After a more than two-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the College of Charleston’s faculty-led study-abroad program in Florence, Italy resumed during the spring 2022 semester. (It will return to its normal fall schedule for the 2022–23 academic year.) Program Director Celeste Lacroix was ecstatic to return with 26 students – the largest cohort yet. The College Today caught up with the professor of communication to see how it went. To learn more about the variety of study-abroad programs available at the College, visit CofC’s Center for International Education website.

How excited were you to return? 

Truly, words cannot express how excited I was to be back in Florence. We have so many Florentines connected to our program – local tour guides, farmers, artisanal gelato makers, chocolate and pasta producers, winemakers, chefs and restaurant owner/operators – and we have had relationships with many of these multi-generational family businesses for years at this point. The pandemic was the longest we hadn’t seen some of these friends of the program in probably close to a decade. And of course, the pandemic hit Italy hard, so every reunion was emotional. We were so happy to see them, and they us.

What was it about Florence that made you want to hold a study-abroad program there? 

I started the Florence fall semester program in 2018 but had been taking students there annually since 2006 as part of a summer program (with co-directors Robert Westerfelhaus or Alison Smith). For a semester program, I wanted to build upon what had been developing in my summer program as a theme – Slow Food and sustainability, and I wanted the semester program to tie directly to the College’s QEP (Quality Enhancement Plan) and the CofC Sustains initiatives on campus. So, the primary motivation to start a fall semester-long program in Florence was to take advantage of all of the Slow Food opportunities in Florence and nearby Chianti and Tuscany that I had developed with Francesca Ermini, a local tour guide and Slow Food leader from nearby Florence, as well as to take the students to the premier Slow Food International event, Terra Madre, which, prior to the pandemic, took place every other fall in Turin, Italy. This is an event that in 2018 drew 220,000 visitors, 7000 delegates from 150 countries and 100 food growers from 83 countries. Slow Food is an international organization that was born in Italy, and is dedicated to promoting bio-diversity and the basic principles that food/food production should be good, clean and fair. RELATED: Overseas and Overjoyed: The Return of Study Abroad in Trujillo, Spain

Tell us about some of your food-related field trips.

I always joke with prospective students that on field trips we have them do terrible things like taste artisanal chocolate and gelato. Most of our weekly field trips are to farms, wineries, small artisanal producers and involve tastings. It’s great for the students, too, to get out of the city and into the countryside, interacting with Italian food producers in that environment. These are people who are incredibly passionate, not just about food, but about biodiversity and the future of the planet and how we all can make a difference. When we talk to students after these experiences, they talk about the fabulous food, for sure, but they also talk about how inspiring the people are. We also typically have at least one or two courses that include an academic focus on food or Slow Food, so there’s connections to class.

How many faculty and students do you typically have there each semester? 

Typically, there are two faculty members in addition to me, and between 22–26 students. We had our largest group for the spring 2022 semester with 26.

Where did you teach the students? 

We always work with a service provider in Florence, and they set up the classroom space for us, in the historic center of Florence. This year our classrooms were in the Piazza della Repubblica, only steps away from the Duomo.

Why do you think it’s been such a success? 

Certainly, it is the case that many students want to study abroad in Italy, but they also choose this because it’s a CofC faculty-led program where they will have faculty members from their own school, from their own departments, teaching and leading them. Oftentimes, we’ve had students in class prior to the program. They have a personal relationship with us that just isn’t the case with non-CofC programs. And the faculty colleagues who have taught on this program have a special dedication to our students, and to the quality of education and experience they are getting abroad, so there’s also great word-of-mouth from year-to-year. The program’s focus on food and sustainability is also a major draw, as is the fact that we teach courses that are required for our majors.

Do any favorite memories come to mind? 

That’s a tough one – it feels like every field trip there’s a new favorite memory. But in 2018, we took the students on the truffle hunting experience at Savini Tartufi, which is out in the countryside an hour and half west of Florence, and it just happened to be Halloween. It was pretty overcast and rained a bit when we went out in the woods with our guides Luca and Andrea and the dogs, Giotto and Birba, for the hunt. The students loved it, of course, and we found some white truffles that day (those are the most prized and expensive). So, it had been a great afternoon. We returned to Savini’s guest center for our multi-course tasting dinner, and shortly into the meal, a major storm hit, and the whole area lost power. We were in the dark! But Luca and Andrea found a bunch of candles and we had this amazing meal in the midst of the storm in the candlelight on Halloween. It was magical. Luca always tells me that that night, we became a part of the Savini family, and that it was just as special a moment for them as it was for us. Student alums of that program talk about it to this day. It was unforgettable.

Wow, how lucky are the students who get to participate?

The students make the program – their enthusiasm and their passion for sustainability and their curiosity to learn all about Italian culture and about the food and the people, it’s energizing. Getting out in the woods, on the farms, in the vineyards in the Italian countryside with them, you really see how they embrace it – it inspires them, and they bring that energy back into the traditional classroom. They embrace the “experience” in experiential learning, and that’s invigorating for us as faculty, and me as director of the program.