henever I see American college students on study-abroad programs in Florence pubs a question starts buzzing in my mind: Why board a jet and fly 12 hours to Italy if you intend to befriend those who look and behave identically to the roommates you left behind?
Perhaps it’s American nature to eat Mexican, watch English-language movies even when abroad, and remain impervious to foreign culture — unless you want to tell me that eating tacos and nachos means participating in an intercultural experience.
In fairness, if you look at European Erasmus students you get some of the same problems.
The Erasmus-Socrates program is an EU-promoted project that permits European students to study abroad for one or two semesters without having to meet the high language-requirements generally required to study in a foreign country as a fully enrolled student.
But all Erasmus students is usually get for their troubles is: a) a €120 monthly stipend, b) the address of the International club of the host university, c) a friendly pat on the back.
Thrown into a foreign society under such circumstances most Erasmus students leave their learning experience with: a) permanent bags under their eyes together with an idiotic grin due to prolonged and intensive partying; b) bunches of out-of-focus pictures showing other foreign students with thongs sticking out, eyes wide open, hands pointing at pints of beer; c) English with an accent that sums up all the inflections Europe has to offer.
The student returns home with an agenda full of addresses from people all over the continent, except those from the country where he or she just spent the year.
That’s understandable. To adapt to a foreign country takes lots of energy and time. That’s why more organized intercultural exchange-programs exist. They provide orientation, counseling, language-partner programs and a myriad of other tools to help a foreigner fit more smoothly and swiftly into a new habitat.
The Erasmus program, working under budget constraints, can’t honestly be blamed for failing to provide any of the above.
American college study-abroad programs face the opposite dilemma. They provide students with a wide spectrum of organized activities, but give them few opportunities to explore and get out among the locals. Florence programs set up guided excursions throughout Tuscany, conferences and forum discussions with Italian professors (the few who speak English), movie nights and parties. Campuses are located in restored Renaissance villas on Florence’s Arno River (Stanford) and along the ancient Bolognese road (New York University.)
On the surface, it’s heaven. Little stone angels in spout water from 16th-century fountains.
But as intellectually elite as it sounds, the concept is hardly different than the villages that house U.S. officials near military bases abroad. They’re effectively towns transplanted in character from an American vision of picket-fence housing, whether Saudi Arabia or the Italian Maremma.
At least the educational process should be different and more open-minded.
So here’s a suggestion: Why not instead let American students attend classes directly at the University of Florence?
Sure, studying at the University of Florence or at any other Italian university has pitfalls. You have to fight your way through the jungle that is Italian bureaucracy; you sit in enormous lecture rooms with graffiti carved into the backs of the chairs in front of you; you hear streams of incomprehensible Italian words flow monotonously from microphone to audience. At lunch, slang gets slapped around like ping pong balls. It’s usually spoken too fast for an English native to catch and understand.
Still, I’ll give you a good reason to endure the suffering: Making friends with Italians isn’t hard, but to stop standing out as a foreigner in their eyes is. And you won’t get to that stage, the cultural learning stage, unless you eat with Italians, talk to Italians, live like the Italians.
The U.S. study-abroad programs I know in Florence do their best to protect their students from culture shock. But take away all risk and challenge from a study-abroad experience and you effectively remove any chance for a real intercultural exchange.
Opt for 100 percent security and you kill what living and studying abroad should be about.
And if the trend continues, beware. Study abroad officials will soon feel the need warning visiting students that coffee pots contain “VERY HOT WATER.”
Erica Alini, an Italian citizen, has studied in Florence and Berlin, the latter with the Erasmus program. She wrote this piece in English.