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Freedom in Florence: Studying abroad while chronically ill

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“What if I end up in the ER?” “What if I need surgery?” “What if I catch a terrible infection?” These were the questions rushing through my mind as I filled out my application to study in Florence in winter quarter of 2018-2019.

They weren’t crazy questions — I’m a student with chronic illnesses, and trips to the ER are par for the course in any given quarter. But having dealt with these illnesses since I was eleven, and having let them keep me from traveling at all for many years, I decided it was time to make a change — to keep my health as a priority but stop letting it prevent new adventures.

Once I was accepted, I wondered, “Can the Bing Overseas Study Program actually support a student with chronic illnesses and a compromised immune system?” “Will they tell me not to come?” But I decided to take the chance and ask.

To my delight the BOSP staff, both on campus and in Florence, was incredible. They helped me find a living situation that fit my needs, my OAE accommodations were applied and honored without a hitch and — in a country where food is king but my diet is limited — they ensured that I could eat at every single Stanford event, from drop-in lunches to the formal Bing dinners. The tiny middle schooler in me — left out of class trips for years because her medical needs wouldn’t be accommodated — wanted to cry every time the Florence staff went above and beyond to ensure not only that I was included but, equally importantly, that I didn’t get singled out.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing. I couldn’t go bar hopping or clubbing with the cohort late at night nor freely travel around Italy with those fortunate enough to fill their weekends that way. So, I made a smaller group of good friends. Occasionally I found myself at restaurants with nothing I could eat, and I was sick in bed five out of the 10 weekends. But I was nevertheless thrilled. There was so much I did and loved. I found the best gluten-free bread, pastries and even pizza that I’ve ever had — shout out to Star Bene and Ciro’s. I made incredible new friends who checked in when I was sick and cared for me in the kindest way possible. I traveled to Venice with one of my best friends, spent my birthday with visitors from Oxford and went on a wonderful Bing Trip to Turin.

And even when I got sick, the BOSP Florence staff was incredible. When I had the stomach flu, a doctor came to my apartment for an injection of anti-nausea medication. When I needed to go to urgent care, instead of Vaden, I took a taxi to an incredible BOSP arranged hospital — a villa in the hills surrounding Florence. When I had my immunosuppressant infusion, I was surrounded by the beauty of Tuscany. And, even sick in bed, I had the most delicious food of my life.

Therefore, if you are a student with a chronic illness, I advise you to consider studying abroad. I will always have my illnesses, but BOSP gave me the chance to push past them and experience one of the best parts of being an undergraduate at Stanford.

It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t painless. But being in Italy was hands down one of the best adventures of my life. I met incredible people, spent every day surrounded by beauty, took fascinating classes and, most importantly, grew so much.

I returned to campus with the confidence that I can live in a city, that I can live abroad, that my illnesses won’t stop me from exploring the world. I took the first step but Stanford in Florence made sure that I was supported as I leapt into the unknown. I will forever be thankful for that.

So, if you are a student with a chronic illness, know that others have gone before you and thrived abroad. Don’t be afraid to look into it for yourself!

—Jen Ehrlich, ’20

Contact Jen Ehrlich at jene9 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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