How Study Abroad Taught Me to Be Present in Everyday Life

Aug 22, 2016 1:30:00 PM / by Stephanie Sadler

CAPA Study Abroad Alumna Interview: Franchessa Bianconi

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Photo: Jan 22, 2016 –Walk around Florence with CAPA

Meet Chessa, a psychology and urban studies major from the University of Pittsburgh who studied abroad in Florence during spring semester 2016. Below, she talks about how her experience in Italy taught her the value and importance of being present with the people and places around her in everyday life, how she connected with a local family through the GANZO! program and why classes in Florence were much different from classes on her home campus, with plenty of time spent outside of the traditional academic space. 

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CAPA WORLD: Tell us a bit about yourself.
FRNACHESSA BIANCONI: I’m from Scranton, PA and will be a senior at Pitt this year. I studied abroad in Florence this past Spring. I’m majoring in psychology and urban studies—so I’m interested in humans and social justice. My current outlets are running, writing, singing, and going to see as much live music as possible.

This summer, I was an AmeriCorps volunteer with KEYS Service Corps, working with youth in Pittsburgh for the summer at a work-readiness camp. I am a gardening team leader; it’s some of the most fun and demanding and fulfilling work I’ve ever done.

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CW: Why did you choose the CAPA program and why Florence specifically?
FB: I chose CAPA because it is a partner with my college, which made credit transfer easy. I also knew others who went before me and raved about the staff and their experiences.

Florence in particular? Well—FOOD, learning more about my roots, and meeting some of my family in Italy. Also, have you seen how beautiful PICTURES of Florence are? My thoughts were somewhere along the lines of: “Woah, I could actually LIVE here?!” Eloquently put, I wanted to live in a new place, experience the culture from which my family came, and challenge myself to learn.

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CW: Talk about academics abroad: Which classes did you take in Florence? Which was your favorite and why? How were you able to connect your experience of the city itself and your academics?
FB: I took "Cross Cultural Psychology", "Creative Travel Writing", "Level 1 Italian", and "Museology".

I don’t know if I can choose a favorite! Italian was just so much FUN. I adore the Italian language (even though I butcher it.) I think I learned the most from Museology about the history of all the different museums in Florence, and consequently about the history of Florence. I love how inherent art is to Florence, how intertwined with the city it is, and how evident this relationship still is today. The best part was how immersed we were in Florence with every class. Half of our time was dedicated to lecture/discussion in CAPA and half was dedicated to field-work—ie. visiting museums, exploring, and observing people. 

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Photo: April 26, 2016—Pitt students + Italian 001 class at the Ponte Vecchio

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? 
FB: Yes! CAPA organized two really awesome volunteer experiences and I decided to be a part of both. One was helping out the English teacher weekly at a local elementary school; the other was called GANZO! where once or twice a week I’d meet with my paired Italian family to have dinner and play games with the kids.

I learned so much in both. It was interesting to see how schools were run and to play with little kids and be as vulnerable with my Italian as they were with their English. The exchange was humbling and fun, especially when I had the chance to teach a lesson!

GANZO! was incredible! I really wanted to live with a host family, but because I had no Italian language background, I opted not to. And GANZO! was the perfect in-between. I got to know what it’s like in an Italian household by eating dinner and exchanging games with my host family. They shared music, and even took me to where the parents grew up, in a little medieval town called Pistoia. I’m so grateful they were so welcoming and I hope to return to Florence one day and visit.

If I could give one tip, it’s to push past any fears you might have, and put yourself out there. If you do not want to volunteer—which I say, DO IT—just go outside and explore! But most importantly, always remember it’s about the people you meet, not the photographs you come home with. So be open. Try to talk to the owners of the restaurants you go to. Joining a gym or studio is a good idea too! I joined a yoga studio and got to connect with some Italians who had similar values (classes in Italian were definitely one of my favorite parts of the week).

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Photo: GANZO! family, visiting Pistoia

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?
FB: This picture below kind of sums up my experience with food in Florence: delicious and always with good company. I learned the beauty of sharing a meal with friends and family. I tried a few new things and ate a lot of gelato! The food is always so fresh and it was hard to find something that wasn’t interesting or delicious in Florence.

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Photo: Here's my favorite pizza in florence! CAPA takes everyone after a day hiking followed by delicious Badiani gelato.

CW: As a psychology and urban studies major, what would you recommend as must-see or do experiences for other students in Florence who have similar professional interests?
FB: Travel!!!!! Go see different cities and talk to new people! It’s been really eye-opening to see how other people live their lives. (Outside my immediate Pitt community and good old Scranton, PA.) I went to Italy not thinking it would be much different, and that the little differences wouldn’t change much about daily life. But I was wrong, and it was really awesome to be able to compare and come back to my different classrooms and discuss our different traveling experiences.

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Photo: Feb 14, 2016—Park Güell, Barcelona, Spain

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.
FB: During my first few trips outside Florence (or even going somewhere new within Florence) I would obsess about going the right way or get worked up over a missed train. But over time, I relaxed. I think the act of traveling has challenged the idea in my head that I just need to get there.

For example, while in Florence, I challenged myself to walk different streets on my way to school or wherever I was going to see different sides of the city. I found myself not looking at my phone but taking everything in. Enjoying the exceptionally beautiful streets of Florence started to carry over into other trips. I found myself enjoying the “in between” on weekend trips instead of just wishing away the actual travel process.

Traveling helped me practice being present, which often helped alleviate stress when plans failed. And I often try to remind myself of this at home: to explore and enjoy the people and places right here.

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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?
FB: I’m still unsure about my next steps, but I have definitely expanded my possibilities in what I might do. I’ve thought about schools abroad, doing a year of service abroad, planning a chunk of time to travel…etc. There are so many possibilities and studying abroad has helped me to realize those. I’ve also realized that I can travel, even if I’m alone!

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Photo: View Hiking Cinque Terre,  April 15, 2016

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?
FB: I have quite a few! I loved going to the Biblioteca Oblate library to do work. It had an amazing view of the Duomo. I went on runs to find new spots along the Arno and sunset runs to Piazzale Micheangelo with my roommate will always be close to my heart. Santo Spirito was really close to my apartment, and my friends and I would eat on the steps there. I also really loved going to a yoga studio close to my apartment and meeting some locals there. 

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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?
FB: I have definitely been bit by the travel bug and crave adventure! I know I will somehow incorporate travel into my life moving forward. And just saying this shows the crazy amount of confidence I’ve gained abroad. I’ve also learned that the world is full of so many incredible places and people, but that I must keep an open heart to experience and see them every day.

Thanks Franchessa!

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Topics: Interviews, Florence, Italy