One of the many things that make Marist’s Study Abroad Program stand out is the Freshman Florence Experience (FFE), in which students are offered the opportunity to spend their entire freshman year at the Marist-affiliated campus, Lorenzo de Medici, in Florence. An entire school year of delicious food, breathtaking views, and exploring one of the most beloved cities in Europe, what could go wrong?
The biggest issue amongst FFE students that seems to occur has nothing to do with their time in Florence, but rather, the reverse culture shock when they attend Marist for their sophomore year.
“Leaving Italy and having to adjust to Poughkeepsie was hard for us. You would think that the culture shock of going to Europe would be worse, but our group adapted so well,” said Morgan DeBaise, a current senior at Marist who participated in the FFE program. “Italy became our home, even the lifestyle became home to us.”
Another current senior who participated in the FFE program, Jenna Kunze, expressed her difficulty transitioning by stating, “I had an extremely hard time getting used to being at Marist. The setting of Poughkeepsie—a caged campus on the side of a major highway—was one of the most shocking adjustments from my bedroom view of San Lorenzo Church.”
The culture shock of adjusting to the Poughkeepsie campus was only one of the reasons that the students who participated in the FFE program had trouble transitioning. Many felt that they did not receive much support from faculty or feel welcomed by other students.
“I feel like they just dropped us at Marist and expected us to figure it out for ourselves,” said Maggie Etchart, another student who participated in the FFE program. “I decided to transfer from Marist after my sophomore year because I felt like it was impossible to connect with the students outside of FFE. Since I wasn’t a part of the freshman class who began at Marist, I felt like I was always trying to catch up.”
Etchart was not the only FFE student who ended up transferring; while the exact numbers of students who decide to leave after participating in the program each year is confidential, several FFE alumni expressed that the amount of students who transfer after arriving at Marist is very high.
“I don’t know the exact number, but I believe it was more than half,” stated Kunze. “We lost them in waves, a bunch before even stepping on the Marist campus, but even more once we were here. One of our fellow FFE students even transferred back to Florence for the remainder of her college career.”
“Of the 46 people who did the FFE program in my class, I think around 15 of them transferred,” said DeBaise. “Two of which were my best friends, which made my experience even more difficult.”
One student who participated in the FFE program, Christina Munoz, said that during a summer visit at the Poughkeepsie campus after her freshman year abroad, she made the final decision that she did not want to attend Marist in the Fall. “I enrolled in the school because I really wanted to do the FFE program,” Munoz stated. “It was a hard decision to stick with because I made such great friends during my time in Florence, but I knew the campus in New York was not the right fit for me.”
Upon arriving to the Poughkeepsie campus, FFE alumni explained that although Marist did host some activities to help the students get acclimated to their new environment, it did not help them when it came to making new friends, or finding things to do around campus.
“I remember attending a few events planned for the FFE students,” stated Kunze, “It was nice to get together with FFE friends, but we did that independently of group activities, so it really wasn’t that different.”
“There was nothing to help us meet new people, we only had other FFEs,” stated DeBaise. “It was so hard to branch out of the FFE group, we felt like a lot people here were super closed off to us.”
This past August, a new mentoring program was implemented specifically for FFE students to help them transition smoothly from Lorenzo de Medici to Marist. Christie Alfaro, Assistant Director of Marist Italy Programs, began working on the mentoring program last year. The program is designed for FFE sophomores to be matched with juniors and seniors who also participated in the program. The mentors and mentees are paired up based off results of a questionnaire, which focuses on majors, similar hobbies, interests, personality traits, etc.
“Mentors are there to help answer any questions about housing, academics, joining clubs, and any other concerns they may have,” explained Jessica Bender, Assistant Coordinator of Marist Italy Programs. “Right now, we have 23 mentors and 35 mentees, so some of our FFE alumni are mentoring two students.”
The mentors and mentees are required to have a formal meeting once a month to discuss how they are dealing with their transition. The FFE sophomores are required to participate in the mentoring program for the first two months, September and October, when the transition period is the hardest. After that, they are free to choose whether or not they want to continue with the program.
“We certainly hope that the relationship between the mentor and mentee grows into a friendship, and not just a formal meeting once a month,” stated Bender.
Kunze, although not a current a mentor for the FFE program, is very involved in the process of helping students transition. “We had a bonfire last month and invited all the new FFE’s over to meet everyone,” she said. “They all feel exactly how we did when we first came back, so we were able to give them some advice. The new mentoring program should be great for them.”
Mentors who participated in the FFE program a few years ago expressed how they really see the benefit in the program and wish that it was available to them as sophomores.
“I think the program would have been really helpful for us,” stated DeBaise, a current mentor for the program. “It would have been motivating to hear and see other people in our situation who are succeeding at Marist.” One suggestion that DeBaise offered to help benefit the students even more was to have one mentor within FFE and one mentor outside of FFE, to help the students integrate with students outside of their program.
After being informed of the mentoring program, Etchart stated that she thought it was a great idea. However, similar to DeBaise, she emphasized the importance of making sure FFE students don’t stay constrained to the program. “I just hope they are also finding a way to integrate the FFE students with the rest of their class,” she said.
In addition to the mentoring program, Marist also provides FFE students with Parliamo Hours (meaning “lets talk” in Italian) in which the students are offered the opportunity to meet as a group twice a week and discuss their transition. Some of the meetings are designed for speakers to come in and discuss academic based topics, such as add/drop or introducing them to iLearn, while some are open hours with snacks and drinks to talk about how they are adjusting.
“We also try to plan fun events to get them off campus and explore the area at least once a month,” stated Bender, “We are taking them apple and pumpkin picking event at the end of October.”
Alexa Magnotta, a current sophomore who has just returned from participating in the FFE program, explained how she feels both the mentoring program and additional activities for the FFE students have really helped her during her transition period so far.
“Marist is doing a lot to help FFE students feel welcome,” Magnotta stated. “They made it very clear that if we had any difficulties or ever felt alone, they were always there to talk and assist us.”
Magnotta went on to explain that although she is very grateful that she has had her mentor to guide her thus far, she has also helped herself branch out by joining numerous clubs, introducing herself to new students, and also plans on joining a sorority in the Spring.
“We can do all that we can to help the FFE students, but at the end of the day it comes down to the students,” stated Bender. “It really depends on how much support they are willing to ask for and how much they put themselves out there.”
Although the mentoring program has only been going on for a little over a month, the positive feedback that it is receiving is a great sign of what is to come for the future of FFE students. In addition, previous FFE students who did not have the opportunity to have a mentoring program continue to have a positive attitude toward the FFE program in general.
“I wouldn’t change my experience for anything. FFE Alumni are the biggest advocates for the program,” stated Kunze. “I am happy that I can now tell prospective FFE students that the transition period is much better than it was for later generations of FFE.”