In addition to our semester, summer and January programs, AIFS helps schools and faculty members create their own study abroad programs. Customized, Faculty-led Programs (CFL) enable colleges to conduct their own academic programs abroad while AIFS provides logistical support, student services, classrooms, housing, cultural activities and more.
History Professor Bill Wrightson has been leading a study abroad program to Florence, Italy for the past ten years, and counting! What better place to take Italian History and Culture than the birthplace of the Renaissance?
We asked Professor Wrightson about why Italy is such an enduring place to travel and study, how taking this course abroad impacts his students, and the benefits of creating a customized study abroad program for students and faculty alike.
Tell us about your academic background. How did you become interested in Italy?
I went to grad school at the University of California at Santa Barbara. My general focus at both the MA and Ph.D level was Modern Europe. My area of specialization was Modern European working class history. I became fascinated by Antonio Gramsci which led me to Italy during the summer of 1983 where I did research in Turin, Milan, Rome and Florence.
I fell in love with Italy, Florence in particular. In 1985-1986 I returned to Italy for almost 10 months to continue my research.
You have taught the course Italian History and Culture, what do your students learn? What do you hope students take away from it?
I hope my students develop a greater understanding and appreciation of history. I hope they come to better understand how where we are molds who we are. I hope they develop an appreciation, and even love, of Italian history and culture. I hope they make travel an ongoing part of their life.
Perhaps the best way to answer this question is with part of the syllabus for the class:
At its best, the educational experience goes beyond the classroom; it combines academic and intellectual understanding with intuitive insights and emotional wonder. My goal is to try to do just that. Our education will come from our cultural experience in Italy, our guided visits to museums, our class visits to churches and historical sites, our strolls around neighborhoods of Florence, your individual adventures, as well as our time together in the classroom.
The readings have all been selected with the above goal in mind: integrating the academic with the direct and personal cultural experience. From Dante to Cellini and Michelangelo to Brunelleschi and Machiavelli, Florence is their city—the city that inspired them, the city whose glory today is a product of their genius.
The purpose of the class is twofold: to provide academic structure for the educational experience; and offer a context for greater social interaction, guided by the belief that shared experiences and experiences shared with others serve only to enhance our understanding and appreciation.
Why is Italy such an enduring travel and study abroad destination?
There’s something inherently romantic about Italy. Yes the fall in love kind of romance, but also the fall in love with life kind of romance. Students are intrigued by the culture, the art, the food, the history. And there are few places in the world that have the same impact as when a student tells friends and family: “I studied in Italy.”
Students enjoy walking through Florence as part of their daily routine. They love the excitement of living in the city, of eating “real Italian food.” They love the adventures that come with exploring a new country, a new culture. For those who truly embrace Italy, however, I think they discover a part of themselves they weren’t aware of before. And what makes them happy is that they really like the person they have become.
You have organized programs with AIFS for a number of years, what are the benefits of being able to customize a study abroad program?
I had led small groups of students to Italy before, but not as part of a study abroad program or class. I ran into Kirsty Isherwood in 2004 and as we were catching up she asked me why don’t I let AIFS develop a program. From a rough draft she sent me an itinerary a few weeks later and my first program was in the summer of 2005. Partnering with AIFS is immeasurably more fun than doing it myself. I’m able to enjoy teaching and interact with students more. I structure my class around the itinerary and AIFS takes care of everything in Italy, and they do a wonderful job. I love the experience of teaching a class that has been customized to the location and the many cultural and historical sites that can be used to enhance the teaching and learning experience.
As an educator, you frequently don’t know if you’ve really made an impact on a student’s life. But teaching abroad you see that impact, you see students change, become more confident, you see them realize that there are many more wonderful options in life than they had ever thought.
What is your advice to faculty or schools interested in setting up a customized program?
Sometimes life is not so complicated. Anyone who would like to teach abroad should contact AIFS about setting up a program. AIFS staff are a joy to work with; they’re professional, organized, helpful, and they’re impressively gifted at handling conflicts or problems that might emerge. As a result, the faculty member doesn’t have to deal with those problems–whether they be student conflicts or “foreign country hassles.”
My job is to recruit students, keep the class up to date, and teach. AIFS takes care of everything else: the classroom (in a former Renaissance palazzo); necessary equipment for presentations; apartments for students; group meal reservations; museum reservations; wonderfully gifted guides; train and bus reservations; day trips and excursions; a good deal on the optional group airfare; and handling all student questions about traveling and exploring Italy and Europe.
A customized program is ideal for any college that would like to offer students opportunities to study abroad other than the traditional year or semester. Programs can be designed for two weeks or more, and they can be set up to stay in different cities or even different countries. I encourage all faculty curious about setting up a study abroad program to contact AIFS. Present whatever ideas or goals you might have and AIFS will write up a proposal. From there you can make adjustments to the itinerary in light of cost and other considerations.
What is your advice in general for study abroad and travel in Italy?
I did not study abroad as an undergraduate. I wanted to but I didn’t think I could afford it. Years later when I looked back I realized that I could have afforded it, but I was being too financially conservative. This is something I try to convey to students: studying abroad is within the means of many students, but they have to put the work in and sometimes make the sacrifices to make it happen. As I try to emphasize, debt will go away after a year or two, but the experience of studying in another culture will change their lives.
Travel makes you richer. We all have things we can learn from other cultures, and some of those things we can incorporate into our own life to make it better and more rewarding.
Studying abroad sets the bar higher in terms of what a student thinks he or she can accomplish. As an educator, to witness this happening is one of my greatest joys in life, and I will forever be grateful to AIFS for making this happen.