Valerie Chen


Stanford in Florence, Spring 2015-16
Major: Bioengineering
College year while abroad: Junior


Why did you choose to study abroad in Florence?

I chose Florence because I wanted to see what Italy held beyond its romanticized stereotypes of fountains and home cooking, and I felt these were things that required more than a vacation trip to answer. I was attracted to its strong language program because I wanted struggling in another language to be part of my abroad experience. The homestay program was also a big draw because interacting with local people was my number one goal going abroad, and the homestay was a stellar built-in opportunity to do so.

What were your expectations before you went and how did those change once you arrived in Florence?

Part of the reason I wanted to attend the Florence program was to challenge the preconceived notions I had about Italy. In the beginning I found it difficult to see Florence beyond the gelato shops, pizza, and marble statues. Such is the challenge of learning “cultural sensitivity” in a place so meticulously crafted for tourism. Ultimately, it was the people I met in Florence that made it possible for me to chip away at this image. It wasn’t so much that my expectations changed throughout the program, since I’d purposefully come in without many, but rather that my image of what made Italy real began to evolve. I had notions I previously thought defined Italian culture (i.e. the “la dolce far niente” lifestyle) challenged, and learned aspects of Italy that I’d never known existed, such as the pride in its history that persisted despite a struggling economy. I think the main thing that changed for me was my scope of what felt real about the place. Throughout the quarter I slowly lost my romanticized view of Florence and instead gained a grittier, more tangible but ultimately more beautiful connection with the city.

What were some of the academic benefits from studying abroad in Florence?

I was able to fulfill my remaining WAYS requirements and take an engineering fundamental to count toward my major. The main academic benefit to studying in Florence, however, was the huge relevance our coursework had in our day-to-day lives in the city. On campus the majority of my coursework is related to bioengineering, which tends to use specific, very technical modes of thinking, and it was wonderful to be challenged in different ways through the humanities-focused Florence curriculum. I took a class by Monseigneur Timothy Verdon called “Spaces as History,” where we studied how urban spaces influenced the development of Florentine society through guided walking tours around the city. The class provided a foundation for understanding the stories behind the architecture we passed each day, and encouraged a natural curiosity of the history of the city.

What did you learn about yourself while you were studying abroad?

I learned that my greatest motivator in learning is the new connections that it allows me to make with others. I had a fantastic time learning Italian from square one, and spent many afternoons at cafes pouring over verb conjugations and grammar notes so that I’d be able to chat with and pick the Italian professor’s brains during office hours. In doing so, my professor became not just a helping hand in learning the language, but a friend and mentor during my time in Florence. Public policy gained a new urgency when we listened to our professor talk about the struggles of arranging transport to school for her daughters, or the high youth unemployment rate in the city and the rapid brain drain out of Italy. At Stanford I often felt disconnected from the day-to-day relevance of my courses, but in Italy I didn’t have to look that hard to find the human relevance to the topics I studied. As a result I learned an enormous amount without ever feeling like I was doing work only for work’s sake.

What was the most challenging experience you encountered while you were abroad and what did you learn from it?

The most difficult challenge I encountered was befriending Italian-speakers with my very elementary Italian language skills. I gradually built a lovely relationship with my host mother, and I think that it came in part from never-ending patience on her part and a willingness to make a fool of myself in Italian on mine. From my crusade to make friends in Italy, I learned that it’s very liberating and a huge help in the language acquisition process when you become comfortable with making a fool of yourself. 

What was the biggest cultural adjustment you had to make?

Becoming comfortable with defaulting to “Mi scusi” when I inevitably bumped shoulders with strangers on the narrow sidewalks. Getting used to feeling a bit embarrassed whenever I went to order a lunch or make a purchase at a grocery store with broken Italian. Bidets.

What was your favorite part of your everyday life in Florence?

I loved venturing out into the city everyday to find lunch. The program gives a food stipend for lunch each day, and Italy is a foodie’s dream because of the emphasis put on being aware and meticulous when it comes to all culinary things. Also, because Florence is such a walking-friendly city, it was possible to set out each day without a particular destination in mind and stumble upon a different neat place to eat each day.

What was the most memorable experience you had while you were in Florence?

The Florence program has a program called “Friends a Firenze” where Stanford students have the opportunity to meet and hang out with Florence students. After about five weeks of learning Italian, a few friends and I met up with a group of Florence animation school students for a night out. I remember trying to coordinate whereabouts over text while in my head working furious to conjugate verbs “Io vedo, tu vedi, lui/lei vede, noi vediamo…” Nothing brings the classroom closer to personal life than conjugating verbs in order to find new friends at a bar.

What 5 words would you use to describe your experience?

Feeling lost has huge perks


Fun Questions:

What was your favorite food you had in Florence?

A panino at All’antico Vinaio

What was the most valuable item you took with you on the program?

A journal

What was your favorite music/band that you discovered in Florence?

Lucio Battisti