An Uncertain Future for U.S. Students in Florence

The garden at Georgetown’s Villa Le Balze in Fiesole

A hope and a prayer—that is what local U.S. university institutions and their directors are holding on to regarding the arrival of students for fall semester 2020.  With respect to programs that have not already been suspended temporarily by home campuses, the hope is that revamped and redesigned offerings will be able to give educational and cross-cultural experiences.  Most certainly, this will be welcomed by a far smaller percentage of Americans than usual who habitually frequent 40+ schools in Florence and another 15 scattered throughout the region.  The prayer is, for health reasons, that the Coronavirus contagion curve in the U.S. and Italy continues to improve and not take an upswing. 

There is an economic impact to consider.  An average of 15,000 students are hosted by North American and Australian study abroad programs in the Florence and Prato areas, creating an added value of 200 million euro in expenditures that benefit the region, along with 5,000 jobs, said Fabrizio Ricciardelli, secretary-treasurer of the Association of American College and University Programs in Italy (AACUPI).  Prior to ever-growing numbers of students, rising costs and inflation, an IRPET survey also showed that an additional 350 million euro was spent in Italy in 2012 alone by guests who visited students.  COVID-19 has also had a negative effect in the U.S. with respect to the loss of jobs and consequently on incomes, resulting in some universities stepping up financial aid and a number of families reconsidering the expense of study-abroad.

The sizable population of American students in Florence had disappeared by mid-March, 2020 in wake of the Level 3 (“reconsider travel”) Health Advisory issued for Tuscany as residents were entering Coronavirus lockdown.  Returning students ultimately went through self-quarantine as well as lockdown at home; they, along with their schoolmates in America, completed course work online through April and May.  Although the pandemic hit epic proportions in Italy during the last week in March, the peak of contagions in the U.S. was reached only in late April and early May—a significant number of new cases across the Atlantic continue to be reported daily, although numbers are decreasing.  Now that Italy is now in post-lockdown ahead of the United States, the question is: “when will the students come back and American study-abroad resume?”  The scenarios, like the context, are complex.

Following the evacuation, fall study-abroad programs were revamped and all onsite summer programs, were cancelled, with only NYU at Villa La Pietra showcasing a summer session through remote instruction.  C.E.A.—a provider that works with the University of Missouri, Penn State, the University of California and others—is also continuing lessons and internships using virtual platforms for summer as well as fall, allowing students to dialogue with professors and companies in Florence.  Similarly, the British Institute of Florence is offering a new series of on-line art history seminars, in addition to time-honored language courses.

American campuses in Florence reorganized the fall 2020 semester to last no more than 89 days, so students who already have a passport can arrive just as a normal visitor who is required to leave after 90 days.  With a Level 4 (Do Not Travel) Global Health Warning issued by the U.S. Department of State on March 31, 2020 and still in force, American passports are not being issued at present except for emergencies.  Many Italian consulates are closed or have limited operations, and are not processing student visas—which in pre-emergency times took at least three months of planning, a reality that AACUPI has asked the Italian government to change.  Upon arrival, with help from the local directors and staff, students were faced with an equally intricate and time-consuming bureaucracy of applying for Italian permits of stay (permessi di soggiorno) that were often issued close to their departures.

Many schools are creatively working with the shortened calendar.  This decision was also made in view of a possible second wave of infections.  Pepperdine University, where students normally stay two semesters, has planned their early arrival on August 17, with a 14-day quarantine period at Gargonza Castle, the venue of the school’s international Listening Summits in the past.  Respecting health protocols, there will be orientation, group activities such as hiking, live classes plus other courses taught via Zoom.  Once in Florence on September 1, fewer students than usual will be living in the dorms and they will order meals using an app as cafeteria service is not allowed.  At the end, students will leave Italy and the Schengen area, which they can explore in the meantime by train or bus (no air travel), returning to Florence for second semester in February.  Depending whether the home campus will offer classes in-person for the fall, the final go-ahead will come from California on July 1.

When the Coronavirus crisis in Italy was in its early stages during late winter, registration had begun for Tuscan-based fall programs 2020.  It went ahead, with the exception of Stanford-in-Florence, Kent State and Smith College, which received directives early on to suspend classes for the remainder of 2020.  Other schools accepted fewer applicants to be able to follow safety guidelines including social distancing.  The decision whether Middlebury College school abroad, with its premier focus on Italian language and culture, will run in Florence later this year will be made public by June 15; ditto for F.I.T., the Fashion Institute of Technology.  Georgetown canceled all international study-abroad that would begin before August 1, and the go-ahead from the main campus for fall at Fiesole’s Villa Le Balze facility is still pending.

Despite enrollments, at the beginning of June the home campus of both Florida State University and California State University cancelled international study—Florida State just for fall, leaving a window open for spring.  On its part, Cal State is a nine-month program (late August – mid-May) normally does not accept students for just one semester but is making an exception for Spring 2021, which will be offered. ISI (International Studies Institute), a consortium of American private colleges and public university systems, reports that only one of their 10 affiliated schools, which specializes in architecture, will send students to Florence in the autumn.

Like Pepperdine and Georgetown, Harding and Lipscomb universities are headquartered in villas that provide accommodations as well as classroom space.  All have students who signed up and are waiting for green light from their home campuses that will arrive before the end of June.  Harding would have 22 students coming instead of the usual 34 and the director acknowledges “understandable difficulties in adapting our setting and our trips to conform to the new normal.”

Whether or not the program actually takes place, the start and end dates for a coming Syracuse University Florence semester were announced as October 1 and December 17 with online orientation and course work beginning September 15.  Syracuse students are generally placed in homestays, with the exception of architecture and studio art majors, who can request shared apartments.

Italian-run organizations hosting American students—such as Lorenzo de’ Medici—are still planning on the arrival of Americans, no doubt fewer than the usual 1,000 students—this fall.  Transfer credits and transcripts are the responsibility of a partner university in the U.S., primarily Marist College. Marist has announced its intention to resume on-site classes in Florence if conditions permit, with the local school being the provider of classrooms, teachers and housing.  This same scenario applies to FUA (Florence University of the Arts), working in tandem with its American academic partner Fairfield University, which is offering a late September start if all goes ahead.  FUA is currently accepting applications from individuals and other programs as well.

The hope and the prayer of all study-abroad institutions for the Fall ’20 semester is echoed by Jason Houston, director of Gonzaga in Florence. “We are preparing our faculty, staff, and facilities for the presence of students, keeping updated as the Italian Government releases guidelines and protocols.  Much depends on factors out of our control, most importantly the U.S. State Department Travel Advisory Level 4, which needs to come down to Level 2 before our students can travel,” said Houston.  (rosanna cirigliano)