When bigger isn’t better

When bigger isn’t better

Thu 16 Feb 2017 1:03 PM

It’s Monday night, and I’m soberly walking on via San Gallo toward the Duomo for an uneventful hour at The Lion’s Fountain. My friends occupy the entire width of the narrow, cobblestone street and plan on continuing their evening at YAB or Bamboo. After a few glasses of cheap wine from the convenience store next door and a shot of tequila or vodka for some, our group semi-succeeds at walking quietly in a straight line past our stern security guard. As I watch my friends ungracefully make their way down the street, not hiding the fact they’re a stage past tipsy, singing, laughing, and talking about classes to last weekend’s trip to Paris to who they hope to see tonight, I wonder how and why I’m here. As we carelessly brush past the tame Florentines, I can’t help but understand why American study abroad students continue to accumulate a negative reputation in this historically significant Italian city.

Ph. Mary Gray

Last May, I submitted a deposit to attend a satellite campus of an American college in Florence. Peers and family members voiced their skepticism about my decision to spend my first year of university this way, but I was beyond excited for nine months in Europe. After four years at an elite all-girls boarding school, I craved a unique freshman year of college, far away from my isolated hometown in Vermont. My experience abroad continues to fulfill my desire of becoming a more well-rounded global citizen.

Throughout the past six months, I have mastered handling the commotion at the register at Conad, chatted over coffee with strangers, hiked the captivating Cinque Terre trails, navigated my way back to Florence alone after a travel disaster, sat on the same Spanish Steps as Hilary Duff did in The Lizzie McGuire Movie, and consumed more pizza and gelato at Santarpia and My Sugar than I should have. My student expat life in Florence has exceeded my expectations, and a big part of me doesn’t want to return to the United States in May; I love my simpler way of life here, and I’m mesmerized by the easy access to different languages, cultures, and landmarks in Europe.

More reflectively, I am hesitant about jumping into campus life back home after experiencing a taste of American college culture in Florence.

“What’s the WiFi password?”

“I’m traveling every weekend until finals.”

“How come people don’t move out of your way here?”

“Where are the frickin’ Cheezits at?!”

“Ugh, there’s no Uber here. We have to walk.”

I can’t pinpoint the exact reason(s) why American college student behavior results in Florentines’ perceptions that we are obnoxious, naive, and privileged students. However, I believe two key factors play an essential role.

For one, many American college students arrive in Florence with the American phrase “bigger is better” glued in their minds, making it more challenging to adapt to and appreciate life in this amazing Renaissance city. I’ve discovered my study abroad comrades are often in constant search of “bigger” things to please them in Florence. Bigger to-go cups of Arnold’s coffee to sip on their way to dreaded 9am’s, bigger English vocabularies to order a cappuccino at Ditta, bigger bucket lists to brag to their friends, bigger quantities of American brands to show off their style, bigger convenience for booking travel. Bigger opportunities for more Instagram likes, bigger glasses to splash booze into, bigger bandwidths to stream Netflix, bigger groups of people to do activities with and bigger sidewalks to avoid the droppings of Florence’s adorable pups. The shock of downsizing in Florence is a surprise to many and an ongoing challenge to overcome.

The second concept to consider is that much of American college culture involves constantly seeking approval from peers, which contradicts the expectation to be fully independent, handle uncomfortable situations and take risks abroad. There’s an underlying pressure to fit in on a campus; that’s why people naturally wear the same clothes, attend the same parties, partake in the same activities, eat the same college food, and occupy the classic, American college student lifestyle. In Florence, the college campus presence isn’t as dominant. As a freshman who hasn’t been exposed to a full blown college campus, it’s been second nature to do things on my own like grocery shop and cook, converse with my daily barista, spend a day in Verona and study at a cafe. I’ve discovered I cherish my more minimalistic lifestyle in Florence that isn’t as bombarded with technology, materialistic things and the constant need to fit in with the American college crowd.

Overall, American students in Florence tend to struggle with detaching from their familiar and comfortable habits at home, such as showing up to class in gym attire, constantly Snapchatting and strictly using debit and credit cards. These typical college habits follow students across the globe. It’s a shame, because the resistance to adapt to Florentine norms takes away from the value of their study abroad experiences. Recognizing the lack of interest and malleability to Florentine culture in American college students is disappointing. Why study abroad if you don’t have the intention to experience another culture? Why not at least attempt to use a few Italian phrases when you have the opportunity?

If American students could be more open minded and respectful of foreign cultures, they might realize how wonderful and positively different life can be outside the United States. Through spending my first year of college abroad rather than my first or second semester of junior year, I’ve been able to create my own definition and terms of American college culture without the influence of a standard campus lifestyle. I plan to pursue this college culture when I return to Poughkeepsie in the fall.

Changing American college culture in foreign countries would require a shift in American college culture in the United States. I don’t have a one-size-fits-all solution, but I can ask present and future study abroad students in Florence to be more vulnerable and patient while coping with culture shock and to focus on embracing being away rather than attempting to emulate their lifestyles at home in Florence. That would certainly be a big achievement for the better.

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