The composer Virgil Thomson once wrote, “In Paris you learn wit, in London you learn to crush your social rivals, and in Florence you learn poise.”
The Florence Bing Overseas Program is putting its grace to work navigating a shifting position within the ranks of Stanford’s overseas offerings — and staff, students and administrators are increasingly defining the program by its uniqueness, rather than its prominence.
Enrollment rates for the Florence Bing Overseas Studies Program have consistently lagged behind those of the other locations in recent years, according to overseas program director and history professor Norman Naimark ’66 Ph.D. ’72.
Twenty-six students submitted first-round applications to Florence for autumn 2010, and second round applications are still to come. The program’s capacity is 40 students.
Naimark wrote in an e-mail to The Daily that “it’s only been over the last few years that the Florence enrollments have gone down in comparison to the most popular programs in Oxford, Berlin and Paris, for example.”
Linda Campani, on-site director of the Florence program, said the program has attracted 25 to 35 students per quarter since she joined the program in 1993.
“Our current numbers are more or less in line with the usual numbers and their fluctuations,” Campani wrote in an e-mail to The Daily.
“What has drastically changed since the early nineties is that back then we had at least two thirds of each group of students spending two quarters in Florence,” Campani added. “Now we have around one third or less of students who decide to stay for two quarters.”
The program’s year-long Italian language requirement may pose an obstacle for some students, Campani conjectured.
“This requires quite a commitment, and students, especially of certain majors, tell us they find it difficult to . . . factor three quarters of a language they have never studied into an already busy curriculum,” Campani said.
There has been discussion of dropping or lessening the language requirement. The Beijing program, for example, last week dropped its year-long Chinese requirement for fall quarter 2010. The change aims to attract non-Chinese speaking students — and to determine if these students can succeed academically.
Staff and students affiliated with Florence, however, emphasized that some prior knowledge of Italian greatly enhances students’ time in the city.
“The Florence program values the ability of students to speak to their host families, to go to a restaurant and be able to order in Italian,” said Ana Maria Sanchez ‘10, one of the student advisors for Florence. “Italy is filled with American students who can’t speak Italian.”
Kip Hustace ’11 agreed that Florentines appreciate students’ efforts to speak Italian. He said prospective applicants should not be discouraged if their language skills are lacking.
“Florentines view Italian language and culture very highly, as they should,” Hustace said. “I do think, however, that advertising for the program should suggest that it’s not a life-or-death thing if you don’t feel confident speaking in Italian to someone else.”
Naimark added that the language requirement related to a number of other challenges for the program in maintaining enrollment.
“Part of the story is the establishment of a center in Madrid, which attracts some of those students who might have otherwise used their Spanish background to study Italian and then go to Florence,” Naimark said. “Part of the story may be the lack of appreciation among some students of just how important Florence and Italy are to central questions about the past, present and future. There is so much to learn there — and not just about the Renaissance.”
Program staff are investigating several ways to make Florence more appealing. Proposed changes included the addition of more classes that fulfill general education and major requirements, as well as the expansion of Florence’s internship program.
At the moment, students are usually only eligible for internships if they remain in Florence for two quarters. The program may make summer internships more readily available.
Sanchez’s fellow student advisor, Joe Oehmke ’10, said that of the group preparing to go to Florence in the spring, almost a third have inquired about remaining in the summer to do an internship.
“More funding is definitely welcome, and we’re investigating this opportunity,” Oehmke said.
Oehmke and Sanchez have tried to spread the word about the Florence program, visiting Italian classes and distributing flyers in e-mail and print. Staff also set up Skype sessions once a quarter at Casa Italiana, where interested students can speak with faculty in Florence.
Campani was also quick to point out that there are some advantages to being a so-called “boutique,” or niche, program.
“The program prides itself on offering students unique and individualized academic experiences that would not be possible if our groups were too large,” Campani said. “After all, how could they walk in between the outer and inner shell of Brunelleschi’s cupola in one of their on-site classes if they came in hordes?”Oehmke reiterated that when it comes to students who enroll, the Florence program emphasizes quality, not quantity.
“Florence has a niche group of people who want to go and are willing to do what it takes to get there,” he said. “Numbers don’t tell the whole story.”