This story was originally published in the March 25 issue of Fourth Estate.
Twenty-three Mason undergraduates are currently living and studying in Florence, Italy through the Center for Global Education’s Florence Semester. The program allows students to earn class credit while taking in the enriching atmosphere of Florentine arts and culture.
Students left the United States in early January and will return in early May. While abroad, all are required to enroll in 15 credit hours. These hours must include an Italian Language course and a seminar on Global Propaganda taught by Communications Professor Cathy Wright, the program’s academic director. Classes are held at two locations within the city’s historical center: Centro Fiorenza and CAPA International Education, both of which are former palaces.
On a typical weekday, students can be found rushing through downtown Florence on their way to classes or accompanying professors on excursions to art museums or other historical sights.
“My Italian Art History course takes place in famous museums all around Florence where we [analyze] pieces of art throughout history for three hours,” Sophomore Stephen James Guion said, “It’s very rewarding learning about so many events and places, and then having the privilege of going to visit and actually touch the ruins themselves.”
While abroad, Mason students have the option of living in an apartment or with an Italian host family.
“I chose to live with a host family because I wanted to experience a more authentic Italy,” Sophomore Matthew Odom said, “Students studying abroad often live by themselves or with other students and create a sort of ‘mini America’ in which they only speak English, only go to American bars and clubs, and only have American friends. By living with a host family, I’ve forced myself into interacting and better experiencing Italy.”
Another popular means for ‘experiencing Italy’ is weekend travel outside of Florence.
“One of the unique facets of the program is that generally speaking, students have off every Friday,” Professor Cathy Wright said. “This allows people to travel widely.”
“On the weekends, I usually dedicate at least one day to homework so I can travel on the other day,” Odom said, “So far, I’ve only done day trips but I plan to branch out and do an overnight trip soon.”
Along with traveling throughout Italy, students are learning the country’s language and getting an honest taste of its lifestyle.
“I think a lot of my pre-conceptions of Italy have disappeared,” Odom said. “[Americans] often picture Italy as a care-free, beautiful place run by the Mafia where it’s always warm and sunny and no one works. This could not be farther from the truth. It’s cold here, it rains a lot, and not every place is beautiful. The Mafia isn’t everywhere and yes, people go to work.”
Yet Florence is distinguished from other Italian cities by its welcoming and accessible atmosphere, something that makes living here less jarring to the inexperienced American student.
“Florence is a good place for students to study abroad because it is in a central location in Italy. It’s a tourist town and most people here also speak English, so if you don’t speak Italian, or don’t speak it well, you will be able to communicate easily,” Professor Wright said. “It’s a small town, which means it’s easy to get around, which is nice since we don’t have cars.”
On the whole, students are accumulating an invaluable set of new skills by living in Florence.
“Studying abroad teaches the student a lesson of leaving their comfort zone and stepping into a new culture where not everything is going to come easily,” Guion said. “A lot can be learned, especially when you choose to adapt to your surroundings, rather than bringing your home-country over with you.”