Unforgettable Florence

Skyline of Florence, Italy, by Victor Van Carpels

The skyline of Florence, Italy, where Marist College has a branch campus.

Going to college means leaving home, adjusting to a new environment, and learning how to do things on your own for the first time. For 19-year-old twins Nick and John La Mela of Marlboro, NY, it meant something more: spending a year in Florence, Italy.

John had been planning to participate in Marist’s Freshman Florence Experience (FFE) ever since he was in 8th grade. The twins and their parents had visited their older sister, Amanda, in Florence when she spent her freshman year at Marist’s branch campus there in 2006-2007, the inaugural year of the program.

“It was a beautiful place, and I wanted to come back to it,” John says. Their parents were very supportive of the idea, Nick says, because his sister had had a great experience abroad. “She grew so much, and they wanted the same thing for us.”

They felt nothing but excitement as they sat in Kennedy Airport in August 2011 waiting to board their flight to Italy. “For us,” Nick says, “there was no nervousness.”

Nick and John La Mela

Spending their first year of college at Marist’s branch campus in Florence, Italy, brought Nick and John La Mela an extraordinary learning experience.

The twins were two of 56 Marist students who would be spending their first year of college in Florence, a city of 400,000 with huge cultural and historical significance as the birthplace of the Renaissance. Florence has proved a popular destination for English-speaking students from around the world, including Marist students. In 2006, the first year Marist operated the branch campus, 17 students participated in the BA and FFE programs in Florence. That same year, Marist sent another 62 students to Florence to study for a single semester as part of their Marist studies. By 2012, the corresponding numbers had grown to 118 in the BA, FFE, and the new MA program in museum studies, and some 222 semester-based students from Marist spent time in Florence as well. Note that students can spend a semester, a year, or even longer on the branch campus. In fact, the branch campus offers eight four-year degrees in seven available majors: conservation studies, digital media, fashion design, fine arts, interior design, Italian, and studio art (available as both a BA and BS). Thus a student can complete one of these degrees at the branch campus completely in Italy in what is the only American four-year undergraduate program in Florence.

Several factors make Marist’s Florence programs unusual. First, the College’s branch is a partnership with the Lorenzo de Medici Institute. The institute began in 1973 as one of the first centers in Florence to specialize in teaching Italian as a foreign language. Later, the institute branched out into studio art courses and is now known as Italy’s largest and most comprehensive institution for international education. This partnership gives Marist-LdM an authenticity missing from other Florence programs.

At Marist-LdM, the professors and administration are from Italy and across the globe. This highly international staff allows students to have access to different views and opinions.

 “While many other institutions operate campuses in Italy, they do not have the branch campus status Marist has,” says Christie Alfaro, assistant director of Marist-LdM programs.

“Additionally, many of these schools mostly import American professors and American administrations executing an American degree on international soil. In some cases, they can be a bit of a cultural silo.”

“We seek to push beyond the silo,” says John Peters, dean of international programs. “We want as much as possible to push students to engage with Italians and Italian culture and learn about Italy on Italy’s terms.”

Second, faculty at the branch campus are highly qualified academics with significant experience in their fields. As such, the branch campus specializes in experiential learning, as students are challenged to explore what Peters calls “the theory/practice dynamic.”

A prime example is Professor Lorenzo Casamenti. “We have a world-renowned art restorer who is on the faculty of LdM, and he is sought after worldwide,” says Alfaro.

 Professor Lorenzo Casamenti teaching in Florence

Marist students have the opportunity to restore ancient art under the tutelage of Lorenzo Casamenti, a renowned art restorer and professor at the branch campus in Florence. Above, the professor guides a group through “Michelangelo’s Hideout,” a small chamber under the Medici Chapels where Michelangelo drew on the walls during two months he spent in hiding there.

The Marist-LdM restoration department has relationships with many of the top museums and churches in Florence, which send their treasures to Marist-LdM for restoration. “Students involved with this particular faculty member in the classroom are actually restoring ancient work,” says Peters. “So you see a 20-year-old Marist student working on a painting that might be 200 years old. And the professor will stand behind her or to the side and give direction on how to restore it.” After restoration, artwork is returned to its church or museum of origin.

The faculty, says Alfaro, “are really amazing people who are so incredibly passionate about the things they do, and Lorenzo in particular. Because his credentials and his expertise are so sought after, he often is able to give these students an internship type of experience that goes beyond a résumé builder.”

Enhancing student engagement in the classroom through reflection on real-world experiences is a defining characteristic of international programming at Marist, says Peters.      “It’s not enough for students to be in the classroom, nor is it enough for them to be getting their hands dirty — figuratively, or in some cases, literally,” he says. “They have to combine the two.”

Third, Marist is one of only a handful of schools that offer a degree in conservation studies, and the only one in which students work directly on original artwork from the 14th to 19th centuries. Marist also offers a master’s degree in museum studies in Florence. The program began in 2010 with five students. This fall the program had 30 and a waiting list.

The FFE program is another aspect that sets Marist apart. While FFE students must complete the same requirements as their Poughkeepsie counterparts, they have Florence with all its cultural riches to inform their learning.

Class in digital media at Marist College's branch campus in Florence, Italy

Students create Web sites in a digital media class in Florence.

The La Mela twins were ready to make the most of the city that was now at their fingertips. Their 2011 sojourn to Italy was their third; prior to visiting Florence in 2007, their family had visited relatives in Sicily when the twins were 5. And in high school, they had gone on a school tour of France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, and Belgium.

The first week, an orientation in Tuscania, was a good bonding experience, John says. Then they moved into Marist quarters, shared with four other FFE students, on the Via del Corso. Walking to class every day past the Duomo was a “dream come true,” says John.

Much of the twins’ time was occupied with core courses plus courses in their majors. Nick is a business major with a minor in psychology. John is a communications major focusing on PR with a minor in global business. While the classes, mainly made up of Marist students studying abroad, were taught in English, the twins also took classes in Italian and practiced the language daily in conversations outside of class. All Marist students studying in Italy are required to study Italian language and culture.

Both young men are hard pressed to come up with any downside to studying in Florence for a year. On the other hand, there was plenty to enjoy. 

“The most amazing thing to me was that every weekend, you could go somewhere,” says Nick. “In regular college, you could go to this bar or that club. In Florence, it’s ‘Let’s go to Germany, Switzerland, Holland, Prague.’ That’s what made it so special.”

In an effort to help students maximize their cultural experiences and travel opportunities, the Florence campus holds the majority of its courses Monday through Thursday. The twins used their free time by traveling via inexpensive deals on bus, train, and plane to Germany, Switzerland, and other parts of Italy: Sicily, the Amalfi Coast, and Cento as well as Padua and Vincenza, where they visited their relatives.

When the rest of the FFE contingent left for home on May 11, the twins found an apartment and stayed in Florence through June, working three days a week at part-time jobs.   “We were supposed to be home by Mother’s Day,” Nick says, “but we bought Mom gifts in Rome instead.”

When the time came for them to go home, they were ready to see their family, John says. Yet when they pulled into their hometown of Marlboro, population 8,808, at 11 p.m., it finally hit them that they were no longer in Florence, where even late at night, “you could walk out anywhere and be in the thick of the action,” Nick says. “It was reverse culture shock.”

John is already pondering whether to go back during his junior year.   Nick too believes he will return to Florence. “It’s a city you can’t be away from for too long. It’ll always draw you back.”

Both highly recommend the Freshman Florence Experience. Nick believes having it on his résumé landed his current internship at a hedge fund. John agrees that it’s a plus on a résumé. “It shows that you’re a go-getter. You’ve gone through things that the average person hasn’t.”

“I grew so much,” says Nick. “You don’t [initially] speak the language. You’re in the thick of a city. You learn to adapt to different things. It was a great experience. The crazy part is, things that were exciting ended up being everyday life.” 

“It was like a class in itself, a very practical learning experience,” John says. “When I get out of college, I won’t be entirely lost. It taught me how to use my resources.”