Studying Abroad in Italy: Academics


This summer I embarked on the greatest adventure of my life. I was one of the 24 students who visited Italy for the entire month of May with Florida International University’s Honors College program. My study abroad experience was absolutely exhilarating and I would recommend it to all students. I don’t say this only because of the nights filled with fun or the breath-taking views, but also because of all I learned.

The academic aspect of my program was actually one of the factors that made it stand out most. Rather than stick to the typical in-class lectures, my professors decided to think outside the box. They designed the program so that students would learn hands-on, using all five senses, and thus retain information more successfully. Before I tell you how exactly they accomplished this let me tell you a little bit about my professors. Both were American but before creating the program had lived in Florence. One of them taught there and the other studied. Their concentrations were anthropology and architecture, but I think the title that fits them best is “human encyclopedia.” They were knowledgeable about not only Italy’s history and art, but also its culture. They guided us on everything from where to find Internet to where to find the best dishes and local hotspots. And, of course, they taught us the beginnings of Western civilization in the very place where it occurred.

The course was a month long and split somewhat evenly between four major cities: Rome, Sorrento, Florence and Venice. Each week usually included one free day and one or two elective days; the rest of the days were class days. We would meet in the lobby at 9am and head out to our destination. Sometimes we took a bus or subway, but mostly, we walked from location to location. Although this was quite tiresome (especially because Italy, unlike Florida, is very hilly), it proved effective because our professors would teach us along the way. Every corner had a story and it wasn’t surprising to all of a sudden run into a famous fountain, sculpture or museum. Once we arrived at our location for the day we would group up and our professors would lecture us on the history and aesthetic value of the structure. At this point we would also take notes and ask questions on the material. Before arriving at the site we had a certain number of chapters from our book Sprezzatura that we were suppose to have read. The chapter assignments were given to us early in the spring semester so many of the students read the book before coming on the trip. I personally did not read the entire book before boarding the plane, but was able to easily catch up on our bus rides between cities, which were about 4-6 hours long.

At certain locations, instead of having the professor’s lecture, one of the students from our group would give a presentation. We each selected which area, art piece, or structure we wanted to present about a month in advance and gathered the necessary information. I, for example, presented on the dome in the Filed of Miracles (where the leaning tower of Pisa stands). This way each of us mastered a certain topic and taught it to our peers in our own terms. In the midterm and final essays we were required to include our leanings from student presentations, as well as what we learned from our textbook and on site lectures.

On elective days each professor would visit a different site and allow for students to select where they would like to go. For example, in Rome we had the option of either visiting an ossuary exhibit or renting bikes to ride along a local park. This gave us a chance to interact as a smaller group and it also gave us an opportunity to seek out the areas that interested us most. Since the only requirement to be part of the program was to be an Honors College student we had all kinds of majors in our group. Some students were in Italy for the art, some for the history, and some just for the love of experiencing a completely new part of the world. We could further explore our personal interests on free days, which were exactly what the title implies. On these days we were free to do anything we wanted from catching up on reading to laundry to following one of the professors around (which we tended to do). We also had free time every day after 6pm. It was around this time that our official class session would end and we would return to the hotel. Our usual routine was to shower and meet in the lobby at 8pm for dinner. Sometimes we went in large groups and sometimes we divided into groups of around five (which made splitting the check a lot easier).

Nighttime in Italy was just as fruitful as daytime. Not only was this the best hour to explore local food and culture, but also to visit the opera and even historic sites. The Colosseum and Fountain of Trevi at night are a completely different experience than in the day. This was even a great time to chat with our professors and ask questions. More than once we would be strolling in a nearby plaza and run into them at an outside café. So truly we were learning even after the notebooks and pencils had been put away.

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