Alumni Spotlight: Katrina Valcourt

Katrina Valcourt studied abroad twice, in back-to-back terms in 2011: in Berlin, Germany for the Summer, and Florence, Italy for the Fall semester. She graduated Magna Cum Laude from University of Hawai’i at Mānoa in May 2012 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communication and a Minor in English. Katrina is currently a writer (and occasional pro-bono model) for the Honolulu Magazine and its daily shopping blog and newsletter, Lei Chic.

Katrina posing with friends at a restaurant and by signs and statues.

“I was given a travel stipend with the Regents Scholarship I received from UH, so I knew that I would be studying abroad at some point in my college career. My sister did it in 2008 and had nothing but positive things to say about her time in London, so there was already that element of ‘if she can do it, so can I.’ It eliminated a lot of the fear of the unknown for me and made the idea more tangible.

In my second semester, Professor Tom Brislin of the Academy for Creative Media came to speak to my COM 201 class about the Germany program that summer. Though I was going into Communication, I had been looking at ACM as well and thought what he had to say was really interesting and exciting, and a great opportunity to expand creatively. But I was still just a first-year student. Applications were due in a matter of weeks, and even though I attended an informational meeting, I didn’t feel ready. I needed more time to really think it over and prepare, so I passed on that first chance, knowing that I would be ready some day, after I’d spent more time at my home campus and felt comfortable there first.

That first program stuck with me, though, so I had my mind set on studying in Berlin. It looked like such a beautiful city. The summer after junior year would be my last chance, so even though none of the classes being offered would really get me any closer to graduation, it was more about the experience and travel than credits. It allowed me more space to grow personally, rather than academically. I wasn’t always wrapped up in my homework and stressing out like some other students. I still managed to get good grades, but I’m happier that I took classes just for fun and got to learn things outside of my major.

While I was preparing for Berlin, I asked one of my favorite professors, Kathryn Hoffmann, for a letter of recommendation. She mentioned that that same fall (2011), she would be leading a group to Florence and teaching some of the best classes I’d ever taken. I already had the credit for them, but she said she’d be teaching different material, and if I was interested, we could work out a way for me to get credit for taking them again. I had a lot of thinking to do.

After making charts, looking at my scholarships and bank accounts and even drawing up a Venn diagram, I realized that I’d rather pay back loans for the rest of my life than stay at UHM if it meant I could see the world. Those chances are a lot harder to come by once you’re in the real world, so I applied to both programs, and, happily, was accepted. I would be going to Berlin, Germany for six weeks in the summer, come home for a few months, then go to Florence, Italy for three and a half months. The great thing about going to Italy was that I could take classes there toward my major, so I would still graduate the following semester.

The best things I took from my trips are too many to name. Germany gave me some of the best friends I have, almost three years later. I still go hiking and have dinner with members of the group every once in a while. I talk to them all the time. There’s nothing like going through a new, intimidating experience to make people bond together. But there’s also the German people, the friendliness of strangers, the Berliner Dom, taking the train, the weight of concentration camps and the Jewish museum. The cool air in the mornings. World-famous art and the tallest dinosaur skeleton in the world. I was so proud to be able to order food by myself in German by the time I left. I keep photos framed on my wall to look at every day and remember.

Florence is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and I couldn’t believe where I was when I walked out of my house every day. I honestly cried the first time I saw the statue of David, not gonna lie. My last night there, a group of us went to the museum one last time and just stared at it for an hour to say goodbye. I went to the circus in Florence. I saw firsthand many of the things I’d learned about in school—that was the best thing for me. It brought what had been abstract into reality. It made me realize that yes, it may be corny, but anything truly is possible. I even got to serve on a student jury for an international film festival while I was there, and it felt like I was doing something meaningful. I got to see my breath in the morning. I even had the chance to see Pompeii, Pisa, Rome and Paris.

Top 5 foods/drinks for Germany: Döner kebab! Berliner Kindl Weisse with waldmeister syrup. Fresh bread every day. Paprika-flavored chips. And currywurst!

Top 5 foods for Italy: Nutella crepes. Handmade gnocchi. Anything my host mom made. Gelato. Pesto lasagne—I’ve looked up a recipe since coming home and made my own a bunch of times—it is SO good!

In Germany, I loved the playgrounds. You think of areas for kids—in Germany, we went down to Wannsee and there’s just a huge rope jungle to climb on next to the lake. Even when my ankle was sprained I wrapped it up and climbed with everyone from my dorm. I was really humbled to see the graves of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, whose fairy tales I’ve always loved. Dresden was beautiful. Alexanderplatz was just a great place to go to the mall, grab food, hang out by a fountain or some statues, etc. Weimar was also incredible—Lisa and I had an amazing weekend there while there was a festival for Franz Liszt in the park, and it was just so beautiful and cool.

It’s really hard to pick five places for Florence because I spent so much more time there than Berlin. The different piazzas have such different feels and offerings—in the Piazza della Repubblica, you could hear live opera music in the middle of the day from a street performer or take a ride on the carousel in the old city center. In Piazza della Signoria, you could see so many marvelous statues, like of Neptune or David, or go into Palazzo Vecchio. Palazzo Pitti was incredible, though—the decadence is breathtaking in the displays of ivory jewelry and such. The Boboli Gardens outside were a great place to go for a walk or study when the sun was out. Piazzale Michelangelo has one of the greatest, well-known views of Florence. I went to so many churches and museums it’s hard to pick. The Uffizi, though—wow. I’m so glad I had a museum pass, and loved the nights where museums would open for free. That’s how I saw the Bargello, and I wish I could’ve gone back for more. I also learned that Honolulu Hale’s foyer area was modeled after the Bargello. Neat, huh?

I definitely felt like I had grown up after being in Germany. It was my first time away from home for that long, a chance to let go of the past and start fresh, and an opportunity to do exactly what I wanted. I felt more mature and more understanding, and more sure of who I was as a person. I felt ready to do it again in the fall. Italy was great in affirming my choices in school. Even when some of my classes bored me, others were enthralling, and the film festival was a really great way for me to take part in something in the community that I wanted to possibly do in the future. I feel like I grew more personally than any other way, which is most important to me, because I believe that once you have all of your values and passions in order, everything else will kind of fall into place. You won’t have to struggle with choices as much because you’ll know who you are and what you want.

I have given advice about studying abroad: it will change your life in the best way possible, but only if you’re prepared to let it. I don’t think everyone is cut out to study abroad. You have to be mature, you have to know how to deal with problems without panicking, and you have to be willing to step outside of your comfort zone to get the best out of it. The right city depends on your personality—because of how much I love art, Florence was just incredible, but if you have no interest in speaking Italian, you’re not going to like the stress that comes with trying to communicate.”

Who’s that stomping all over Chinatown?!

Katrina was also in the Spring 2012 issue of the Study Abroad Connections newsletter. Below are some of Katrina’s published writing: