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The 7 Books That Encapsulate My Study Abroad Experience

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at FSU chapter.

Summer 2023 was the best summer of my life. I was lucky enough to visit new continents, live in a foreign country, watch the sunset under the Eiffel Tower, see Calvin Harris in Ibiza, make new lifelong friends, attempt to speak a language I barely knew, solo travel, and make memories with my family. As you can guess, I got to study abroad. I would be lying if I said my classes at FSU Valencia didn’t stress me out occasionally. A contributor to my mood this summer was definitely the lack of deadlines, papers, and most importantly a million pages of readings per week.

Not having to spend hours a week hunched over my iPad annotating book chapter PDFs, summer is one of the only times a year I can get into my Goodreads TBR. So in May, I made a list of all the following books that I wanted to read by the end of August. In a way, these are the seven books that encapsulate my summer (even though I still need to finish some…) where each holds their own memories and connections to whatever era I was in when I read them.

tHE sECRET History by Donna Tartt

I was not expecting to like this book as much as I did. At the beginning of the summer, my family took a trip to Boston where we visited several universities including Harvard and Yale, and I thought this book would match the vibe. During that trip, I couldn’t put this book down. I even got to read it on Harvard’s campus when it was cloudy and cold, which I feel would be a flex in the dark academia community.

The book follows a pretentious, tight-knit group of Classics students at a prestigious Vermont university. Their story took the author nine years to write, which is evident in the complex, suspenseful plot and the intricacies of each character. I really felt like I took a journey with the main character and was not okay after finishing this. 10/10 experience.


I know you’re thinking that literally sounds like a textbook, and in a way, I read it like one. But my history major self had to learn some Spanish history before leaving to live there for six weeks. After reading this book, I decided I needed to visit the southernmost Spanish state of Andalusia. I learned so much about the origin of that state’s name, “Al-Andalus,” the former Islamic states of the Iberian Peninsula from this book. I did get to visit one Andalusian city, Granada, which is known for its stunning Alhambra palace. I learned lots of historical context from this book, such as that the palace’s setting was originally a Jewish community and was characterized by an older castle. Its distinctive red clay gave it the name “al-Qala al-Hambra,” a name that persisted when this site became the famous Alhambra.


In the words of Mina Le, “We’re living in a girl economy.” Put simply, this book is about girlhood. Specifically, the girlhood of two Black women growing up in a small Ohio town in the 1920s-’40s. Toni Morrison is a writer I’ve always wanted to read, and this book did not disappoint. Sula is by no means a boring classic. It has small-town gossip, romance, sex, conspiracies, and drama. The book makes you feel every emotion through the changing relationship of childhood best friends Sula and Nel, especially with its crushing ending.


I read The Henna Artist on my first overseas plane ride from Newark to Frankfurt and finished it riding through Morrocco on a bus. The book is set in 1950s India and is about a henna artist, Lakshmi, trying to navigate the social hierarchies of the wealthy families she works for, the drama of discovering long-lost family and secrets, and her life as a self-sufficient woman. Alka Joshi includes incredibly lush descriptions of Lakshmi’s henna designs, hair oils, therapeutic teas and recipes, and rituals for herself and her clients that any self-care enthusiast I think will love. I loved to come back to these characters throughout the amazing but chaotic first weeks of studying abroad.


Despite bringing the physical copy on my trip, I ended up buying this audiobook because I didn’t realize our Morrocco weekend trip included sitting on a bus for sixteen hours, and I failed to pack readings accordingly. I bought this book because I was going to take a class called “U.S. in the 1990s” in the fall. I had seen it on TikTok, and the cover was cool. I suppose it was ironic to read a book about American pop culture around Morrocco, on the train from Madrid, and another bus from Barcelona. I’m not sure how much, if any, of this book I actually remember as I listened to it while entranced by the passing Moroccan landscapes.


I’ve wanted to read James Baldwin ever since I read a memoir called New York in the Fifties where the author describes his friend “Jimmy” Baldwin’s writing as “something so powerful I sensed it could change my own thinking and writing, my very life.” On the rare occasion I had free time in Valencia, I loved to go to the beautiful riverbed park there and immerse myself in Baldwin’s story of a queer American man in 1950s Paris. His writing is mesmerizing yet with total clarity. Unfortunately, I haven’t finished this, but I’m preparing myself mentally and emotionally because one Goodreads user says the ending was “like a gut punch. A gut punch that was elegant, eloquent, and beautiful but nonetheless annihilating.”


While studying abroad, there were so many choices presented to me, like which countries to visit, who to hang out with, and whether to have a night out or stay in. I attempted to experience every restaurant, event, club, and sight in the city. Sometimes I worried if I made the best choices or if I was missing out on anything.

Jean-Paul Sartre has a concept called “bad faith” which basically means failing to accept that you are free to make any choice — put simply, making excuses. This is really oversimplified, so philosophy majors please don’t come for me, but this book is essentially just about characters grappling with their freedom and the consequences of their choices. Remember when I said Sula was not a dry classic? I’m not sure I can say the same about this one — I couldn’t finish it. But somehow, the themes of grappling with potential outcomes of different choices made me feel more at peace. In my mind, I looked like a dramatic French existentialist reading this on the tube in London.

For now, I’ll just be waiting until winter break until I can crack open another non-academic book.

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Flora is a sophomore at FSU who grew up in Houston, TX, but more recently lived in Jacksonville, FL. She is studying History and is part of a pathways program for Geographic Information Science. This is her second semester at Her Campus which she loves to write for. <3