lot of credit to my school’s International Programs and Services department at the time. One of the staff members did a Fulbright program in Colombia after college, and gave me a lot of useful tips, and was very open to talking about my aspirations, my doubts, the country’s history, and its present-day state. I applied to the program with a lot of confidence, which was great!

At the end of the day, I would say I’m not quick to judge a book by its cover, so I wanted challenge the façade created by pop media and learn what Colombia was really about.

What did you learn about yourself through these experiences and how did your time abroad impact your understanding of the world?

I have always easily adapted to my surroundings and made friends anywhere, but I didn’t quite expect myself to embrace the local language and culture as I did. While I spoke Spanish fairly well prior to my semester in Barranquilla, I didn’t have any identifiable accent other than generally “foreign”. When I began spending time with my new friends and learning the intricacies and expressions of “costeñol” (i.e., the regional Spanish dialect of the Atlantic coast of Colombia), I began to realize I started speaking in a similar manner. For example, instead of saying “hola amigo, ¿cómo estás?,” (i.e., “Hello friend, how are you?”) I would begin to pick up and use local idioms, such as “ajá, mi llave, ¿y entonce’?” (i.e., a colloquial way of saying “Hey friend! How’s it going?”). So, while I didn’t quite have an identifiable accent before, now, when I speak Spanish it’s not uncommon for someone to ask, “¿eres de Colombia?” (Are you from Colombia?).

Something that I didn’t quite have a grasp on is how much language can impact perception and personality in specific regions. For example, depending on where you are the word “ahorita” can mean, now, or right now, or (in the case of Colombia) a couple minutes (or hours, days, months) from now or in the past. When you pick up a regional dialect, traveling can become interesting. Time perception varies widely, and some words are terms of endearment for one country or region, while in others they are offensive.

In the case of Barranquilla, the typical Barranquillero (person from Barranquilla) is very open, friendly, and very keen on joking around, so much so that they’ve got a word for those who joke a lot – “mamagallista”.

For students who are going to be studying, or who are currently studying in Barranquilla, I would recommend studying from a costeño dictionary, such as El Heraldo. There are many more of these online, just search “diccionario costeño” (I wish these resources were as plentiful when I was studying there!). The slang is a lot of the fun, so you should embrace it!

What is one of your memories or stories from your time abroad?

Before traveling to Colombia, I was warned about “la hora latina,” or Latin time, which is the tendency for people to show up somewhat late for gatherings. Having known this in advance, I felt very prepared for social gatherings and other events. However, I didn’t quite realize that the coast of Colombia has its own time, which I like to call “la hora costeña”.

My first experience with “la hora costeña” was my first weekend out to a discoteca (night club) with my new local friends. My friends asked if I’d like to go out on a Friday night, to which I agreed. I was told that people would be showing up around 10pm. Aha! I knew that this meant I should show up closer to 10:30pm. So, I showed up around 10:30 and was surprised I was the first to arrive. At this point I didn’t have a SIM card for my phone, so I didn’t have a choice but to wait. After a while I was worried that my new friends had left me hanging. I believe it was around 11:15pm or so that people began to arrive, and I was relieved and overjoyed! I had a great night despite the late arrival of my friends (or my early arrival? – I’m still not quite sure…).

Needless to say, I learned quickly that the perception of time is rather loose, and you should be flexible!

What are you up to now? How did your experience abroad play a part in this?

I am now an acoustical consultant for a Los Angeles-based firm. We work on a wide variety of projects from healthcare, offices, recording studios, drama theaters, concert halls, and more. Additionally, I’m the Treasurer for the Spanish Speaking Acousticians in the Americas (SSA), which is a chapter of the Acoustical Society of America.

There are so many direct and indirect ways that my experience abroad played a part in where I am currently, but the important thing is that my experiences are still yielding fruit. If we discuss how my experience played a part in my career, one could say that my internship in acoustical consulting during my second study abroad semester in Montevideo, Uruguay helped me gain practical insight and a competitive advantage. One could also say without significantly improving my Spanish significantly in Barranquilla, I wouldn’t have done an internship in Uruguay, and I wouldn’t have enough confidence in my Spanish to serve as a committee member in SSA. However, there are many more ways that my experience enhanced my profession interactions.

Zak with Argentinian acoustician, Alberto Haedo, at Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires

In 2017, when I first interviewed with the firm I currently work for, I was teleconferencing from a library conference room in Uruguay. This was interesting to my interviewers (now mentors in my current position). They asked if I had met commendable acoustician and professional colleague of theirs, Alberto Haedo, who lives and works in Buenos Aires, Argentina, which at the time I had not. Fast forward a few years later, my mentor put me in contact with Alberto in advance of a trip to Buenos Aires. He graciously attended a ballet performance of Don Quixote with me at Teatro Colón, which is one of the greatest opera halls in the world. Alberto was a key part of a major renovation of the hall. The experience was indescribable to me as a newly-formed acoustician. He was happy to chat about the detailed analyses and approaches to design challenges during the renovation of the hall. In present day, we regularly keep in touch, and he has generously participated in our events to discuss concert hall acoustics with our SSA chapter.

On a personal note, I have made many close connections abroad, which has really broadened my perspective on what friendships can be, especially in light of the pandemic. When I talk to my friends abroad, I feel very close to them as if months (or years) haven’t passed. When I meet with them again, it’s like there never was any distance between us. I like learning about cultural differences. For me, it’s especially interesting how many cultures, traditions, personalities, and different ways of living there are in one (or two) continents (i.e., the Americas).

Further, I find language to be a great way to intimately connect with strangers. There are no words for the excitement and joy in someone’s eyes when they learn you can speak their language, and can be a friend, or even offer a helping hand. The closest I’ve come to describing this feeling in words is a quote from Nelson Mandela: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

Any advice for students interested in going abroad?

To students going abroad, the number one thing I would recommend is having in mind a specific goal you’d like to achieve.

When I studied abroad the first time, in Barranquilla, I had the goal of improving my fluency in Spanish. More specifically, I wanted to have the ability to effectively and efficiently communicate with anyone about virtually any topic in Spanish. To achieve this, I signed up for classes that were taught in Spanish with local students, I took a Jazz course, where I played trumpet with a group of music students, I volunteered, and I even acted in a play and was sound designer for another. While my ambition was a lot to manage at times, I certainly got a lot out of the experience and grew a lot. I made a lot of local connections, I used my Spanish far more than my English, and I gained confidence speaking the language in front of others.

I would also recommend taking opportunities to get involved in other ways, such as volunteering (UniVoluntarios at Universidad del Norte), or internship opportunities. Some of my favorite memories were volunteering on Saturday mornings at a foundation whose mission was to teach English to students in an underprivileged community. This was gratifying in a lot of ways, but most notably was seeing the impact we had on a weekly basis and watching the kids’ English skills improve tremendously.

In my opinion, something equally important is finding ways to keep up with your new language skills, while also leveraging your experience in ways that will help you grow personally or professionally (or both)! Join a language or culture club, help out with translation of documents, or related projects. There are a lot of ways to leverage your experience… just use your imagination!

If learning or improving your Spanish are not your goals, there are plenty of other opportunities to make your experience valuable, but I did find having a well-defined goal and approach important.

(P.S. – Here’s a link to the personal blog I kept while I was in Colombia, for anyone who’s interested!)

Volunteers at Scribble Multicultural Festival

Inspired by Zak’s journey and want to discover your own while immersing yourself in a study abroad program? Fill out your details below to let our team know and we’ll help you find your adventure today!

Author: International Studies Abroad (ISA)

Since 1987, International Studies Abroad (ISA) has provided college students in the United States and Canada the opportunity to explore the world. ISA offers a wide variety of study abroad programs at accredited schools and universities in 73 program locations throughout the world.

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