My Experience with a Non-WMU Program

Alex Taylor
Major: Creative Writing English
Non-WMU Program Florence, Italy

It’s An Acquired Taste

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I had no idea what I had gotten myself into. I’d never been on a plane, never left the country, and never said “Ciao” in my life. I was $2000 in the hole to a study abroad company stationed on the other side of the country that I had found using google. And one night, I got the call from financial aid.

Foolishly, I found myself $7000 short from the program’s tuition bill. 23 days away from my plane’s departure, I was out of resources. I made a bold move, something that is out of character for me, and made the decision to bury myself another $2000 by deferring the program to the following spring semester. $300 later, and my plane ticket reflected the changes.

This is the story of how I was never supposed to make it here. The weeks passed quietly as I tried to come up with something. I put my head down, took nine credits out of pocket, and piled my entire financial aid payout into the spring. I was still well short.

I worked 45 hours a week flinging chicken wings in buckets and washing blood off a greasy floor trying to think of anything. Every day I would stare at my phone in anticipation, glaring at the picture of the Duomo as my background, until one day, it finally rang.

To this day, I still don’t feel deserving. I’m just a normal kid, my grades are mediocre and I’m not a D-1 athlete by any means. But somebody, somewhere, saw something in me. And that person awarded me a $7000 study abroad scholarship to allow me the opportunity to take my first steps on European soil.

I will never forget my first day out of the country. My first flight dropped me off in Bologna instead of Florence, which I didn’t find out until I realized nobody was there to pick me up. The airport handed me a bus ticket- and charged me $20 euros for it- the first euros I’d ever spent. I was dropped off at the train station and started lugging around 50lbs of bags aimlessly through the pouring rain, jet-lagged and with a dead cell phone. I wasn’t at home anymore, and I wouldn’t be for a very long time. I have never felt so alone in my entire life.

so florence 2The first day of orientation started and I was surrounded by a herd of nittany lions. Everybody I asked attended Penn State and I learned quickly that Western Michigan University was irrelevant; nobody had ever heard of Kalamazoo. Most people knew each other already, and those who didn’t quickly acquainted. It felt like high school all over again; but this time, I was the new kid. Initially, I was unimpressed with the campus. The classrooms were small, the library lacked a large selection, and the vending machine tricked me into buying sparkling water. The first week, I spent every night researching the price of withdrawing from the program.

My reason for coming to Florence was to write in the same city Dante did. I put a lot of pressure on myself to do so. I refused to socialize with the Americans around me in order to write, and this quickly took the fun out of it; not to mention the quality of the words I was actually writing. I dug myself a deep hole the first two months, and halfway through the semester, I was unsure if I could ever make it out. I had made myself the outcast; the quiet kid with red joggers and a pencil tattoo; the awkward guy without many friends. For these first two months I blamed everybody else; they weren’t the only one from their school here, so they didn’t understand. I believed this self-pity for a long time, and my attitude reflected it.

But my attitude soon shifted when CEA provided me the opportunity to reach salt water for the first time in 16 years. My financial situation has been brutal. I let jealousy consume me as I watched everybody travel the continent while I sat eating ₵1 pasta. The Amalfi Coast weekend taught me a lot about the person I have allowed myself to become.

The second half of this semester was when things really took a turn. My writing got better as it started to become less of a chore. I finally accepted that, although I might not attend a school like Penn State or Michigan or Indiana, there is no need to be alone through all this. I stopped being cynical of the classes I was taking and the building I was taking them in. I stopped being judgmental of my classmates. I stopped having the attitude of a 5 year old when they don’t get their way. The guilt I feel today is nearly unbarring; now I admit, I never gave this program a chance.

CEA, you may be small and you may not be the school I was expecting to attend. Your wifi is inconsistent and having to take the stairs three stories up is an embarrassing reminder of how out of shape I am. But the things that you lack are outnumbered by the things that you have been able to provide for me. CEA, you are a big reason for my developing affection for this city. For the first time in a long time, I wake up with a smile on my face. You’ve enabled me to reenter Florence every morning and fall in love over and over again.

There is no better way to start my day than walking through the city of Florence and being greeted with a “Ciao bello” from the smiling Vania. Hearing teachers speak with an Italian accent will never happen to me again. And vending machine coffee will no longer get me through a 9am Italian class (the days I actually did make it).

I question whether this semester has satisfied the others in this program. CEA allowed me to stay in a city that tourists are desperate to see and sleep in an apartment fifteen steps from the most historic bridge in Italy. CEA allowed me to see the Duomo in person every single day and night; something that put the background of my phone to shame. And CEA allowed me to meet people that have made an impact on my life that I will never be able to express in words.writing in italy 2

This semester has instilled something inside me I have never really had before: confidence. What I’ve learned from these last four months is that we all have a story. No matter how we got here, no matter what school we represent, and no matter why we chose to study here in Florence, all our paths are different. But one thing we do have in common, something that we rarely ever give ourselves credit for: we all made it here.

Florence has tested me, emotionally and physically, and has allowed me to see the change I need to execute in order to become the man I want to be. It takes a lot for me to admit, but CEA Florence, I needed you. I’ve been able to be educated under a staff that truly believes in me and roots for me. Although most of the time I was convinced I never fit in, I learned that no matter where you’re at in the world, you will never be alone.

Our time is nearly over together, and sadness now blends with nostalgia. I will no longer be able to joke with Monica about my atrocious attendance (I had Italian at 9am four days a week, cut me some slack). I will no longer be able to discuss with Emily my terrifying spending habits that got no better while abroad. And I will no longer be able to walk into school and be met with that Vania smile that makes everybody’s day just that much better. There are plenty of things I will miss about this place, and these are just a few. But one thing I will take back home from CEA with me is a group of people that I must make proud. Through these short four months, my mind has been altered irreversibly.

You were worth every penny I was able to scramble together to make it here. I will soon be working to pay back this tuition, but as I work, I promise I’ll have the cheesiest smile on my face. You have allowed me the opportunity of a lifetime, you believed in me and saw something in me, and you did not disappoint. Although my grades from this semester are forgettable, I promise you; I will never forget what you have done for me away from the transcript.

CEA, this has been the best four months of my life; you have allowed me to feel like a kid on the playground again. My most genuine happiness has come during this time, and one day, I hope to make you as proud as you deserve to be. Us students all have a story about how we made it here, and this, is the end of my story.

 

With much respect, ciao.

-Alex Taylor

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