By: Giovanna Brunetto
The thing about studying abroad is that, while it may be the best few months of your life, it seems to be over before you even know it. You strategically plan the next four years of college around the possibility of taking certain classes in a foreign country with all of your best friends. You work your butt off to make money that you will eventually blow on all your weekend travels. And in the end, you look back at all the friendships you developed, memories made, and calories consumed; wishing you had just a little more time to soak it all in. That’s what happened to me, and as I sit here writing this essay in my comfortable home in Spokane, Washington, I cannot believe how quickly my semester in Florence flew by. When I arrived in Munich for opening tour, my biggest concern was whether or not my luggage was going to arrive with me. But then, at the end of my four months abroad, my biggest concern shifted to whether or not I lived life to the fullest and absorbed every opportunity presented. You see, this shift in mentality is only a fraction of the wisdom and confidence I gained abroad. People say living in a different country changes you, and I can say first-hand this is exactly what happened and here are some of the reasons why.
I lived in a homestay. I had a trendy, hardworking Italian woman as my homestay mother, a charming businessman as my homestay father, and an energetic five-year-old girl as my homestay sister. My roommate and I were looking for an experience that would be different than most who study abroad in Florence. Of course, the idea of living with our friends sounded fun, but the possibility of becoming immersed in the culture in a way we may never experience again really appealed to us. We were nervous and shy at the beginning – did our family speak English? Were we going to get along? – the typical emotions homestay students feel when they first arrive. But it didn’t take long before we settled in, and now I can say that being part of the homestay program was one of the things that made my semester so amazing. Our family was great! We lived in a beautiful apartment, and had the most incredible view of Florence from our bedroom window. We had home-cooked meals four days a week and we lived a ten-minute walk from the center of town. Best of all, my homestay mother studied abroad in San Diego (my hometown), so there were remnants of home all over the house. I felt safe and secure; my home away from home was comforting and something I miss very much now that I’m back in the States.
As for Gonzaga in Florence, I met some of the most genuine and selfless people in our quaint four-story building campus. Every faculty and staff member cared about us students in a way I have never felt cared for before. It seemed like all the students had that one professor or faculty member that was their “go-to person.” Their person you just talk to because you have a break in between classes and want to catch up. Or that person you need to vent to because you’re running out of money, but the travel bug is so infectious you can’t stop booking flights for all your upcoming weekends. Needless to say, I had a “go-to.” Her name was Giacinta, and she worked as the front desk secretary, helping out students in need. The reason that she and I became close had to do with a package that my parents sent me from the US and got stuck in customs for about a month. I spent almost every day with Giacinta trying to send letters, student visa information, and receipts to claim this package. What started as needing help turned into a friendship I will cherish for the rest of my life. She knew when I was stressed, sick, or tired and always made sure I left her office happier than when I entered it. She is a perfect example of the kind-hearted people that care so deeply about us students as we are miles and miles away from mom and dad.
As part of the immersion process, I was eager to go beyond just my homestay and I volunteered at a retirement home outside the city. On a given Tuesday, I rode the bus and spent the next two hours conversing the best I could with some of Florence’s elderly population. When I say conversing the best I could, I literally mean the best I could. I had only three weeks of Italian under my belt when I first started, so the first couple visits were linguistically difficult and consisted of me sitting and nodding, and throwing in a giggle every once in a while. I had no idea what these kind people were saying, but I went along with it and they never knew how inexperienced I was in their language. The retirement home was lovely, and the nun running it was so grateful to have American students helping her out. This was just one of the many service opportunities GIF has to offer to its students, and each volunteering option catered to what the student wanted. Many of my friends spent their afternoons at elementary schools teaching children basic English, among other activities. We were all encouraged to immerse ourselves in whatever way we felt most comfortable, and this was a very enriching part of my semester.
Finally, as for traveling, I visited some of the most amazing cities in the world with some of my closest friends as well as people I met while abroad. I dove right in when it came to experiencing Europe. From the concentration camps in Krakow to seeing the Pope speak at the Vatican in Rome and even enjoying delicious “tapas” in Spain, I made sure not to miss out on what each incredible city had to offer.
One of our professors at GIF told us students at orientation that “Once you study abroad in Florence, you will spend the rest of your life trying to get back.” At the time, coming back was not even something that crossed my mind, but now a month later, I catch myself scrolling through flights, just curious when I will be able to afford going back. Ciao for now Firenze! You are deeply missed!