As an undergraduate student at the University of Iowa, Elisha Smiley (BBA accounting ’01; MAc accounting ’02) studied abroad in Dijon, France. It was a semester filled with learning to adapt, meeting new friends, and expanding her worldview, but perhaps most impactful was the connection she made to food. This connection helped to spark a career change from accounting to that of pastry chef and instructor. Learn more about Elisha’s inspiring journey below.
Elisha Smiley, lecturing instructor of baking and pastry arts at the Culinary Institute of America
What are some of your favorite memories from your study abroad experience in France?
During my semester in Dijon, France, I looked forward to Wednesdays. I had a five-hour break in the afternoon between classes. A friend from my program and I would hit up as many patisseries (pastry shops), boulangeries (bakeries), and chocolate shops as possible. At the patisseries, we tried all the classic French pastries – Paris Brest, St. Honore cake, Tart Tropezienne, etc. The chocolate shops would have bonbons stacked a foot high in 20 flavors. The boulangeries were stocked with baskets of baguettes and rows of crumbly Sable cookies. This was the first time I realized that making these products was a career. I would always show up to French Business class in a sugar coma.
Dijon sits on the eastern border of France, close to Germany and Switzerland, so it was a perfect launchpad to explore more of Europe. Many weekends, I hopped the train to another country – drinking juices at La Boqueria market in Barcelona, dipping fondue in Geneva, savoring Sally Lunn buns in Bath, fresh soft pretzels in Munich’s Octoberfest, fried chicken in the Austrian streets before Christmas, everyone bundled up in parkas. While my sharpest memories are of food, I never put it together at the time that I should consider working in the culinary field. It was just too far afield from what I’d been thinking of as my path.
When I returned to Iowa at the semester’s end, I remember telling my mother the French washing machines had shrunk my pants. It took me a while to realize I had gained the French Fifteen.
Elisha Smiley during her study abroad experience in France—in front of a patisserie
Why do you feel international education and exchange is important?
It’s so important to learn to live out of your comfort zone. To learn to adapt. The first night in Dijon was hardest; we were staying in a very old dormitory before we would move in with our host families. I felt very alone and wondered what I’d gotten into. But each day got better, and after a few weeks, I had created a community with classmates from all over the US. I’m still best of friends with Kelly, my partner in Wednesday afternoon bakery sprees in Dijon.
It’s great for Americans who grew up monolingual to realize that not everyone speaks English and to feel the discomfort of speaking another language and knowing you’re probably butchering it. Over the years, I’ve worked with many non-native English speakers and my time abroad has allowed me to empathize and help them out where I can.
Elisha Smiley during her study abroad experience in France—enjoying a baguette during a stroll
Can you tell us a little about your path from graduation to your current role?
I graduated from Iowa with a BBA in accounting and a Masters of Accountancy. I worked for PriceWaterhouseCoopers in San Francisco, practicing both taxation and auditing and not really enjoying either. (The best part was planning where my coworkers and I were going to eat lunch everyday.) The culinary spark from my study abroad time had never left me. So after four years crunching numbers, I decided to head to pastry school.
I worked in a couple restaurants in San Francisco and abroad in Spain and London. I tried out Chicago and New York, but realized my heart was in San Francisco. I became the Executive Pastry Chef of the Delfina Restaurant Group, a group of upscale Italian restaurants and pizzerias in the Bay Area. I did that for four years, until Covid changed the industry. Most recently I have decided to try education and am currently a lecturing instructor at the Culinary Institute of America - Greystone in a town called St. Helena, California, in Napa Valley. Life has come full circle: now I’m teaching my students how to make Paris Brest and baguettes.
How has your international experience benefitted you in your current job?
Studying in France was a perfect precursor to my current position. I know the pronunciation and meaning of French pastry vocabulary and can pass that on to my students. I’ve seen all the products I’m teaching in their natural habitat - in a pastry case in France.
Elisha Smiley during her study abroad experience in France—with glace (ice cream) in Paris
Did your study abroad experience inform your move from accounting to pastry school?
Studying in Dijon was my first huge step out of my comfort zone – which set the stage for further leaps of moving to San Francisco and going to pastry school. I’ve always been told that changing careers at 27 was so brave; I’m not sure I thought of it as that: I just knew I needed to find something I could be happy doing for the next 30 years, and my time in France had planted another seed. Also, my time abroad certainly gave me the confidence to then work abroad later on – in Spain and London – without hesitation.
Do you have any advice for future University of Iowa students regarding study abroad?
Just do it! I started researching which program I wanted to go on the spring of my freshman year. I wanted to be able to get some transfer credit for my business degree and French minor. During my research at the International Center, I found out about the Institute for the International Education of Students (IES Abroad), which has programs all over the world. Their business-oriented one in Dijon, France, seemed perfect. Dijon - home of the mustard – why not?
Elisha's sister, Lauren, also studied abroad while a student at the University of Iowa - learn about Lauren's experience here.