How Volunteering Abroad Led Me to Find My Passion

Dec 19, 2016 1:30:00 PM / by Julie Ritz

A CAPA Study Abroad Alumnus Interview: Leo Li

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Meet Leo Li, a CAPA alumnus who studied abroad in Florence during the summer of 2016. Below, he talks about how to get used to eating new foods overseas as a picky eater, how volunteering led him to a passion for helping others, and how the city of Florence itself helped him expand his knowledge and understanding of the world around him.

CAPA WORLD: Tell us a bit about yourself.
LEO LI: I was born and raised in the northeast of China until age 17 when I went to the US for high school in the Bay Area, California. Now I am a junior at Purdue University studying psychology, also minoring in philosophy and entrepreneurship. The past summer of 2016, I studied art history and abnormal psychology in Florence, Italy with CAPA. My biggest hobby is to think and to imagine. I like to come up with my own definitions of things and to question things we take for granted. I hate to be just a member of the crowd. Other hobbies I have include snowboarding, watching thriller movies, running and photography.  

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CW: Why did you choose the CAPA program and why Florence specifically?
LL: Being honest, my goal prior departing for this program was not very clear. I did not do enough research to make a clear choice about wanting to study in Florence specifically. I was only expecting to try something new for the summer, because staying at home for three months would for sure rust my brain and make my bones lazy. However, I believe in my answers to the following questions, you will find my attitude flipped 180 degrees.

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CW:  Which classes did you take in Florence? How were you able to connect your experience of the city itself and your academics?
LL: I took two 3-credit courses: “Painters, Sculptors & Architects of the Italian Renaissance” and "Abnormal Psychology". It is hard to say which class I liked better because I enjoyed each of them in different ways. The abnormal psychology class was the biggest attraction to me at first because it not only fulfilled my major requirement, but people had said this class was hard to get a good grade in at my home campus.

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CW: Did you manage to volunteer while abroad or find other ways to connect with locals? What are your tips for other CAPA students who hope to do the same?
LL: I joined two local volunteering programs. One was at the food and clothes bank at St. James by the American Council and the other one was at Angeli De Bello, a dedicated team serving the city of Florence for years. Neither of these two required much time and effort, because the amount of time and effort you put in is entirely your decision. Before I bought a bike and after it got stolen, I walked nearly 40 minutes to both locations. Sometimes I would have to run back to CAPA's campus because I had class 15 minutes after serving time. It’s always a choice you make determined by what you want to get out of something and what you want to give to it. When I put bags of food and pieces of clothes in the hands of the homeless, I found a purpose to my existence which is to serve. When I put paint on dirty walls, I left a beautiful mark on the city, an experience I learned so much from. Sometimes it is not that important what you get, but what you leave and change while you're there.

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CW: What was the food like in Florence? Did you find any favorite dishes or restaurants? Did you try anything new or unusual that you've never had before?
LL: The first week was a disaster for me because I can hardly survive without having rice for a meal. I don't really have a taste for cold and dry food, so I searched street by street, hoping to find something that I was familiar with. I still kept an open mind to explore and experience new things. I found myself falling in love with salad dressed with only olive oil and balsamic vinegar, because the only salad dressing I know from the US is ranch. During a weekend trip to Cinque Terre, me and my roommate found the best seafood risotto in the WORLD. It was just perfect for me - warm rice and a little soupy! I was so sad my roommate had a cold and couldn't taste anything. Many of my Purdue friends had a fear of trying trippa and lampreotto (street food with cow organs), but I found them cheap and filling! You should try it all and leave Florence without regrets.

Even though there are million good food options in Florence, please don't dine out every day. Try cooking at your apartment - CAPA even offers Italian food classes so you can learn how to make authentic food. I actually started my cooking journey at Florence last summer, and now I have so much more confidence in my cooking skills at home.

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CW: As a pre-psychology major, what would you recommend as must-see or do experiences for other students in Florence who have similar professional interests?
LL: If you plan on taking the "Abnormal Psychology" course with Mags, you definitely want to get to know her. She is such a nice person and has a lot of professional background in the field of clinical psychology. Ask her to coffee and have a chat with her; you will be amazed by how much passion and knowledge she has for her work, and by her charming personality.

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CW: Tell us about a moment in Florence when you faced a particular challenge and how you were able to turn that into a learning experience. 
LL: Not being able to sleep quietly was my biggest challenge for the first few weeks. Florence is a heaven for college students where they can hang out as late and as much as they want, which didn't take my roommates long to figure out. When they were hanging out and I was ready to sleep, I was frustrated and tired due to jet lag. I am glad that all of my roommates were willing to communicate on this issue so it was not long before we figured out a way to satisfy both parties.

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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?
LL: I can see myself traveling around the world opening hospitals and schools wherever I go. Studying abroad was the first time I was able to merge into local culture and understand their way of thinking. I do not want to be a tourist anymore; I want to be a scholar and entrepreneur who stays in a new place for a good amount of time to learn new things and to leave legacy behind when I go. What I learned from the Medici family was that money, power, and fame are just the result of having knowledge. I also want to pursue knowledge and be a man like Leonardo Da Vinci who wants to understand everything.  

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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?
LL: My special place was a part of Florence away from the center, a park I could escape to from the narrow allies and crowded buildings. It was always quiet, unlike in the city center where the motorcycles vibrate the old walls with their loud engines. It's a place where I could think, feel and express myself. I like Italian's dress and formal attitude, but I also need to be able to break social constrains. The park was this place for me.

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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?
LL: My perception of knowledge. It is always what’s inside of your brain and how you organize it that matters. I did not expect much from my art history class prior the trip, but later I found out almost all classes we had were held in a real art museum and palace. I gained a new insight to see what’s behind paint and paper, and to redefine what art means. Art during the Renaissance was a form of communication, but not like the modern art we see today. Florentine art always carries a message - not from the painter, but from the one who commissions the work. Michelangelo’s David, Santa Maria De Fiore, and so many other world-renowned master pieces were symbols of confidence and the power of the families. I learned that almost everything I see in the world is a symbol and in order to see what it represents, I have to keep pursuing knowledge and be able to think deep and wide. 

Thanks, Leo!

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Topics: Interviews, Florence, Italy