My favorite travel quote is "The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page." I made a rather impromptu decision during my senior year at Vanderbilt to study abroad because I realized that I had been "stuck" in the same blah-humdrum chapter, and desperately needed to turn to the next page. I was drawn to Siena, Italy specifically because I always had a sneaking suspicion that Italians had an undeniable love of life (this is, afterall, the country where talking with your hands is a sign of passion, and basically their honorary second official language); and there, under the Tuscan sun, loving life is contagious. Pretty soon, I was savoring and indulging in every little innocuous moment, enjoying friendships, and developing a rather spirited palate for all the sweeter things in life. And most important, taking time to simply BE where I was.
If you are looking for a world-class, yet quaint, off-the-beaten path Italian experience, then this program is for you. Of course, Italy boasts cities like Florence, Venice, Milan and Rome-which are admittedly very beautiful-but take my advice: For inspiration, sometimes you must look beyond the bestseller list; (this goes for cities as well; as you will soon discover, even the most obscure cittadine in Italy hold a hidden, special treasure so NEVER turn down the opportunity to travel). Though Siena is a less well-known city, there are many perks to CET's "History of Art and Italian Studies" Program such as : accelerated Italian language courses that cover one year of Italian in a semester, ample opportunities for immersion including language parterns, academic traveling seminars, local roommates, and volunteer placements. The combination of these factors have allowed me to achieve proficiency in oral and written Italian, to demonstrate a deep understanding of the history of Italian literature and culture, and to develop and awareness of the ways Italian Studies intersects with other disciplines.
I think it's only right that I begin my review of CET Siena's "History of Art and Italian Studies" with the backbone and soul of the program: Christina Angellili, the Resident Director. She will be your point of reference for any problems, questions, or concerns you may have and will help you to get settled in Siena. She's very approachable and accommodating. I'm tempted to say that just having her as the RD of Siena should quell any doubts you may have about the program. From buying tickets for class excursions, to teaching you phrases in Italian, to 4am emergency room visits, Christina will always be there for you. It's her job, but you can tell that she genuinely cares about the students.
The major complaint about thsi program is that the class selections are too few. When I was there this Spring, there were 6 classes offered: Italian Cinema (3 hours), Etruscan and Roman Art (3 hours), European Banking System (3 hours), Sienese Art and Architecture (3 hours) Italian Cultural History (4 hours, mandatory for all), and Italian Language (6 hours, mandatory for all; levels Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced). Each student takes 4 classes for a total of 16 hours. The Italian Language course can be demanding for some, but if you want to pursue graduate study in Italian, or learn Italian well enough to successfully live there, then this course will prepare you if you take it seriously. For example, I was the only student in my Italian Langauge course-initially, this made me uneasy but there invaluable benefits to CET's small class sizes: 1) you get the most personal academic attention possible, 2) being the only student in class, the course was taught at my pace, and 3) I had a stellar participation grade, go figure! There was no competition ;-) I did not particularly enjoy the Italian Cultural History course, but it had more to do with the teaching style of the professor (who no longer works for CET) more than the material being studied. Etruscan and Roman Art and Italian Cinema were great, I learned a lot!
Some of my projects, presentations, essays etc. included Hadrian and the Classical Revival 117-138AD, A Comparison of De Sica's "Ladri di Biciclette" and Fellini's "La Dolce Vita," Storie di immigrazione, discriminazione razziale e cittadinanza in Italia, Race Relations, Family and InterMarriage in Italy, and the final essay on our traveling seminar to Catania. Trips to museums, libraries and archives around Italy helped to complete research. Each project was a final essay, or an oral exam conducted in Italian only, or a combination of both.
Traveling around Italy, and Europe in general is relatively cheap. A bus ticket from Siena to Florence cost about 8 euro. To reach cities like Bologna, Milan or Rome, tickets can range between 20-45 euro, but hostels can surprisingly be really cheap ranging between 15-20 euro per person (but I've stayed in cheaper). Italians are VERY hospitable, so if you have friends in a particular city, they will usually (in my experience) be happy to host you and show you around their city! So traveling around Italy can be easy and a non-hassle if you're smart and proactive about your departure from Siena. The Chianti Region is only 45 minutes away from Siena. CET organized a trip to Castello di Brolio so we were able to tour a 12th century castle and enjoy an afternoon of wine tasting together. Likewise, getting around Siena is a breeze and you can walk just about anywhere from class at the CET Center, to restaurants (Fonte Giusta was my favorite), to bars and pubs (try Barrone Rosso, Bar Corsa or La Diana), to the train and bus station (which are just outside the city walls, and in Piazza Gramsci, respectively), to La Fortezza (well-preserved fortress where students go to practice yoga, run, dance....also, good news for night runners:there are usually people there until about 9pm...as you will soon discover, Italians do everything a bit later...including eat dinner, YIKES), and of course to Piazza del Campo where you can meet tons of university students, have aperitivi, and grab a gelato and relax on days when you need it most.
If you are worried about the language barrier, you can take comfort in the fact that you will have access to English speaking doctors, psychiatrists, services etc. should you need them. But generally, as long as Italians can tell you're making a genuine effort to speak the language, you'll be fine, at worst-you'll learn that albero genealogico and albero ginecologico are NOT the same thing, and at best-you'll get a good laugh a make a friend (story of my life there).
I was lucky enough to experience Italy for the first time with what I would call a group of...eccentric intellectuals...there were only 6 American students which ended up working out perfectly for our group. I and another American girl stayed in an apartment with three other Italian students from the Unviersity of Siena, while the other four students stayed in two separate homestays. Our apartment was bigger than I expected. I shared a bedroom with my American roommate and the Italian roommates had their own bedrooms, and we all shared two bathrooms. I thought I would be missing out on something by choosing an apartment instead of a homestay, and as hokey as it sounds, I really grew to know my Italian flat mates as my "host family." We went on adventures, connected, grew, and it was clear that everyone believed in good energy because, as you will soon discover, once you make a friend in Italy, they're your friend for life! :-)
Things you MUST take with you to Siena: any preferred or necessary medications (the farmacia may not carry your specific brand); an umbrella; international plug adapter; photocopies of your passport, visa, health insurance, or any other vital documets, etc; RELIABLE walking shoes (don't even board the flight to Italy without these); a debit card with a bank that doesnt charge international fees (check Charles Schwab or Capital One); at least 350 euro cash because the first week, you must pay a housing deposit fee and for your permesso di soggiorno (note: try to convert cash at home bankt to avoid high airport fees). AND last but not least? A sense of adventure, an open mind and a positive attitude!
There are at least three pre-set traveling outings set my the RD and the Italian roommates: to Viareggio's world famous Carnivale (so much fun), rock climbing, and a day trip to La Terme (basically a spa and pool facility). My favorite however was the traveling seminar to Catania with the Italian Cultural History course.
In Catania, we visited Libera`, an anti-mafia organization that confiscates land once owned by Mafia bosses and converts it into viable farmland. We picked oranges and lemons, and learned about the history of the Sicilian Mafia. Afterwards, we visited Museo dello Sbarco, which recounts the history of Italy under the Fascist regime. Later we visited the "Pupi Siciliani" Museum and were in for a real treat! The owner of the museum talked about how puppetry is connect to Sicilian culture and his own family, and he even performed for us! The best part? We got to come on stage and hold the puppets (BEWARE: some are over 100 pounds).
From volunteering to teach English at a local Siense elementary school, to to pushing my Italian to intermediate level, to to serving as a CET student correspondent, building lasting friendships and freshly off the most beautiful experience of my life, I understand the value of study abroad on a personal level, but on an academic level, as well.
CET Siena has provided the linguistic and cultural groundwork to proceed with my plans to pursue graduate education in Italian for the Fall of 2015; it inspired my Senior Thesis "Renaissance Humanism and the Arc of the Italian Chivalric Epic" and the confidence I built in Siena gave me the courage to return to Italy: I'm currently living and working in Manerbio, Italy at Mazzolar ITC teaching English with high school students through Dickinson College's SITE Program, and I'm in preparation for the B2 level CELI Italian Language Competency Exam at the Istituo Pacioli in Crema.
"E` stata veramente l'esperienza piu' bella della mia vita" is always my response when asked about my time in Siena. The city will always be in my heart because it and its people gave me experiences and memories, in 5 months, that I've dreamt of having for a lifetime. Even though I was thousands of miles away from home, I never felt more free, challenged, or at home than I was right then, right there. Now I can scratch "trust your instincts on new, exciting opportunities off of my life's bucket list! Grazie mille, CET.