Vivian Nguyen

Vivian Nguyen - STUDENT PROFILE 

Stanford in Florence, Winter 2017-18
Major: Human Biology
College year while abroad: Junior
About the photo: A good friend of mine took this photo of me while we were visiting Milan to see “The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci for one of our art history papers. I think the photo is great because it captures me in my usual state in Italy: happy and on the move. It’s also fun because it tells a little bit about a unique hobby that I picked up during my time there… He calls this one, “After Chasing a Pigeon.”


Why did you choose to study abroad in Florence?

As a human biology major in pursuit of reconciling the humanities and sciences in order to understand the complexity of the human experience, Florence presented itself as the perfect destination for me to bridge my studies in the arts and sciences and to do it in a place where the two have historically collided. The city itself is a physical manifestation of the melding between the humanities and the sciences in the tradition of the Renaissance –a time where both the artist and the engineer emerged. Furthermore, the diverse academic, cultural, and social opportunities that the city of Florence has to offer is indisputable. With a program whose mission is to turn students into academic travelers, the curriculum of the program in Florence is designed not only to stimulate students intellectually, but to shape them culturally and speak to the heart and soul of what makes us human.

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

In some ways, Florence was everything I expected. It is a beautiful, highly walkable city full of incredible history, mesmerizing art and architecture, and gorgeous churches. The culinary culture is delectable, cafes range anywhere from classy to quirky, the jazz is fun and sometimes fusion, and there is no lack of fashion and flair in the city. While Florence does well to live up to the beauty and splendor that often accompanies ideas of what traveling to Italy would be like, my time in Florence reminded me that in even the most beautiful of places in the world, there are shadows cast around every corner, and Italy is no exception. Florence allowed me to explore issues of diversity, migration, gender equality, socioeconomic disparity, and political unrest. I arrived to Florence with somewhat over-romanticized, picture perfect ideas of what my time abroad would be like, and I departed from Florence with a greater understanding of what it means to be a traveler – to be a guest in the home of the locals of Italy, each with their own stories and livelihoods and struggles. It was the complexity of Florence with the beauty and splendor juxtaposing the political, social, and cultural turmoil that made my time in Italy so much more real than I could have ever expected.

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

As a STEM and pre-medical student, my mentality had become monotonous while working from one pset and exam to the next, and the thought of finding time to go abroad felt daunting and difficult at times. However, with some planning, the will, and a true desire to go abroad, I was afforded the opportunity to break that cycle and take classes out of my comfort zone. I took my first art history class and my first photography class –classes that were never quite in the plan aside from a means of fulfilling WAYS requirements. In Florence, I could read about artwork in my textbook and in the next twenty minutes, I could be standing in front of the very same works by Michelangelo, Brunelleschi, Masaccio, Ghiberti, and other artistic greats. Taking classes in Florence was a significant experience that reignited my love for learning, a passion that benefits all aspects of my academic life. Day after day of classes and travels, I became smitten with learning for the sake of learning, and what I learned in the classroom and out in the streets and museums of Florence informed my studies here on the home campus more than I could have anticipated. For me personally, I found many benefits with studying in Florence, benefits that include but are not limited to ideas for my senior capstone project, a refreshed approach to my STEM courses on campus, as well as a greater appreciation for what it truly means to be a student with intellectual vitality.

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

I felt as if I was constantly learning about myself during my time abroad, but one of the major things that I learned was how self-sufficient I could be. Because it was my first time traveling for an extended period of time alone to a country where I didn’t look like the people or speak the language all that well, I felt as if I was really pushing my comfort zone (even more so than when I first moved to Stanford) and testing my boundaries. I came out of my abroad experience rather impressed with myself and how I managed to adapt to being uprooted and replanted across the world, to learn a new language, and to have so much planned and spontaneous fun along the way.

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

I think one of the most challenging experiences I had in Italy occurred early on when my language skills were very basic. Feeling like I wasn’t able to express myself or contribute to conversations in the ways that I wanted to could feel quite isolating at times and was something that I struggled with, but eventually I mustered up the courage to put myself out there and leave behind the fear of saying something wrong. My experiences became exponentially better as long as I was trying my best, and turns out I learned so much more Italian that way. When I did make mistakes, I learned to be patient with myself and to also just laugh at myself sometimes. I think life is more fun that way.

What was the biggest cultural adjustment you had to make?

Rather than one big cultural adjustment, I think it was more of the little things that took some time to adjust to like having dinner be a huge meal (and later at night than usual), having meals also be hours long, yes to drinking coffee standing at a bar (the Italian equivalent of a cafe), no to drinking milk-based coffees after 11am, always “dressing up” by Stanford standards, etc. There are little quirks to Italy that can catch you off-guard and earn you funny looks when you miss the cultural cues, but discovering and adjusting to the cultural differences is half the fun of studying abroad!

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

I almost want to say trying new gelato spots (or old spots with new flavors) because it quite literally became an everyday occurrence... But instead I think I’ll say the walking. I think taking the time to walk around the city and along the river Arno to get anywhere was definitely one of my favorite parts of being in Florence. Some mornings I’d be walking to the sound of the city awakening from its slumber or conversely be walking home to the lull of sleep overtaking the city. Walking set my life at a different pace than what it usually is on my bike at Stanford. Whereas Stanford can sometimes feel constantly full-steam ahead, walking every day gave me the impression that time moved to the cadence of my footsteps. Being able to make time for taking in my surroundings or having meaningful conversations with friends made all the difference. (The gelato takes a really close second.)

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

There are so many good times to choose from, but I think one of the most memorable would be a trip that a couple of my friends and I took to visit Lake Como in the north of Italy. While we were there for the weekend, we embarked on a hike and had incredible conversations that flowed seamlessly among us. As we were approaching a view point, we all fell quiet and sat alongside each other as we gazed out at the view before us. In that moment, sitting next to two strangers-turned-closest-friends, I breathed in the crisp air, marveled at the snow-capped mountains, and took in the sight of the big blue lake reflecting the sun. In that moment, I was hit with something I can only describe as a feeling… the feeling of being exactly where I was supposed to be, with exactly who I was supposed to be with. I made a mental note as I sat there that the world was such a big place filled with so many good people and what a privilege it was to get to know just a few more parts and people of the world.

What 5 words would you use to describe your experience?

gelato, andiamo, friendship, growth, nostalgia

Fun Questions:

What was your favorite food you had in Florence?

Gelato – it really became a meal of its own, especially considering I can shamelessly admit to having had it 3xs a day on some occasions. Between fruity flavors or creamy flavors and every other variety in between, the combinations were endless. I have yet to decide on my favorite flavor(s), but currently, I’m craving the unusual but delicious combination of the Azteco (white chocolate and cinnamon) and the lavender gelato from La Strega Nocciola.

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

Probably my camera for the fact that it held some of my most cherished memories during my time in Florence. It was a peculiar conflict trying to take things in with the naked eye and also trying to capture the moments that I wanted to last forever.

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

Never saw this one coming and more of a result of who I was with, but while in Florence, I dipped my feet into some country music. One of my best friends that I made in Florence and traveled with often loves country music, so he eased me into listening to some songs when I had exhausted my downloaded music. I’ll admit they made for great traveling / plane / train / walking music. Ask me why “It’s a Great Day to Be Alive” by Travis Tritt became the theme song to my time in Florence, and I’ll have a couple of hilarious stories for you.