Meet Chelsea, an Industrial Engineering major from the University of Pittsburgh, who managed to re-arrange her academic course schedule to make studying abroad in Florence possible during spring semester 2015. Below, Chelsea tells us what to see in Florence if you have an interest in engineering, how exploring the city with her classes added to her academic experience and a few places that were meaningful for her during her time abroad.
CAPA WORLD: Tell us a bit about yourself.
CHELSEA CARTER: My name is Chelsea Carter and I am a sophomore Industrial Engineering major at the University of Pittsburgh. I just finished studying abroad through CAPA in Florence, Italy. Back in Pittsburgh I really enjoy playing tennis and I’m a member of the Pitt Club Tennis Team. I also enjoy sketching and was enrolled in a drawing class in Florence.
CW: What has surprised you about Florence?
CC: I’m not sure. I guess I kind of expected this old, beautiful, magical city. And don’t get me wrong, it’s all of those things, but it’s also full of real people and modern influences. It’s strange to see modern day people surrounded by such old architecture. It has a really cool effect though. It’s like the ancient and the modern coming together to coexist.
CW: How did you finally make the decision to go abroad? What were your worries?
CC: I’ve wanted to go abroad ever since my older sister studied in Rome her sophomore year. As an Industrial Engineering major at Pitt, we’re required to have an international experience. Most students fulfill that by studying abroad. The problem is that most engineering students don’t have the opportunity to go abroad for a full semester. Because of the rigorous curriculum at Pitt, the most feasible option for studying abroad is to go for a few weeks or through the summer.
The options to go for fall or spring semester are all exchanges with other universities – meaning I’d either have to go to an English-speaking country or take classes in another language. Since I don’t speak any other languages and I wanted to go for fall or spring semester, my only option was to do an exchange with an English-speaking university. The problem with this is that I really wanted to study in a country with a different language. I just think it makes the experience more culturally challenging. The problem with an exchange, too, is that I liked the idea of participating in a program and studying with other American students.
After looking extensively over the summer for a solution to this problem, I finally conceded and decided to study abroad for the month of May. The program I was looking at was in Florence with other engineering students from Pitt. Right before I committed to that, though, I went to the study abroad office to make sure I really had exhausted all of my options. That’s when someone suggested to me that I look into an arts and sciences program.
I went to my advisor the next day and asked if he thought it was possible. He and I decided that if I took my remaining four electives abroad, I might be able to rearrange my schedule to make it work. I spent the next few weeks making up my schedule for all the remaining semesters of my college career and getting various approvals from the school. I also had to look at the electives offered abroad and decide if they fulfilled my elective requirements. I decided in August that I would go abroad in January. I had to scramble to get the application in on time. Even after I applied I wasn’t one hundred percent sure that it would work out so that I could still graduate in four years.
It was a very long process to get to Florence. But it was completely worth it.
CW: What was it like to study abroad in Florence specifically as an engineering major? What would you recommend in terms of things to see and for someone with an interest in engineering?
CC: One of the greatest engineering feats of Florence was and still is Brunelleschi’s cupola on top of the cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore (better known as the Duomo). I learned about it in my Renaissance Art class. Basically, the Cathedral was built starting from the façade and working back towards the altar. The church was built over so many years that it had multiple head architects working on it. Each time the old head architect died, a new one would take over and decide to make the cathedral even bigger. By the time they reached the back of the church they all decided that they wanted to build a dome, but no one knew how to build a dome that big. They basically left a huge hole in the cathedral for decades and had faith that one day an architect would figure it out. And one day Brunelleschi did! It’s really cool to climb the dome and see the architecture within – definitely a must see for anyone interested in engineering.
CW: STEM students are in the minority when it comes to study abroad. What was most important to you when making your decision? How do you think studying abroad will play a role in your future career?
CC: Honestly, I didn’t make the decision to go abroad as an engineer – I just made it as a girl who always dreamed of going. I was determined not to let my major hold me back. But, beyond that I believe it is important as an engineer to explore the world of the arts and sciences. Engineering does involve a certain aspect of creativity, and I believe that studying the arts will help me to broaden my perspective. It is my opinion that engineers with an understanding of the math and technical world as well as the arts and sciences have an advantage over those who never explore their creative side.
CW: Which classes did you take in Florence? Share an example of how you've used the city as a classroom.
CC: I took Italian 1, Drawing, Creative Writing, Renaissance Art, and Cross-Cultural Psychology. I loved all of my classes, and I think each one allowed me to see the city in a unique perspective. I think my favorite class had to be Renaissance Art, though. It’s just amazing to learn about a piece of artwork and then see it in person later that day. We spent part of every class period outside of the classroom - either visiting a museum or church or walking around the city. Visiting a famous church means so much more to me when I know the history behind it. It’s an amazing experience.
CW: During Spring break, you had an opportunity to visit your another CAPA city - London. What are the biggest differences between the two global cities? Similarities?
CC: While I was in London I saw a lot of the tourist sights: the Tower Bridge, Big Ben and parliament, Westminster Abbey, the National Portrait Gallery, the Tate Modern museum, the crown jewels and Tower of London, the London Eye, and St. Paul’s Cathedral. I spent about five days in London and I still feel like I didn’t get to do everything I wanted to. London is such a cool place to be.
As far as the differences between London and Florence, I’d have to say size is a big factor. London is a lot bigger than Florence. London is also a more modern city, whereas Florence is filled with medieval and renaissance architecture. I also think that people are a lot friendlier to tourists in London (sorry Florence). I found all of the people in London to be extremely friendly and helpful when I asked for directions. Finally, I’d have to say the food is a big difference. The Italian food is amazing in Florence, but there’s not as much variety as there is in London. While I was in London for five days I was able to eat Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese, and Mexican food. London is just a more global city, in my opinion.
London and Florence are similar because they’re both heavily visited cities in Europe. If you’re willing to fight through the crowds of tourists, they both have a lot to offer.
CW: Where were the places you carved out as "Your Florence" - the places you found outside of the tourist sites, the places that were most meaningful for you? What was special about them?
CC: I can think of two places in Florence that meant a lot to me to be there. The first is the cemetery behind San Miniato al Monte – a church on top of a hill in Florence. The cemetery was the most beautiful one I had ever been in, and walking around and looking at the graves made me feel more connected to the city and the people that lived in it.
The second place is right by my apartment. There’s a path that will lead you right down next to the Arno. My roommate and I found it the other day, and it’s just a beautiful place. Plus, everyone down by the river was speaking Italian, which meant there were no tourists there (or at least none from outside of Italy). We felt like real Florentines.
CW: When you think of your host city, what first comes to mind when you hear the following:
Sight: Medieval and renaissance architecture, towers and domes
Sound: Chimes of bell towers
Smell: Cigarette smoke and Italian food
Taste: Pesto, tomatoes, olive oil
Texture: Rough cobblestone streets
CW: What changes have you seen in yourself since you began your study abroad program? What has your experience taught you about yourself and the world around you? Has it had any impact on your career goals?
CC: Well, this is the first time I’ve lived on my own and outside of the dorms, and I’ve definitely learned a lot about taking care of myself. I’ve learned how to navigate the streets of a foreign country alone, which has taught me a lot about independence and problem solving. I’ve also just learned a lot about Italian and European culture which has to some degree opened my eyes to how the rest of the world works.
As for career goals, I think every student should study abroad if they have the means to. It’s an invaluable experience, and more and more companies are looking for employees who are culturally aware. To top it off, it’ll be some of the best months of your life, guaranteed!