Foreign Correspondents: Ferrara, Italy

By CELIA RIPPLE and NAOMI CUTLER

Celia Ripple ’20 (left) and Naomi Cutler ’20 are studying abroad in Italy. Here, they stand in front of a castle in the medieval town of Ferrara.

Naomi and I have been living in Italy for two months now, and one month ago we started studying at the university of Ferrara. Sharing this experience, we have talked a lot about preconceived notions about what living in Italy would be like, first impressions, and our current understanding of living here. 

When Naomi told people about her intention to study abroad in Italy, she got a similar reaction every time. People gushed over the idea of pasta for every meal and the Italian countryside. She kind of shrugged and went along with it, but never felt quite comfortable with the romanticization of a country that has nuanced identities. She never felt like she could contradict them, knowing that it could very well be more complicated than that. Based on what we know about study abroad programs in Italy, some students really might have this experience. They might only speak English and live in a tourist center and miss the real particularities of this country. In our situation, however, we are faced with the prospect of confronting these cultural “shocks,” and sometimes they create truly unpleasant challenges. For the last two months, I have been grappling with fitting into a society with which I might not always agree and trying to live up to the pre-imposed expectations of myself and my community that Italy is perfect. 

In a lot of ways, these “culture shocks” that we have experienced came unexpectedly. When asked by friends and family if I was nervous to go to Italy before departing, I typically responded, “No.” I thought culture shock was a phenomenon that people only experience when they enter cultures that are much different from their own.  I believed that life in a developed European country couldn’t really be that different from the U.S. However, we have found that even subtle differences from how to greet people on the street (or not) to using formal discourse with strangers and professors may cause discomfort.

One of the most challenging parts for us has been adjusting to the Italian university system. We were told before we came that it would be different, but we didn’t know what that really meant. We have been confined by scheduling time conflicts and prerequisites so we both ended up in classes that don’t academically push us. There are no assessments throughout the semester — no papers, projects, or midterms. A student’s entire grade in the class is computed from one final exam. Both Naomi and I will be required to write a junior thesis for history when we return, and we both intend to also write senior theses. However, we don’t feel that this university system is helping us develop the writing skills necessary to compose theses when we return to Middlebury. The main thing that Naomi feels she has learned from her class is how to listen to a nonstop lecture in Italian for two hours. This is meaningful and useful in some ways, but it means that we are missing out on one of our precious eight semesters at Middlebury. As it turns out, we both started study abroad with the intention to stay for the whole year. And yet, neither of us will be attending the University of Ferrara in the spring. We have also found from friends currently studying abroad and who have studied abroad in the past that to leave early for academic reasons is common. 

In addition to challenges with the academics, I have also found that the lack of a proper campus, university events, and university-sponsored student groups has made it difficult  to both integrate into the university culture and understand what concerns young people in this country. Instead I find that my interactions with the university are limited to the time I spend in class, a feeling that is very different from the life I live at Middlebury. 

Naomi and I wanted to write this article mainly to express the frustrations that come along with this experience abroad. It felt like we were required or predisposed to have the best year of our lives, but it has been more complex than that. Given the frustrations that we have faced, I also feel that this experience has had a positive impact on me personally. Being abroad has challenged me to really think about what I am looking for out of my college experience, and how I need to manage the rest of my time in Italy and at Middlebury. This experience has challenged me to think about how I learn and how I take care of myself. I have learned that it takes resilience to live in any foreign country, and even though Naomi and I have decided that the university experience is not what we currently need, I still feel that living in Italy has been valuable because of what I have learned about myself. 

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Foreign Correspondents: Ferrara, Italy