Marketing student shares 3 lessons learned from an internship abroad in Italy
This post was written by Meaghan Boyd, a senior majoring in marketing with a minor in journalism. Boyd spent two months in Florence doing an internship through CEA, a study abroad program that places students in a company based on their interests. To learn more about study abroad opportunities in the School of Business, click here.
At the beginning of 2021, I never thought I’d be able to make my study abroad dreams a reality. My efforts to spend a semester in Paris were thwarted time and again as the pandemic dragged on and I began to lose hope.
Then less than a month before departure, my study abroad program decided to cancel its Paris program for the summer, citing COVID-19 concerns. In lieu of Paris, they gave me the opportunity to do an internship in Florence, Italy, instead. I decided to go for it, praying that brushing up on Italian on Duolingo would be enough for me to get by in the country. I hardly believed my summer 2021 plans would work out until I stepped onto my first flight out of St. Louis.
As I sit here three months later, I couldn’t be more grateful for the turn of events that brought me to the birthplace of the Renaissance. During my two months working in the country, I learned many lessons, made great friends and had my own sort of renaissance.
1. Italians’ idea of work-life balance includes a lot more life than Americans’.
I interned at a small, artisanal wine store in Florence’s city-center called Vino al Vino. Sales had slumped due to the pandemic and a subsequent lack of tourism, so I was brought in to assist with marketing efforts. I wrote product descriptions, took product photos, created social media content and tasted a bunch of local wine.
After working for a couple hours on my first day, my boss asked me why I hadn’t taken a break yet. This was my first brush with the differences between Italian and American workplaces. In my experience, Italians spend much more time chatting over tiny cups of espresso than fretting over KPIs. The work atmosphere is relaxed, and personal lives are not left at the door. Some of my fellow interns would spend hours talking to their co-workers about what they did over the weekend or the most recent Euro Cup playoff game (Forza Azzurri!).
In addition to a casual work environment, straightforward communication is common in Italy. If your boss doesn’t like something, they will tell you. If they do like something, they will tell you. This was off-putting for me at first, but I learned to appreciate the bluntness. If your boss feels they can be honest with you, that is a compliment. It’s also important to have a sense of humor about yourself; you should be prepared for a little gentle ribbing from time to time.
2. If you don’t love your product, your customer won’t either.
Wine is a product imbued with passion. Vino al Vino only stocks wines from small producers across Italy and some of the most respected wine regions around the world. These producers engage in the laborious task of producing wines without additives, sulfites or GMOs, many of them following biodynamic principles that require them to hand-pick their grapes, maintain native insect populations and so on. Many see their wine as a love letter to their land, with some plots being owned by their families for hundreds of years. The owners of the store taste every bottle that makes its way onto the shelf (including every vintage) and visit most of the producers’ vineyards personally.
All this effort is in service of the final conversation with the customer. Most patrons come into Vino al Vino in search of “a white wine for tonight.” The owner has a conversation with them about their tastes and pulls several options for them based on their preferences. This is the core competency of Vino al Vino — understanding their product and their customer.
The time, energy, and love that goes into producing and selling this wine makes it uniquely valuable. In Italy, you can buy a bottle of wine from the Carefour Express on the corner for less than 1 euro. But, it’s the artisan winemakers and passionate distributors that make Italy’s wine market so renowned across the world.
The store lacked a fancy layout and high-class finishings but made up for it in service. In order to be in the business of wine, this is all that is really important. The customer is buying into an experience, a lineage, centuries-old technique, and an expert’s recommendation. The service creates half of the value for a non-expert.
Most companies understand their product much better than they understand their customer. Vino al Vino knew their product very well, but they also knew how to explain its value to the customer and this was crucial for them. I may not work in the wine industry for the rest of my career, but I can apply this principle to any product.
3. You never know what you’re capable of until you step out of your comfort zone.
For a year-and-a-half before I left for my trip abroad, I spent all of my time behind a computer screen. I rarely interacted with others or left the house for more than an hour at a time. That made adapting to life in Florence that much more difficult. All of a sudden, I was surrounded by people who spoke another language, taking trains to unfamiliar destinations and meeting tons of new people.
Over the course of the two months, I surprised myself with how much I changed. I was more open to new experiences and said “yes” more often. I was able to navigate my friends and myself through buses, trains, metros and water taxis. I even picked up a little bit of Italian (well, just enough to have some polite conversation with the grocery store clerk).
Learning to step outside of my comfort zone allowed me to have many unique experiences that I am so grateful for. I visited a winery in a small Tuscan village where nobody spoke English, drove a speedboat around the island of Elba, took a painting class at a tiny studio in Florence’s city-center, tasted boar, truffles, and scary-smelling cheeses, watched Italy win the Euro Cup for the first time since 1968, and made great friends I’ll cherish forever.
Though it was stressful and downright scary at times, it was worth it simply for the fact that I am very proud of myself. Not bad for an introverted homebody! I feel empowered now, like I can take on the world.
So, if you are considering studying abroad, do it. It’s worth all the trouble of applying, flying, and freaking out when you get there. Beyond the once-in-a-lifetime experiences, academic opportunities, and Instagram photos, the most valuable part about study abroad is what it teaches you about yourself.
By Meaghan Boyd