Florence Abroad Program Experiences Hiccups, Will Emerge Changed

 A group of students currently abroad in the Sarah Lawrence in Florence program. Photo credit: MaryKatherine Michiels-Kibler

A group of students currently abroad in the Sarah Lawrence in Florence program. Photo credit: MaryKatherine Michiels-Kibler

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article, which included a different opening paragraph, was mistakenly published in our most recent print issue. The paragraph has since been changed to more accurately represent the situation.

Sarah Lawrence’s abroad programs are one of the strongest aspects of the college: students live immersed in the local culture while still receiving the trademark Sarah Lawrence experience. However, recently the fate of the SLC abroad program in Florence, Italy has been the source of frustration among students, alumni, and parents, as the school moves to close the original program and develop a new one in partnership with another college.  

The main reason cited for this change is that the program in Florence has faced some financial difficulties in the past year or so. Professor Judith Serafini-Sauli, who in large part began the program at the request of a former dean, explained that Sarah Lawrence used to see all the abroad programs as a sort of portfolio, in that all the money available for them was pooled. If, for example, the Havana program was struggling financially, whether it be from a lack of students or an increase in living expenses, the administration would take money from a program that was doing better financially—for example, the Paris program.

For two or three semesters, the student enrollment in the the Florence program was lower than normal, though Professor Serafini-Sauli described the drop as “not tragic.” According to Professor Serafini-Sauli, due to the decrease in student enrollment, the Florence program was deemed to be “financially unsound.”

The Associate Dean of International Programs Prema Samuels explained further, “There were concerns about cost—[the administration] thought that it was very expensive. Sarah Lawrence is facing some financial problems, just because of the fact that financial aid has gone up and the number of students has gone down.”

The proposed solution, now being worked on in its final stages, is to pair Sarah Lawrence’s program with the program of Middlebury College. Professor Serafini-Sauli is skeptical of this blend, and has two main concerns about the fusion of the two programs. The first arises from the process in which the programs are being fused.

“It is unfortunate that this entire operation – from deciding the program was not viable, to creating a new one – has been done at the administrative level without consultation or faculty involvement at any level, and the operation continues on that course,” Professor Serafini-Sauli wrote in an email. “This represents significant disregard for faculty governance, an issue of great concern to the faculty.”

The professor also said that the administration has been almost totally opaque during the process of planning expenses for the program, the plan for which, in her words, is “extremely complex and mostly incomprehensible.”

“I assume the administrators are making sense of this but they have not been able to make it clear to faculty,” wrote Professor Serafini-Sauli, “nor have they consulted any faculty during their deliberations.”

The professor’s second concern pertains to, on a more fundamental level, the actual blending of the two programs, which, the professor asserts, are fundamentally different. While Sarah Lawrence’s program has a focus on immersion—the actual act of living in a place, the other school’s program simply puts students in an Italian school. Professor Serafini-Sauli fears that Sarah Lawrence, in pairing with the other college, may lose its standards of immersion.

Her main concern currently is a question of quality, and she argued that Sarah Lawrence offers a level of “immersion, personal attention, and cultural enrichment beyond the classroom—all of which require money and effort—and which the other program does not currently offer.” She added that the blending of the two programs “doesn’t seem natural.”

However, Samuel has no such fears for the program.

“Any program that we put in place is going to be like what we’ve had before, if not identical,” she said. “We’re going to keep what makes the Sarah Lawrence model work for our students.”

In fact, Samuel said that the partnership might help broaden the curriculum, which currently covers mostly the humanities and the arts, offering only one class in the social sciences.

Not only does Samuel have confidence in the partnering of the Florence program, she says that partnership could and should be the future of abroad programs.

“Standalone programs are kind of a thing of the 80’s,” she said. “I think it’s much better to be integrated into the culture and the community. The one thing about Florence that they do so well is the integration, so it doesn’t become this little isolated American program, and with partnership, it’s much easier to do that. Partnership shares the burden.”

According to its website, the Florence program offers “palpable immersion in an age-old civilization” and has been running for 29 years next year, since 1987. The website also says that the program will change a student’s life in “many imaginable and unimaginable ways”—a statement with which Sarah Lawrence student and Florence program veteran, Zachary Zimmerman, would probably agree.

When Zimmerman, of the class of 2016, heard about the potential closure of the Florence program, he wrote an impassioned letter to President Karen Lawrence. “There was more to experience and gain each month in Italy than [in] my previous two years of college combined,” Zimmerman wrote.

Dozens of other students, alumni and parents have been writing letters to President Lawrence over the past few weeks in defense of the program as it is currently, sharing the experiences they had during their times abroad and arguing that this new partnership and the essential closure of the original program will result in the loss of what makes the program so meaningful to them.

Professor Serafini-Sauli points out that the program is the culmination of almost 50 years, in one way or another, of Sarah Lawrence’s presence in Florence—and it shows.

“We manage in a culture 180 degrees from Sarah Lawrence to give students the Sarah Lawrence experience,” she said. “It’s a window for students into this ancient cultural tradition for which we are the inheritors.”

According to Zimmerman, the Sarah Lawrence Florence program was an example of an excellent abroad experience. “Other universities and directors openly compare themselves to our school,” he wrote, “and our students are well known throughout the city.”

He went on to say that the program provided him with “outstanding faculty, who were inspiring examples of Sarah Lawrence education,” along with, among other things, food so good it moved him and his fellow students to tears.

“I can say what I always do,” wrote Zimmerman via email, “which is that it was the best year of my life, and that it is hands down the best part of this school.”

“For me, [it seems] the program will probably be something quite different and it remains to be seen what,” wrote the professor. “It will depend on personnel and faculty chosen in Florence, and that seems to be totally out of the hands of the people who have been involved in the program up to now.”

Jeremiah O'Mahony '19