CAPA Study Abroad Alumna Interview: Olivia Witwer
Meet Olivia, an art history and anthropology major from the University of Colorado at Boulder who studied abroad with CAPA Florence. Below, Olivia talks about the importance of making use of the city as a classroom, what travel taught her about the wider world and how the art scene and her classes in Firenze inspired her to continue pursuing a career path in museum work.
CAPA WORLD: Tell us a bit about yourself.
OLIVIA WITWER: I studied abroad in the historical city of Florence, Italy. I attend the University of Colorado at Boulder and am currently a junior with a double major in art history and anthropology. I love to read and do all things outdoors! I am always looking for my next adventure, whether it’s in the pages of a book, traveling to a new place, or walking down the street with my dog.
CW: Why did you decide to study abroad in Florence? Also, how did you choose a program? What was most important to you?
OW: As an art history major, Florence was a no-brainer for me. I absolutely love Renaissance style art and Florence was ground zero for the Renaissance, so I thought there was no better place to spend my time abroad. I wanted to be able to take classes that my home university didn’t offer and I wanted to be able to immerse myself in the culture. I had been taking Italian language courses for the past several semesters as a start, but I wanted the program I chose to help meet my desires.
I chose CAPA because of its philosophy that the city was the classroom. Classes they offered were spent learning and experiencing the material by walking the city, going to museums, or other organizations. It was important to me to be able to experience the culture to the max and still be able to get a unique education.
CW: What were your first impressions of Florence? How did these change over the course of the semester?
OW: Like I’m sure many people do, I had a romanticized image of Florence in my head. When I finally arrived, I admit I felt a little disappointed, but Florence slowly stole my heart. The street art became a part of my days as I walked to class, and I looked forward to finding something new every day. The cobblestone streets became natural to walk on, and I began to feel like the Medici family crest was my crest too. Florence started to feel like home.
CW: How was your experience with academics abroad? How were you able to connect the way you came to understand the city itself and your academics?
OW: Some of the best classes I’ve ever taken were my classes abroad. As an art history and anthropology major, I was fortunate to be in a city where I could fulfill many of my major credits while studying abroad. I took "Museology", "Renaissance Art History", "Exploring and Analyzing a Global City: Florence", "Cinematography", and "Intro to Photojournalism" as my classes.
Every single class I took helped me integrate into the Italian culture, but my favorite class was a mix between "Museology" and the "Analyzing a Global City" class. Both were unique in their own way. "Museology" was a type of class that was not offered at my home university, so it provided a unique opportunity. Another unique thing about it is that most of our class time was not spent in the classroom, but rather in the city and in the many museums that Florence houses. "Analyzing a Global City" was great because it focused on the city of Florence and how and why it is the way it is. We also spent a lot of our class time walking the streets and seeing the evidence of its history while meeting locals, seeing places tourist would never find, and truly experiencing the city.
CW: Talk about diversity in Florence. Share a story with specific examples of your own encounters with diversity while abroad.
OW: Italy is country full of history and traditions, especially when it comes to the Roman Catholic Church. You can find a catholic church on almost every corner, but if you took the time to explore the side streets, you would be amazed at what you can find.
I lived on a beautiful piazza called Piazza dei Ciompi, which happened to be the location of the Florence mosque. The most unique thing about living next door to this mosque is that every Friday members would gather and have a moment of prayer and then would spend the rest of the afternoon catching up with one another. It was truly a magical thing to see because it is a moment of vulnerability for them and I was fortunate to witness it.
There are several other neighborhoods throughout the city where different ethnic groups would live and gather that I also got to see and experience in my "Analyzing a Global City" class. Other places where I got to really experience diversity were at the most common places, like the mini markets around the city, which were often run and operated my immigrants. If you are ever craving some food that’s not Italian, I always recommend going to get a kebab at Mesopotamia, where you can meet Mustafa, the nicest man from Turkey.
Diversity is all around; you sometimes just have to look in the unexpected places.
CW: What do you see yourself doing when you graduate? Did your experience abroad in any way shape your career goals and aspirations? If so, how so?
OW: When I graduate, my aspiration is to become a museum curator and earn my masters in museum studies. This has been my dream for several years now, so I can’t say my study abroad experience shaped this goal for me, but it definitely helped solidify it and inspire me to continue going after this dream. Living in a city like Florence just took my breath away every time I passed the Uffizi Gallery or the Palazzo Vecchio or the Pitti Palace, which all housed world renowned works of art. Then, taking the "Museology" course meant I finally got to dip my toes into the world of museum work. Florence definitely helped me fall farther in love with my career choice.
CW: Where did you live in Florence? Talk a bit about your housing situation and the local neighborhood that was home for the semester.
OW: I lived in an apartment that was about a ten-minute walk from the Duomo. I had three roommates, which was nice because we all got to go to classes and travel together, but if we needed alone time, it was never hard to find it. As I mentioned above, I lived on the most charming square called Piazza dei Ciompi. It was right in center of where the locals spent a lot of their off time, and away from the touristic part of the city, but close enough that I wouldn’t have to walk far to go to the touristy places as well.
CW: Have you travelled outside of Florence? What new challenges did you encounter while outside of your host city and how did you overcome them?
OW: While I did spend a lot of time in my host city, I also took advantage of the opportunity to travel and see a lot of Europe as well. Each country in Europe has its own unique qualities because the continent is so rich in history and culture, so every time I went somewhere new it was an incredible journey. There wasn’t one place that I didn’t fall in love with.
I went everywhere from across Ireland, Germany, The Netherlands, and Spain. My favorite place that I visited was a toss up between Lisbon, Portugal and Amsterdam. Both places were breathtaking! Lisbon was special because it was such an underrated place that hardly anyone I know had been to. In many ways it reminded me of San Francisco because it is right on the water with a bridge that was designed by the same man who designed the Golden Gate Bridge. But, when you walk into the city and hear Fado music and see the beautiful street art and unique tiles that cover every building, it was hard not to fall in love. You could look up, down, right, left, anywhere and it was just beautiful. Amsterdam holds a special place in my heart because it is the home of the Rijksmuseum, which houses works by Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Peter Paul Rubens. Then just down the street was the Van Gogh museum. The city just enchants you as you walk down the water canals, through the Anne Frank house, and ride on a water taxi.
Even if you never leave you host country, traveling and experience different cities is definitely worth your time.
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?
OW: Wanting to embrace to the culture of Italy, I did my best to find that one coffee shop that would provide me with my own little getaway. There was this one small coffee shop that was ran by a woman who spoke phenomenal English and loved having company in her shop. The front had huge windows that gave you a view of the street to people watch, great wifi (which is kind of hard to come by in Europe), and possibly the best dolci snacks! Whenever I needed a coffee break, or a place to get homework done, or just some me time, this was my place, and only a two-minute walk around the corner from my apartment.
Being from Colorado, nature is a big part of me, so whenever I wanted to get away into nature I would visit the Boboli Gardens. While this is technically a touristic location, if you spend some time literally traveling off the beaten path (but still on a path) you can find the most incredible places in the garden. You get transported to a fairytale land when you walk through the trees and through the sunlight that breaks through the treetops. It was one of my favorite pasttimes to go to the Boboli Garden.
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? How has your experience affected your friends and family?
OW: When I decided to study abroad, I chose a CAPA because of the opportunities it offered, but I would be going into it alone. Some people went abroad with friends, but I wanted to be able to branch out and meet new people. And that is exactly what happened. My social skills improved by meeting other people in my program and meeting locals.
My empathy towards other cultures also increased, and not just for the Italian culture. I saw that immigration wasn’t just a hot topic in the United States, but virtually everywhere, and studying abroad opened my eyes to current events such as immigration.
Even though I had the time of my life, it was hard being away from friends and family. I was abroad during the Paris bombings and mass immigrations to Germany. While I never felt like I was in danger, I know my family and friends were worried about me. With news of borders closings, bombs exploding and an overall shift in Europe my parents were constantly messaging me and asking if I was okay and if I would come home. My phone exploded with calls and texts asking the same questions from my best friends, family, and even from people whom I haven’t talked to in a while. Everyone was happy for me, but worried nonetheless.
While most people who study abroad say that the experience “changed their life”, I can honestly say that it did change my life. It expanded my education, opened my eyes to world issues, and helped me experience several new cultures that I would not have been able to experience otherwise.