PALs 2019-2020 Q&A with Gabriel DeSantis, SEAS '20, 21'

October 29, 2020
By Selene Li, CAS '22

Gabriel DeSantis is currently a master’s student in bioengineering. As a Penn undergraduate also studying bioengineering, Gabe studied abroad at ETH Zurich in Zurich, Switzerland. During the 2019-2020 academic year, Gabe is serving as a Penn Abroad Leader, which is Penn Abroad’s student advisory board focused on special projects and supporting fellow students interested in global experiences. We sat down with Gabe to learn more about his experience abroad.  

How did you discover the Switzerland abroad program? 
I think it was probably in my sophomore year when I started seriously thinking about going abroad as something I could do during my time at Penn. I had cousins and other friends who had gone abroad, and just heard great things about it, so it seemed like something worth looking into. So as a bioengineer, I remember I first looked at what programs even offer bioengineering credit, and there’s really only a handful of options. I think I really wanted to be in Europe, and the Zurich program was at a super strong school. There was also someone in one of my classes who was a year older than me that was planning on going and was going through the whole application process. They were telling me about their whole application process and that really showed me how feasible going abroad was as a bioengineer. 

What kinds of classes did you take? 
I went in as a Health Sciences and Technology major. I had a decent amount of freedom in terms of the courses I could take because of that. While there, I took four credits that I ended up bringing back, and then two courses that were a little smaller that I didn't do for credit but were just sort of interesting. 

What was a really good or favorite memory from going abroad? 
I really like hiking. During the first few weeks, we would do day trips to mountains nearby, but we did one weekend trip where we did two nights in Interlaken and had two full days to do some more intense hikes. Interlaken is just one of the most beautiful places in the world. We were staying at a nice little hostel, so I had an amazing day doing an 18-mile hike, and then coming back and hanging out with a bunch of people who I was also abroad with, as well as other people who were at the hostel. I think it was just being around constant beauty and around such great people and feeling accomplished because of the hike that made it such a great memory. 

gabe hiking


Do you have a favorite food that you tried during your time there? 
Switzerland isn't especially known for its cuisine, but I'd say Rösti. It’s basically a potato pancake or potato hash, and you could have it with cheese, bacon, or sausage on the side. That was really great to have in the winter. There was also a lot of fondue that was pretty good.  

How did you budget your money while there? 
We had some weekends where we knew it was going to be a trip to some city, so for that week we would budget a little bit more. Then other weekends we would go on hiking trips which are pretty inexpensive—it’s just the cost of transit, and we had gotten train passes for the semester that made the cost of transportation a lot cheaper. But if we were going to these other cities, we would make sure to budget our housing by trying to stay in hostels. Although, when we went to Stuttgart for their Oktoberfest event, we piled six people in a three-person Airbnb. It was fine though because we weren't at the Airbnb to do much besides rest. 

In general, because Zurich was so expensive, I made sure to do a lot more cooking than eating out. I was probably cooking more abroad than I was at Penn. I went out to eat in Zurich only a handful of times. When we did go out to eat, we tried to make it a bigger event. There were some great restaurants, but it is pretty expensive, so we were cooking most of the time which was also fun. 

What is a memorable mishap that you had abroad? 
I remember my first week there we did a big hiking trip and I got really sunburnt. It was just very embarrassing to be there on your first week and extremely sunburnt. I guess it was better that I learned at the beginning because then I was much more prepared for the rest of the time. It’s so deceiving though. You're not in a really hot place but you’re still exposed to a lot of sun. 

What is something that you wish you knew before going abroad?
I guess more German. I think it would have been more fun if I came in with a little more fluency. I did try doing some practice over the summer during my commute, but I wish I had really practiced and learned it. I think it would have made my time there more fun. It would have been great to communicate with people there and be less of a tourist. 

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The Semester Abroad (SA) program offers undergraduate students the opportunity to study in a new global community through extended study for a semester or year. Penn Abroad partners with top institutions around the globe and collaborates with Penn’s undergraduate schools to offer programs for students across academic disciplines.