When the question of what was my favorite class in school comes up, I always say it was my year abroad on the Sarah Lawrence College in Florence program. It was my entire junior year abroad. This program taught me so much more then a deep love for everything Italian. It taught me what education is supposed to teach: perseverance, culture, and being dazzled by life. It was not the easiest year of my life but it might be one of the years that I treasure most.
When I first got an email from another alum of the program telling me about Sarah Lawrence in Bronxville, NY closing the Florence Program at the end of this year, I teared up. The idea that this program, which epitomizes what education should be, could possible be on the chopping block of a college was unimaginable. 800 plus alumni wrote letters to the new president of Sarah Lawrence College, Karen Lawrence. These letters, (most posted on a Facebook group Keep Sarah Lawrence in Florence!) were some of the most touching letters I have read. People lives were changed. It was not just me and my friends from the program who treasured our year abroad, it was all 800 plus of us. This speaks to the incredible talent of the program, headed by Cristina Anzilotti. In every letter Cristina and her team are gushed about over and over again. This is a team that understands what teaching, learning, and creating space and opportunity for it means.
To have a year abroad on the Sarah Lawrence in Florence program is to be transported to a place and school where learning is holistic. I was taken around Italy with my teachers and classmates to explore and connect with a country. Living among great works of art, using the city itself as a tool to explore history, art and culture was an amazing experience. Italy is easy to fall in love with, but I now feel forever connected to it.
In the back of my mind I can still not accept that this program will end after 29 years. I often think about the class that is there now in Florence. Perhaps in Italian class, off on a class trip, or just in a class lecture learning from the most amazing collection of teachers. I remember my Italian History Professor, Marcello Fantoni who was an amazing professor. His class was on Friday afternoons and our entire class would still want more when his class ended at 5pm. To this day he is the best teacher I have ever had both in undergraduate and gradate school. Alumni of the program Abby Hellauer so beautifully wrote on the Save Sarah Lawrence in Florence page “In your hands, with your unwavering guidance, I grew to be a global citizen—a true, fiery Sarah Lawrence woman. I became passionate about international politics. I fell in love with the art of translation. I was comfortable being an outsider, learned to adapt to new cultures, was unafraid to introduce myself to strangers, and learned to ask for help. I developed an insatiable hunger for new information and broader experiences. I attended weekly writing seminars at a center for feminism. I was the only American. I marched against Berlusconi. I climbed mountains, volcanoes, swam in seas far from my home. I taught English to middle schoolers. I learned to speak another language. I dream in that language. The melody of Italian flows through my blood. I cannot thank you enough for the woman, the human you let me become. I am proud to be who I am. I am proud to be your student.” Isn’t this what education should be? Shouldn’t we be fighting to save these programs?
I think one of the most troubling aspects of this decision in the financial aspect. This program means so much to all of the people who have experienced it. This very corporate decision is one that leaves me saddened that this incredibly special program is just a line item in a budget. Sarah Lawrence College didn’t end up listening to the hundreds and hundreds of letters of outcry. They were not impressed with the money the Alumni of the program were able to come up with in a few short days. In the end all the amazing letters were met with the same uniform letter from the president of the college, Karen Lawrence. Emily Haywrd wrote on Facebook, “I keep reading over the last line of your letter: “I know we all want the same thing, and that is for Sarah Lawrence to thrive as a great institution.” I feel like I’m being spoken to by a politician who’s trying to win my vote. We do not want the same thing. I think if you looked, you’d find very few SLC Alums who want the same thing you do, if that is to continue on your current course of action. If you were to reconsider, I guarantee you would have at your disposal a veritable force of internationally based, brilliant, impassioned thinkers who would love nothing more than to assist you and your colleagues in coming up with a solution that better serves the legacy of our school. I hope that you will consider reaching out to us. We are here, and we are ready.” There are plenty of study abroad programs in Florence, Italy. However none come even close to the experience all 800 hundred plus of us were able to have. In the city the locals always were impressed when they learned you were on the Sarah Lawrence Program. Our program was a big deal. The reputation of the program over the years allowed our small group every year to have the most amazing opportunities, ones other programs couldn’t even dream about.
When I truly allow myself to think about SLC in Florence program ending and that little piece of home closing its doors just off of Piazza Santa Croce I am just sad. I am sad for all the students who could have experienced this amazing year. I know there are other programs but truly none of them can hold a candle to the dedication and love that this program has. I certainly know that all of the leaders and professors of the program will go on and prosper. But it feels like my family is breaking up. I may not have visited as much as I wanted but I always took solace in knowing it was there. That is was running, chugging along, changing 20 year olds lives in the best way possible. Showing them what humanity is capable of and what they are capable of, with the beautiful city of Florence as a backdrop.
Originally published in the Huffington Post.