Jake Shulman’s Study Abroad Experience in Leuven, Belgium

So far my experience in Leuven has been absolutely amazing! I am having the time of my life and could not be happier that I chose to study here for the semester. Here is a little bit of what have experienced thus far.

I arrived in Leuven about three weeks ago not knowing what to expect. Once I landed in the Brussels International Airport I knew my journey for the next four months was about to begin. Getting to Leuven from the Brussels International Airport was a lot easier than I expected, but getting to my actual location in Leuven was extremely difficult.

As I stepped off the train in Leuven, I was a bit nervous because I was not comfortable with my surroundings and I did not know much Dutch (and I still don’t know that much Dutch). I did not know where I was going so I wandered around and eventually found the exit of the station to the city. The first thing I saw was this huge monument about 100 feet tall. I looked to my right and saw buildings that looked extremely old and it made me feel like I was in the 15th Century. At that moment, I realized that wow, this is going to be a wild and fun-filled experience and that I was not in the United States anymore. Then I looked around a bit more and found a map of the city right outside of Leuven Station. I needed to get to my buddy’s dorm room because my room was not open yet. I could not find his dorm on the city map, nor did I know what street it was on (definitely something I suggest to know when trying to get to a specific location). So, I decided to walk down what looked like the main street, and figure it out on my own. I walked about 3 blocks, just taking in what will be my new home for the next four months not really caring about getting to my buddy’s dorm. I then snapped back into reality, and realized that I needed to find his dorm before it gets dark out or else I would have been sleeping on the street that night. I asked a couple people where the dorm was and they did not know what I was talking about, but luckily I found a really nice young woman that took me to my buddy’s dorm. I thanked her, and then she went home.

Once I arrived at my buddy’s dorm, we immediately began planning trips, which was pretty overwhelming to me at that time because I had just arrived and had not even unpacked my bags yet. The trips we planned at that time were Amsterdam, Budapest, and Ireland all within four weeks of each other.

The next day, I settled in, toured the city, and went out that night. Later on in the week, I went to some orientation programs, registered with the school, and tried learning the important street names and buildings in the city. After about five days I became extremely comfortable with my surroundings.

The following weekend, I was off to Amsterdam. It was probably one of the most beautiful places I have ever been too in my entire life. I also had my first hostel experience in Amsterdam, and it went very well.

Throughout the weekend, my buddies and I did all of the touristy things, such as going to the “I Amsterdam” sign, walked around the Vincent Van Gogh Museum, took a tour of the Anne Frank Museum, and also took a tour of the Heineken Brewery. My favorite attraction from the trip was the Anne Frank Museum. For those of you that don’t know, this Anne Frank Museum was built in the house she hid in before the Nazis had captured her and her family. It was a very eye-opening experience, and I definitely suggest this as a place to visit if you ever plan on going to Amsterdam.

The next weekend, myself and other kids from U of I took a trip to Budapest, Hungary. I really never thought or wanted to visit Hungary during my time studying abroad, but I new that I would never have an opportunity like this again and wanted to take advantage of everything possible. I could not have been happier with my decision to go to Budapest because it is one of the most magnificent cities I have ever been too. It kind of reminded me of a smaller version of New York, but in Western Europe.

During this trip, my group and I hiked to the highest point in the city and I saw one of the most beautiful views I have ever seen. We also went to the top of a famous Church, and there was another magnificent view. There is a huge indoor market in Budapest that sells meat and souvenirs. I walked around the market for about an hour, bought a souvenir for my mom, and ate some Hungarian sausage and potatoes in the Market. It was really good, and I was very full after eating that meal.

The next day, people in our group split up and I luckily had the opportunity to see the Hungarian Parliament. The building was very overwhelming because of its size, but it had some of the best architecture I had ever seen. There were guards standing in front of the building, but I did not know why. This is a must-see building in Budapest, and you can definitely take some great pictures here as well.

Overall my stay in Budapest was absolutely amazing, and it is a must-see city if you ever plan on coming to Europe

Now it is the fourth weekend I have been here, and I did not schedule any plans for the weekend. However, a friend came to visit me and we met up with our friends in Brussels. Brussels is a great city, and it gives off that big city vibe like Chicago or New York. For those of you that didn’t know, it is the capital of the European Union, and is the most urbanized city I have seen in Europe so far. There are so many things to do there, and you will never be bored when you are there. The waffles are phenomenal as well. I ended up staying the night, and had a blast.

This has been my trip so far, and there will be many more stories to come.



Verona, Italy

Life in Verona is Chill. However, let’s begin by telling what happened after I didn’t get my bags. After I saluted my Italian mama, CHIARAAA, and new sister  ALICEEE, I let them know about my situation. They could not believe that all I had was literally what was on my back.  They said we would figure something out and then we met my host dad STEFANOOOOOOOOO outside.  I soon began to realize and thank Jesus that my family actually spoke pretty good English. I had been so afraid that they would only speak Italian. Stefano knew some English, but Chiara and Alice seemed to know the most. We had about a 10 minute drive home from the airport. As I walked into my new home I smelled pasta. There in the Kitchen was my new youngest sister GIADAAA. Then I was walked into my…there was a box of chocolates waiting for me next to my bed. ( needless to say they are gone….). Then I had a quick lunch dinner with my family Giada had made some  pasta…perfecto! After our meal I took a brief nap. I was then woken up by Chiara because we had a welcome dinner at “Casa Di Vino”. We left 5 minutes to spare and I got there right on time. I joined Hannah and the rest of the group for a lovely night. They served us white and red wine. Then came our meal….jk it was only the first round of meals. Here in Italy dinner is eaten a little bit differently than in the US. They have what is called antipasti, appertitivo, “primmi piatti” “secunto piatti”, contorni, and dessert. Antipasti is pretty must your appetizers: we were given multiple types of bread and some ham call procciuto. Appertitivo is like a little pre-drink before dinner. Primmi piatti is normally all pasta. They brought us 3 different types of pasta!!! Secondi piatti is normally a type of meat. They brought out 2 different types of secndi piatti. Finally there is dessert…we got 3 different types. Everything was ahhhmazingggg, and it truly seemed like a never ending line of food. Plate after plate came, and each time I was more surprised than the time before. Anyways dinner was great and then we headed back home where most of us got some of our much needed rest.

The next morning we met up at Idea Verona, which is where we will be taking culture immersion classes. We were given a schedule and multiple other pieces of paper that I honestly cannot remember what they said. The most important thing given to me was a Map.( Boy have I used the heck out of that map.) Then we went for lunch at this little deli/cheese shop/restaurant (don’t really know how to describe it). There I had the absolute best ricotta cheese of my life and I will leave it at that. Later in the day we went for a walking tour through Verona. We saw the 2 most importa plazas: Piazza Erbe and Piazza Bra. Piazza Bra contains Verona’s Arena, a park, and many many many restaurants. The two piazzas are connected to each other through gift shops and stores. Piazza Erbe is a beautiful place and this is where my host mom Chiara works! We walked for about 4 hours and got to see most of the Center of Verona. We got to see Casa di Giulietta!!! There is a statue of Juliette here and also her balcony. People rub her right breast for good luck….and yes I rubbed it as well. We then moved on to Verona’s Torre dei Lamberti (tower of Lamberti). Here we climbed over    steps and got to see the most amazing view of Verona from the top. It was truly breathtaking…. Both the climb up and the view. This is the moment I somewhat realized what I had fortunately gotten myself into. I took it all in; the sky, the mountains, the river, the castles, the bridges, the houses, the people, the tiny little lights on the other side of the city….


Samantha, 2015 Vida Volunteer in Costa Rica (2)

I previously describevidad the country of Costa Rica and the activities I participated in there in my last post. I also gained valuable veterinary experience on my study abroad trip. For this trip, I was a part of a large organization called Vida and we serviced underprivileged communities by providing veterinary services. Over the course of six clinic days, we had 195 patients and 125 sterilization surgeries. Eight veterinarians and one veterinary technician worked the clinic days with us. The veterinarians were extremely patient with us and explained every aspect of what we were doing. We learned how to properly handle animals, how to assess the animal’s health, how to take parameters, how to give injections, how to place a catheter, how to intubate, how to suture, and how to monitor anesthesia. The doctors also thoroughly explained the surgical procedures they were performing. Having the opportunity to assist the veterinarians both in and out of surgery offered my great insight into the profession and solidified my goal to become a veterinarian.

I also had the opportunity to work with and handle a variety of animals with different temperaments. We had both cats and dogs come into the clinic. Some of the animals were very friendly and others were extremely frightened and aggressive. We had to learn how to quickly adapt to the animal’s mood in order to safely handle them. While many of the animals received adequate care from their owners, some of the animals were covered in fleas and ticks and were malnourished. It was rewarding being able to provide our services to a population that truly needed it.

I cannot thank Vida and ACES enough for giving me the opportunity to not only see a new part of the world, but also gain incredible hands-on veterinary experience. Costa Rica was unlike anything I have ever seen before and I will treasure the experiences and friendships I gained from this study abroad trip.

Samantha Johnson #ILLINOISabroad


Samantha, 2015 Vida Volunteer in Costa Rica (1)

canyoneeringI am currently an animal sciences senior about to graduate from the University of Illinois, and up until a few weeks ago I had never been out of the country.  I was always under the impression that studying abroad was too expensive and that I would not have the opportunity to travel outside of the United States until I started a career to afford it.  After talking to several friends, who attended the Vida trip last year, I got some insight into the experience and found out how affordable the trip was.  Realizing that I may not have the opportunity to travel after college if I start working right away, I decided to attend the ACES in Costa Rica: Pre-Vet Study Tour.  If I had to use one word to sum up the experience, I would use unbelievable.  The trip consisted of both veterinary experience and cultural/tourism experience.  I will use this first post to describe the cultural and country experience and the second post to describe the veterinary experience.

Growing up in the Midwest, I was not expecting the terrain in Costa Rica.  The whole country was hilly and mountainous and beautiful.  We stayed in several regions throughout the trip, all of which had different landscapes and climates.  The first region we stayed in was in San Jose and had a mild climate.  The roads were still hilly but temperatures were in the upper 70s.  The next region was in Orosi, which had a colder wet climate.  It rained several times and temperatures got down to the 60s.  This area was the most beautiful, though, because everything was so lush and green.  From there we traveled to Liberia, which was really hot and a lot drier than the other cities.

I was floored by the amount of wildlife and fauna that I saw in the country.  While I was there, I saw an iguana and monkeys in the trees, a sloth in its natural habitat, huge colorful moths and butterflies, giant insects, and lizards crawling around everywhere.  Even the flowers and trees were unique and vibrant.  We saw several coffee and sugar can plantations, as well as banana trees during our travels too.  English being my first language, I finally made use of my high school Spanish on this trip too! I was able to interact with the locals and with the Vida team to some degree in Spanish, which was really cool.  I wish I had remembered more of my Spanish education, but I understood a lot more than I thought I would.

On the trip, we had three recreational days to enjoy the country.  Our first recreational day was canyoneering, where we went zip lining, rappelled down four waterfalls, and crossed a hanging rope bridge.  We were inside what appeared to be a forest for several hours hiking between the stations.  The second recreational day was a visit to the largest ox cart in the world and the ox cart factory, which still produces ox carts today.  Ox carts are symbolic to Costa Rica, so it was interesting learning a little bit about a cultural aspect of the country.  Our last recreational day was to the beach, la playa hermosa.  On the beach day we went snorkeling and got to enjoy the Pacific Ocean.  While snorkeling, I got to hold a starfish and a puffer fish.  I also saw an eel in the rocks and swam amongst the colorful fish.  Despite getting badly burned, we were not ready to leave the beautiful country and the sun.

Samantha Johnson #ACESabroad


Molweni! From Cape Town, South Africa

This past winter break 2014-15, I had the opportunity to spend three of my four weeks in South Africa! I did not regret it all and would travel back there in a blink of an eye if someone offered it to me (no but really I would). My time spent in South Africa was truly a life changing experience! So much to remember from those three weeks but everything we did each and every day will forever be in my heart. Whether it was hiking Cape of Good Hope and Lion’s Head, visiting District Six, touring townships such as Nyanga or Soweto, traveling to Johannesburg for a weekend, going to the Apartheid Museum, volunteering at Baphumelele in Khayelitsha, and so much more!

100_6377    10391000_10153057359691419_9219776230409352835_n

One of the reasons why I choose this program was because I wanted to get the opportunity to experience a different culture other than what is here at my home in Chicago and in America. I wanted to be able to learn about South Africa and its history and how these factors affect the culture and today’s lifestyles. I love learning about different cultures and engaging in them, so hearing about this program and other’s experiences made me choose this one!10409569_768889703200033_5585872015587483880_n

I definitely got the chance to engage in the culture of South Africa! One of the most memorable moments for me that dealt with learning about the culture was the day we got to see the Kaapse Klopse.

100_6868  100_6908

This event is a minstrel festival that takes place every year on January 2nd and is considered the second New Year. The reason why it takes place after New Years is because many ancestors of the coloured community were only allowed one day off in the year and January 2nd was that day, so they would have big celebration. This festival isn’t just a parade of thousands with colorful and glittery costumes and playing musical instruments. But the participants also have competitions between each other. It takes place at the Athlone Stadium in the Cape Flats and there are more than 40 groups with hundreds of people in each! They compete in all sorts of categories from best dressed to best instrument playing. While I was there I got a chance to participant in our driver Sed’s group and it the most fun I have ever had! Everyone was so full energy and so excited we were there to experience this event! They even wanted us to try on some of the costumes, hats, and umbrellas. I will never forget that day of going to see The Kaapse Klopse!


There was so much that I did while in South Africa that I would like to express and tell but until my next post….Cheers!

-Amber Neal

#ILLINOISabroad # ACESabroad #imagineaces


My Hike Up Lions Head, Cape Town, South Africa- Michera Dobbs

Being selected to participate in the HDFS winter study tour to Cape Town, South Africa is an experience that has greatly impacted my life. While many of my experiences in Cape Town have a special meaning to me, there is one that is very significant. On January 7 our group decided to go on a hike at Lions Head Mountain after working at our volunteer sites. In my heart I really and truly did not want to hike this mountain. I just had a long day playing with kids and it had to be around 90 degrees and right when the sun and heat was at its peak. I still decided to go only because I did not want to miss out on the experience. When we arrived I really started to regrMountain-1et coming and questioned why I did that to myself. I literally complained stopped and cried about it. I was having so much difficulty with breathing from the heat and the sun beaming down on me due to my asthma. I had to stop multiple times and sit. At one point I had decided that I wasn’t going to climb and I would just wait for the group when they came down. However, something inside of me told me I must keep going after I had a meltdown. I had gone a little way and I must keep going or I would regret not finishing. By then my group was ways away and now and then I would catch up but I had gotten to far behind because I would need to rest for 5-10 minutes. Once I got to the shady side of the mountain it was easy for me to keep moving without stopping because the sun and heat was not wearing me down. I knew I would not have much time if I made it to the top but at that point I didn’t care if I made it but was more proud of myself for how far  I’ve gotten. To get to the top I had to use every muscle and at one point chains, ladders, and stepping stones to get up. While I was traveling up one steep rock the purse that I had broke so I had to wrap it around my neck which made climbing the rocks and ladders harder. Eventually I made it to the top and I was so proud of myself since I was the very last person to make it. It also felt good because everyone in the group congratulated me because I made it and I was struggling initially. Making it to the top showed me that although I was physically and mentally exhausted that I can do anything if I just push myself past my limits. Being an African American woman from the Southside of Chicago this was very much outside of my comfort zone. Hiking a mountain, yet alone seeing one is not something that I would usually have a chance to experience back at home. I feel this hike can be applied to all aspects of my life because there will be times when I will question why I put myself in a certain predicament; however, I must continue to push through despite the obstacles to obtain the reward.


HDFS Adventures in Cape Town, South Africa

This winter break I had the great opportunity of participating in the HDFS study tour to Cape Town, South Africa. The three weeks that I spent in Cape Town have truly impacted my life. In such a short amount of time I was able to learn about the culture, the country’s history, and had the opportunity of meeting some of the most joyful people I have ever met. During these three weeks I had some great experiences volunteering at Maitland Cottage Home for Physically Disabled Children. I grew great relationships with them, and their positive attitudes and energy is something that I really miss.

Every day after our volunteering sites in Cape Town, we had an adventure planned. One of my favorites was hiking up Lion’s Head. When I was told that we were going to be hiking it I thought it impossible. It is huge, and I had never in my life hiked. I was excited yet nervous that I wouldn’t make it to the top. With the encouragement of my trip members I began the hike. Before we got to climb rocks we had to walk up a long trail. I had to stop for a couple of breaks, but after the long trail, things got more exciting. We encountered rocks and no more trails. It began to get a little harder to figure out where we were going, but I think that’s what made it fun. After a couple of hours we had eventually made it all the way up the mountain. I felt very proud that I had made it up with no problems; I had just learned something new about myself. The view from the top of the rock was amazing! It all seemed unreal, as if it were all just a poster that I was looking at.

Everywhere I went there was a view that blew me away. Going to Cape of Good Hope, was another great adventure. We had walked a long trail and a climbed a lot of stairs to get to the southernmost peak of South Africa. Once again the views were unbelievable! Being there was indescribable, and something that a picture couldn’t capture. We were looking at the beauty of the oceans and Cape Town’s mountains. After, we went to Boulders Beach to see the penguins. They were all adorable. It was great seeing them in their natural habitat.

-Stephanie Reyna

#ILLINOISabroad #ACESabroad #imagineaces