Growing up in Skaneateles, New York, Lily Datz ’22 would look at photos her mother had taken during work trips, and she dreamed about one day being able to visit those places. As director of an art archival project based in Florence, her mother had captured beautiful images of the city that made study abroad a top priority for her daughter. “That's one of the biggest reasons I chose Syracuse University,” Datz says.
For 61 years, Syracuse Abroad’s Florence program has given students like Datz the chance to explore the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance. Students immerse themselves in the city, often pursuing internships with local organizations like Orti Dipinti, an organic community garden. “The local families are the heart of Florence; they provide affection, understanding and support to students in a way that perhaps many have never experienced before,” says Jessica Volpe, assistant director for student life at the Florence center. “They are a safety net, and much more importantly, a warm consistent welcome to this marvelous city.” Host families open their homes and lives to students, showing them a side of the city hidden to most tourists, Volpe says.
When Datz arrived in Florence last January, it lived up to her childhood expectations. “The city was our classroom,” she says. Most classes concluded in the early afternoon, allowing her to explore Florence for the rest of the day. “We would finish our classes, and probably learned just as much simply by being in the city.” Datz and her classmates attended the Italian Renaissance art history class lecture on Mondays, and then went to site visits hosted by local museums on Wednesdays.
[Florence] was our classroom. We would finish our classes, and probably learned just as much simply by being in the city.
Six weeks into the semester, the COVID-19 crisis struck Italy, forcing the closure of the Florence center. “Within a week, everything changed,” Datz says. “The Florence program staff kept us updated and handled it the best way they could,” she says, noting that a steady stream of emailed procedures and reassurances helped alleviate her immediate worries as students prepared to fly home.
Datz’s next concern was how the unexpected shift to online learning would impact her coursework. As a dual major in geography in the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs and magazine journalism in the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications , she had found the Florence program was flexible enough to fulfill her study abroad dreams while allowing her to complete requirements toward graduation. But with study abroad suspended, courses like her art history class were in limbo. “None of my classes had an online component because so much of it was based on learning in person and from the city. The professors practically had to rebuild the courses from the ground up,” Datz says.
Faculty and staff at the Florence center quickly developed online courses so students could complete their semester. Datz’s art history professor, Jane Zaloga, was determined to continue giving the students a first-person point of view as they explored selected artworks. With cameras in hand, she and a graduate assistant captured footage of remaining sites the class had planned to visit before social distancing guidelines forced Italy’s countrywide lockdown. “I wanted to give the students a sense of the places they would have been experiencing, so we photographed and filmed the surroundings to help them see the works of art in context as much as possible,” Zaloga says.
The virtual museum included slides, animations of paintings and closeups, with Zaloga narrating the presentation. Datz feels Zaloga’s effort was well worth it, and she is especially impressed by the fact the course was developed in two weeks. “They provided us real views and made online learning as normal as it could be. I learned so much more from the videos because they were interactive. We weren't just looking at slides.”
Despite a six-hour time difference between New York and Florence, Datz found that faculty were constantly accommodating as students adjusted to the online learning environment. “It wasn't about what was easy for them. It was about making this experience the same for us.”
Although her first study abroad experience was truncated, Datz’s on-site courses and subsequent distance learning have inspired a desire to return to Florence. “I'm grateful for the seven weeks that I had in Florence. It was just an amazing experience.” Fortunately for Datz, study abroad applications are now open for spring 2021.