Cultural Experience | Florence

9 Reasons Why Studying Abroad as a Freshman is the Best: Reflections on a year in Florence, Italy

Studying abroad isn’t just for juniors anymore. 

It sounded intimidating to me at first, too. Study abroad as a freshman? You can do that? Why would you want to do that? Never mind the nerves about simply leaving home to go to regular college. This was a much bigger step- a literal leap across the world, with even greater uncertainties waiting for you.

But some of us thrive on those uncertainties, and the excitement of something completely unknown. Ultimately that’s how I knew that Marist’s Freshman Florence Experience was for me. Every year Marist College sends 40 to 50 of its most adventurous freshman to live and study at the Lorenzo de’ Medici institute in Florence, Italy for an entire year. The idea of such a program was shocking and different, and out of my comfort zone. I knew it was too good of an opportunity to turn down.

Among the many amazing people I met during my year abroad was Leslie Diaz, my freshman year roommate. Leslie is a junior at Marist studying Business Administration and Italian. She’s currently spending another semester abroad in Taormina, Sicily, staying with a host family and continuing her study of Italian. Leslie is by all accounts the poster child for the study abroad experience. She strives to completely understand and immerse herself into new cultures and environments. In thinking about why I loved studying abroad as a freshman in my own personal reflection, I also asked Leslie for her perspective on how to create the most rewarding experiences.

1. The Surprise Factor

I think it goes without saying that participating in a freshman abroad program sets you apart from the rest of the crowd. During our year abroad, we heard the phrase “Wait, you’re only a freshman?” on a regular basis. With only a few other programs like ours in Italy, there weren’t a lot of other freshmen around. Juniors and seniors on their semesters abroad were seriously impressed by our decision to take such a big step, and many of them envied our audacity to shake up the traditional college experience. Not to mention, it was also a huge boost to our resumes!

2. The best people you will ever meet

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Freshman class trip to Rome

No matter where we end up in life, I’ll always share a connection with the students I studied abroad with. Through all the struggles of moving to a foreign city and the joys of exploring new places, we leaned on each other through it all. I don’t know what it’s like to make friends freshman year on a usual college campus, but somehow my friendships feel deeper than that. Nobody else understands your experiences the way that your study abroad friends do.

L: “These people have seen me at my best and at my worst. There’s no bonding like having a six hour layover in Frankfurt, getting lost in Barcelona at 1am, eating Gusta on the bridge facing the Ponte Vecchio, or catching Eduardo’s right before it closes. Two years ago, I flew transatlantic with 40 strangers. Now, today they are some of my closest friends.”

3. Having a room with a view

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La Basilica di San Lorenzo

Let me just say this: I never had to endure a communal bathroom. Leslie and I shared a double room (with our own bathroom!) overlooking La Basilica di San Lorenzo and with an incredible view of Il Duomo right down the hall. Although we lived in dorm-style housing, most student housing arrangements in Florence are apartments of two to eight students. No two apartments in Florence are alike, and the history of the city comes alive through each building’s walls. On any given day you can open your window to hear a street performer strumming their guitar or singing a lovely Con te Partiro.

4. Feeling at home, away from home

I think that everyone develops a strong connection to their school when they go off to college. In my case, I feel like that connection was to Florence, itself. From walking through the streets every day to speaking with the locals, we really got to know the city, and it became our home. Leslie frequently stopped by Il Mercado Centrale, the local food market, to the point where the workers there recognized her. It was a great place for her to practice her Italian and it made her feel part of the city. She also did quite a bit of exploring in the neighboring areas around Florence.

Here are Leslie’s top five sites to see in Italy:

∗ Le Cinque Terre

∗ Il Carnivale a Viareggio

∗ Lucca

∗ The view from the top of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence

∗ Fiesole

5. Burning off the “Freshman 15”

Italy is one of the world’s most famous destinations for amazing cuisine, and Florence is no exception! Food is everywhere in the city, just tempting you to take a bite. My freshman year diet consisted of pizza, pasta, pastries, and parmesan (unfortunately I never got the hang of the cooking thing). You’d think that I would have gained 15 pounds three time over, but that wasn’t the case at all, and I didn’t even have to join a gym. Walking everywhere and the sheer number of stairs throughout the city are all you need to counteract those carbs!

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Homemade pasta

L: “Pizza will never be the same. I will only eat pasta al dente. And gelato is better than ice cream (but granita beats it all). Don’t worry about the freshman 15. Italian food is too good to pass up.”

6. Becoming Miss Independent

Before I moved to Italy I had never done a load of laundry, never gone grocery shopping, never (tried to) cook for myself. I quickly realized how dependent I was when all of these things became a reality in order for me to live on my own. Add to that the confusion of figuring out which soap was laundry soap at the Italian supermarket and finding the best deals for things like toilet paper, which I’d never had to buy before. We planned our own trips, maneuvered foreign subway systems, and handled little bumps in the road as they came. It’s really a fast track to maturity, and now I feel like I could do anything on my own.

L: “I thought I was independent before, but traveling at a young age is a great form of growing up. I know now what is worth worrying about, how to manage my money, the importance of making friends, and the respect towards cultural differences.”

7. Having the world at your fingertips

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Sunrise over the Sahara

Freshman year I traveled to nine different countries and 18 different cities. I repelled down waterfalls and rode a camel through the Sahara desert. I had the opportunity to do more and see more in one year than most people get to do in their lifetimes. Florence seemed like the perfect hub in Europe to easily get to other countries we wanted to see. It’s an incredible privilege to be able to experience so much of the world. I’m grateful every day for the chances that I’ve had and that I’ve taken.

Here are Leslie’s top five sites to see in the world, besides Florence, of course!:

∗ The Guinness factory (Dublin, Ireland)

∗ Prague, Czech Republic

∗ The Sahara Desert

∗ Vienna opera house

∗ Oktoberfest (Munich, Germany)

8. Studying abroad… again

L: “I was bit by the travel bug. And the only way I could be cured was to travel again.”

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Leslie in Taormina

Leslie and I aren’t the only students from our freshman class studying abroad for the second time. Did I mention that I’m back in Italy again, too? We’re all spread out from London to Hong Kong, continuing our love of travel and exploration of the world. Don’t get me wrong, I love going to school back in the US, too. It was certainly an adjustment, but I fell in love with Marist all over again when I arrived in New York my sophomore year. The courses we studied as freshmen were almost identical to those that the freshmen in New York were taking, too. This gave most of us the ability to go abroad again, and for Leslie and me, it was a no-brainer. Those of us who are abroad this year are currently studying with programs pertaining to our majors or gaining work experience in our desired fields.

9. Your new outlook on the world… and yourself

L: “All I want is to travel the world. I love meeting new people and learning about different cultures. Traveling creates an adrenaline rush that is incomparable.”

I learned that there’s so much more to the world than my hometown, home state, and home country. There is art, language, culture, and history that I couldn’t have imagined had I not seen them with my own eyes. All it took was the opportunity and the courage to leave behind what was safe, comfortable, and normal. I can’t imagine how my life would be different had I been too scared to try something so bold. The person I am today is aware and autonomous and sure of herself all thanks to her freshman year abroad.

L: “Studying abroad as a freshman definitely changed my life for the better and traveling puts my life into perspective. Being placed in a culture that is not your own is eye-opening. You become a better person.”

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Sarah Allen

Marist College | 2 stories

One response to “9 Reasons Why Studying Abroad as a Freshman is the Best: Reflections on a year in Florence, Italy”

  1. Nemesis says:

    WOW, loved this article!
    Made me wish I could buy the next plane ticket out of the U.S.!

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