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From living to learning: Advice on studying abroad in Florence, Italy

(Kimi Jung/Daily Bruin staff)

By Ava Lifton

Jan. 21, 2024 10:38 p.m.

When I began preparing for my semester in Florence, my Google Drive was inundated with recommendations for Italian restaurants, bars, travel destinations and coffee shops.

As I assumed the role of detective, I collected as much information as I could about studying abroad in Italy to alleviate my fears about living in a new country.

The peer recommendation lists, packing and schedule information I was provided by the University of California felt antiseptic compared to a conversation with someone who had experienced the program. I am certain that a more personalized chat would have eased many of my pre-departure anxieties.

After finally overcoming jet lag after two weeks of being home, I found myself engaging in phone calls and text messages to share my experience with younger peers.

In my privileged position to elucidate on studying abroad in Florence for the UC Education Abroad Program, specifically the “Made in Italy, Florence,” it behooves me to answer some of my most common questions to help UCLA students better navigate the abroad process.

Housing

My biggest challenge while abroad was my living situation. In preparation for departure, UCEAP students can rank their living preferences for a program-issued apartment or dorm. Students also have the option to select roommates – however, roommate assignments are not guaranteed.

I opted to allow the program to randomly select my roommates in an apartment, since I did not previously know any peers participating – which only compounded my pre-existing anxieties about a foreign situation.

From an aesthetic and functionality standpoint, I instantly felt a strong aversion to my apartment because it was quite old and decrepit, meaning many of the appliances stopped working or made odd sounds when turned on. For the majority of the term, my roommates and I futilely grappled with a perpetual mold issue in our bathrooms that the housing director dismissed as a mildew problem.

I made a concerted effort to spend my entire day out of the apartment, returning only to sleep. While less than ideal, the silver lining was that I constantly busied myself with plans and became fully immersed in Italian culture.

Despite the challenges, I am grateful that I accepted the risk of living in an apartment with random roommates rather than the dorms because it forced me to pursue adult-like responsibilities that come with having a shared living space.

On the other hand, my friends assigned to dorms found that it easily lent itself to building friendships and fostered a fruitful social environment. They also enjoyed that it was centrally located in the famous Piazza della Repubblica, making it easy for them to walk to popular spots quickly.

However, many students expressed concern over the strict rules, unkempt shared living spaces and bureaucratic leadership that failed to address appliance failures.

Any living situation, whether that be a dormitory or an apartment, will likely be accompanied by its own set of difficulties, and students shouldn’t allow the circumstances to damage their overall abroad experience.

Travel

The Instagram abroad aesthetic is characterized by pictures of students jet-setting to Paris for the weekend or skiing through the winter wonderland of the Swiss Alps. My fondest abroad memories are attributed to spontaneous weekend trips where I sampled local cuisine, frequented famous museums and explored idyllic landscapes.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that students must travel every weekend to maximize their time abroad because it can become physically taxing and financially impractical. To surpass the high cost of travel, I suggest planning trips as far in advance and finding the cheapest combination of travel days. For instance, I always flew directly out of the Florence airport because it usually offered fairly priced flights and eliminated the inconvenience of taking the train to a smaller Italian airport and connecting to a flight within the requisite time frame.

Taking trains to my travel destinations was convenient to visit Italian towns as well, especially with the purchase of a Eurail pass. Easily booking trains closer to my departure date came with the added benefit of a bundle being more economically feasible than purchasing individual train tickets, though it remains important to still compare the costs of a Eurail pass to the individual ticket cost.

On the weekends I opted out of traveling, I dedicated myself to being a tourist in Florence, which often meant visiting the Accademia, hiking up to Piazzale Michelangelo for sunset, or cheering on ACF Fiorentina at a Thursday night football game. I became so accustomed to living in Florence that these activities served as a constant reminder to appreciate the rich history that is entrenched in every juncture of Florentine life.

Academics

After talking to my older friends who had previously completed a semester abroad through third-party programs, I expected an analogous experience with basic courses such that school played a negligible role.

However, the UC program entails a relatively rigorous course load where you are expected to keep up with dense readings and complete weekly exams or essays to maintain satisfactory grades.

I encourage overachieving students like myself to recontextualize their perception of school while abroad to achieve a better balance between work and social opportunities. It is important to appreciate a new cultural environment, and time management and creative study techniques can allow students to optimize both academic and personal commitments.

While this advice may seem antithetical to the DNA of a hardworking student, I can undoubtedly still appreciate the memories of my nights out, while my days studying in the local library have immediately been put in the rearview.

Food

Italy is known as the hub of fresh pasta and artisan pizza, wrapped in a bow by daily prepared gelato. Food lovers often get overzealous about trying new restaurants during the first few weeks and eventually find themselves in a challenging position if they spend their money too quickly.

To circumvent this common pitfall, I suggest buying fresh produce from Mercato di Sant’Ambrogio at the beginning of the week and any other necessary groceries from Conad Supermarket, the cheap grocery chain that is a hot spot for study abroad students. The former offers a farmer’s market experience with fairly priced and delicious fruits and vegetables to snack on and cook throughout the week.

The food in Italy is devoid of the preservatives we often find in American foods that prolong shelf life, meaning you must use your groceries within the first few days of purchase.

Before traveling for the weekend, I would dedicate a night or two to trying a new local restaurant to eventually compile a list of my favorites. Between Osteria Santo Spirito, Trattoria La Casalinga, Trattoria 4 Leoni and Trattoria Zà Zà, there were a plethora of cheap but dreamworthy restaurants where I made a night out of a classic, slow Italian dinner.

Studying abroad advice is not a one-size-fits-all suggestion, as this only reflects my personal insights. While students are welcome to collect ample amounts of advice about their program, it is important to acknowledge that finding a rhythm in a foreign country with unique cultural values inherently takes time and fine-tuning.

It was only when I was able to embrace these changes wholeheartedly that I could fully tackle the challenges head-on, leading to personal growth and resilience.

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