Strolling the cobblestone streets, passing by Renaissance works of art, eating some of the finest cuisines, and enjoying the bustling city’s nightlife are a few privileges that students abroad enjoy in Florence. This lifestyle becomes a reality for freshmen choosing to spend their entire first year abroad. In nine months, these 18-year-old students have become Florentines. They have spent two semesters chatting up the locals, becoming café regulars, traveling Europe–all while forming close relationships with peers. But what happens when this magical year abroad ends? It is time to return back to America and pick up as a sophomore at Marist in Poughkeepsie.
Instead of eating in a quaint trattoria with the freshest food, students are now eating in the dining hall. The days of walking to class with street musicians serenading them are over. Now, the group is walking to class in a sea full of strangers.
Marist College implemented the Freshman Florence Experience over 10 years ago as a way to grant first-year students a unique cultural experience while pursuing foundational coursework. The program has been running for over 10 years, remaining a popular path to take.
An average of 40 students per year, partake in the program. “With 40 students, allows a strong relationship with faculty, and the student cohort members themselves,” said Alex Tom, associate director of international admissions.
Joseph Campisi, the assistant professor of philosophy in Poughkeepsie has taught in Florence for two semesters. He sits in his Fontaine office, starkly contrasting to his space in the historic, Renaissance city. Campisi enjoyed the tight-knit group that was formed between the “FFE’s.” “You have a fewer number of students, and so they all get to know one other. It creates a neat classroom experience since everyone is all friends with each other,” said Campisi. This is a blatant contrast to classes in Poughkeepsie, where a student often does not know anyone in the room.
Former FFE Aaron Todd explains one challenge of breaking away from the FFE group and trying to meet new classmates. “We were going from a super friendly, familiar environment–then returning back as a sophomore, the rest of the students already established their friends and weren’t as open to meeting people,” Todd noted.
Florence is a unique place. Therefore, there needs to be a differentiation between the year abroad and life at the New York campus. “Italy is not going to be Poughkeepsie and the second you start thinking it is, you are going to absolutely hate it here,” confessed Jackie Gruber, former FFE. It is important to remember that the two cities are clearly, not the same. Alex Tom (aforementioned) is an alumnus who participated in FFE. “When you come back from a year overseas, initially you think ‘wow Poughkeepsie is not Florence’ but that is obvious. There are more opportunities in the New York area that you’re not going to get in Italy,” Tom reassured.
Another difficult adjustment is the lack of nightlife for freshmen. FFE’s are legal to drink in Florence. But when they come back to New York, all of that changes. “I always worried about the social aspect for students returning back. They were of legal age to go to bars and clubs in Florence. When they get back they’re going from 60 miles per hour to 3 miles per hour,” Campisi said.
While the transition from abroad is quite the adjustment–it is possible. Marist faculty try their best to make FFE’s feel comfortable. Three days prior to the semester beginning, orientation is held. “We do a lot to try to help the sophomores acclimate to campus here. We talk about the different resources available and each student is paired up with a mentor/former FFE,” said Jean Hinkley, coordinator of the Freshman Florence Experience.
“We would do things to acclimate, like have picnics by the Hudson River with the FFE’s,” Gruber said. It is a stark contrast to eating pizza on the Ponte Vecchio, overlooking the Arno River. However, creating some kind of familiarity helps FFE’s transition and resume their college careers back in the United States.