A new May term course in Italy immerses students in la dolce vita
By Kelly O'Brien
Learning a new language is never easy. You toil away in Folwell classrooms, writing esercizi and practicing dialogo, conjugating verbs every which way, wondering if you'll ever really get it, or use it. Eleven Italian language students, however, reaped the rewards of four semesters of language study when they visited Florence in May for what could be called a working vacation.
Developed and taught by Italian instructor Dr. Sabrina Ovan, this first-time May term course, Italian Reading Composition and Conversation, immersed the 11 undergraduates in the language and culture of Florence for 24 days. They spent three hours each day in class, but "time flew by because we had so much fun with the material we were learning," says Madeline Mason, a junior journalism major. Students read the novel 54 by the Italian writers' collective Wu Ming, and their grammar and vocabulary lessons were built around the book. That kept studying manageable, says Mason, "even while we took weekend trips to Rome, Bologna, and Cinque Terre."
Ovan designed the course specifically to create a bridge between the classroom and the "real world." "A study-abroad experience makes it possible to take what's learned in the classroom and apply it in everyday experiences," she says. "Moreover, it brings the experience of the world into the classroom."
A native of Italy herself, Ovan chose Florence in order to give her students a deep cultural experience to augment their class work. Besides visiting the cultural high points of Florentine history and culture--the Uffizi Palace, the Galleria dell'Accademia (where they saw Michelangelo's David)--the students were encouraged to go off the beaten tourist path. Thus they discovered Santo Spirito, located across the Arno River. A trendy neighborhood where young Florentines hang out, the students had a chance to meet and hang out with "real" Italians.
"Since I could actually communicate with the Italians, I really felt like I was living in Italy," says Katherine Hannon, a senior journalism major. Like other students in the program, she counted shopping, eating gelato, meeting people in cafes, and other everyday experiences as highlights.
These everyday experiences also improved the students' language skills--the primary goal of the course. "Aside from classroom learning, immersing myself in the language opened doors I'd never known existed in the Italian language," Mason explains. "My confidence, vocabulary and oral skills skyrocketed."
The exchange rate created challenges: a small gelato in central Florence cost four dollars or more, a cappuccino more than five dollars. Even bread, traditionally the least expensive food in Italy, has become less affordable; a slice of focaccia cost almost four dollars. Many of the students still managed to shop for clothes and souvenirs, avoiding the big fashion names like Prada and Gucci, by browsing the more affordable stores that regular Italians shop in. The upside of the situation, however, was that because they had to count their euros carefully, they started living less like American tourists and more like Italians, shopping at local markets and cooking in their apartments.
Study-abroad experiences undoubtedly change lives. As an enthusiastic Hannon says, "Spending May term in Italy opened my eyes to the fact that there are so many possible directions your life can go in."
Mason would do it again in a heartbeat. "Being in a non-English-speaking country, far from everything that's familiar, taught me immeasurable things about myself," Mason says. "People always told me that being in college gives you a great sense of independence, but it doesn't compare to the sense of independence I tasted in Florence."