The COVID-19 pandemic has become a norm in today’s world, from regular mask mandates to vaccine requirements. As it approaches its two year anniversary, the virus has infiltrated every aspect of everyday life: needing a vaccine to work or to travel, wearing a mask to the grocery store or the movie theater, and moving in-person meetings or school lessons to Zoom. During this past summer, many people were hoping to have a handle on the virus so as to return to a somewhat normal existence come the fall — which has unfortunately proven to be a false hope.
Sophia Husnik, a student from the University of Minnesota in the United States, was wary of these new restrictions upon her arrival in Florence, explaining that she was “worried that [she] wouldn’t have all the opportunities to fully experience studying abroad given possible restrictions that could arise due to the pandemic.”
Mask mandates were still in place across the world and vaccine requirements were becoming stricter and more common, and for many university students, one aspect of their college experience was still up in the air: what about studying abroad? Because so many countries were at different places in terms of COVID cases and safety restrictions, it was unclear as to how or when students would be able to go abroad again for their studies. For two programs, however, the opportunity to travel to Florence arose and thus this fall semester became the first for these students to travel during COVID-19.
Students from the University of California and the University of Minnesota have traveled here to Florence from the United States to continue their studies and participate in international internships — while also still battling the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. This, as expected, introduced new requirements in the travel process, including vaccine requirements (students from the United States were required to have a vaccine in order to both enter Italy and visit places while in Florence) as well as mask mandates as stated by the Italian government. Masks were worn during in-person lessons, visits to museums or restaurants, on buses or trains, and so on.
Husnik wasn’t alone in her concerns — everyone, from abroad students to local Florentines and Italians, was concerned about how traveling would work safely during the ongoing pandemic. Especially one that doesn’t show for much improvement in the coming months due to the announcement of the new Omicron variant. Because of this, the pandemic has proven to be a force that is constantly changing and keeping governments and healthcare workers on their toes as they try to maintain the health and safety of their citizens.
As the semester went on, these students adjusted to not only the new country they were living in, but also the ways in which Florentines and Italians were handling the pandemic. Kelli Spaniol, another student from the University of Minnesota, emphasised how yes, there were concerns to be had when preparing to come abroad due to the pandemic, but that it hasn’t completely hindered her ability to thoroughly experience her study abroad spent in Florence.
“While the COVID restrictions limited my ability to travel anywhere outside of Italy, in my opinion it was a blessing in disguise because I was able to see parts of Italy I know I would not have been able to see if I spent that time traveling elsewhere,” Spaniol said.
Of the many aspects of studying abroad impacted by COVID-19, both Husnik and Spaniol explained that they’ve still been able to explore Florentine life and culture while still adhering to COVID-19 regulations. Museums and cathedrals were open to the public, indoor dining was available, and travel by bus or train to other Italian cities was easily accessible. For these study abroad students, the ability to still experience these aspects of Florentine and Italian culture was extremely important in gaining a well-rounded study abroad experience — even during a pandemic.
Jacob Prager, a student from the University of California, was the only student from either university to also participate in a homestay in which he spent his semester living with a local Florentine family.
“I chose to do a homestay rather than an apartment because I wanted to improve my Italian and get a feel for how the local Italians live,” Prager explained.
From home cooked meals to learning Italian from the mouths of locals, Prager has been able to experience a more intimate side of Florentine life. Thankfully, as Prager explained, the COVID-19 pandemic “has not made a significant difference in [his] homestay experience.” A homestay experience like this provides a direct view for abroad students into the lives of locals as well as the ability to see how it differs from life back in the United States.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused great stress and change for people across the globe, from school and university lessons being moved online to vaccine and mask requirements in many social settings. For these students, not only have they been able to have the chance to go abroad and experience life in a new culture, but they have also had to learn how to adapt during a global pandemic and how it impacted their time and experience in Florence. Hopefully the ability to study abroad remains possible in the future as the world continues to find solutions for COVID-19 and its effect on everyday life, travel, and school.