Jake Maio - 2012 Program Participant

Why did you decide to study abroad?

When I stepped onto campus at the University of Cincinnati in the summer of 2009, something caught my eye immediately: the international office. Learning about the opportunities of studying abroad during my freshman orientation and how the experience could benefit me, both personally along with professionally, I knew that I had to take full advantage of this option.

View of Florence, Italy
Is there a better backdrop than the city of Florence?

My father’s side of the family is fully Italian; his grandparents were born and raised in Calabria, Italy before immigrating to the United States. Gaining an experience outside of the United States, learning a new language, meeting new people, and exploring other cultures were all driving factors in my desire to study abroad. I soon took a strong interest in learning another language (Italian) as my trip rapidly approached, and before I knew it I was satisfying my goal that was imprinted in my mind three years ago to study abroad.

Why did you choose Athena Study Abroad’s program in Florence?

While exploring the many options and places for me to study during my trips to our international office on campus, I realized that not many of the affiliated programs took place in the one country that I wanted to travel to: Italy. After conducting a great deal of research during the summer and fall of my junior year, I stumbled upon a program through UC’s international database called Athena Study Abroad.

Man laying on a bridge over the Florence canal
Lounging above the Florence canal

The first thing that caught my eye was the different locations spread throughout the country. Whether it was the rich history of Rome, the famous art of Florence, or the panoramic breathtaking Tuscan hillsides, I knew that my decision was going to be difficult. The decision to study in Florence mainly came from the “at home” atmosphere that people raved about, the friendliness of the Florentines, and the very positive opinions about how incredible the city Florence was from family, close university faculty, along with friends who had traveled there previously.

After having a few friends study abroad in Rome and hearing their stories about how large and populated the city was made my decision incredibly easy. I really wanted the full cultural experience and a manageable city to navigate, while having the beautiful sites including the Ponte Vecchio, Duomo, and the original David statue all right in my backyard. The desire to live in a place where I was required to really learn the language, and truly soak in the full cultural experiences that Italy had to offer were most attainable in Florence. Basically, I wanted to live in a country that was opposite of America in almost every way.

The day that I arrived into Florence for my study abroad I knew that I had made the correct decision. Walking around the city and seeing familiar faces on a daily basis, becoming friends with the local shop owners, the backdrop of the Tuscan hillside, a very competitive Florentine soccer team, and the feeling that I was home after returning from long weekend trips truly made Florence special to me. Not to mention the food was outstanding!

What made your program experience unique?

Athena Study Abroad has an outstanding international presence in Italy, which was the only place that I wanted to spend my experience. Having strong affiliations with Lorenzo de’ Medici, known as one of the top international institutes in Italy, with locations in Venice, Rome, and Florence, made the program very intriguing for me. The main attractions of the program included the option to study in Florence, various opportunities to volunteer intern while abroad, a wide assortment of student clubs, the inclusion of two field trips while studying, enough available classes to satisfy my anticipated international business minor, and the price of the program were all things that played a very strong factor while deciding if the program that Athena offered was right for me.

Fans at a futbol match in Italy
Experiencing some original football

Not only were all of these things offered through the full package for the Athena program, but the financial aid and scholarship opportunities to make the programs cost more manageable. I ended up participating in a volunteer internship with the Lorenzo de’ Medici marketing department where I created a strategic marketing plan for the art restoration program, competed in a very competitive international club soccer league with LdM during the weeknights, and was able to live in a city not knowing a single person, while eventually leaving after four months with some of the best friends that I will now call my family were some of the most rewarding aspects of the program that I participated in. I speak to these friends on a daily basis, and honestly can’t imagine a life without meeting them all.

Another interesting thing about the program, outside of all of these things, was the ability to donate a portion of my program tuition to a charity of my choosing. Having the opportunity to study and travel the world, while benefitting others during the process was an outstanding part of the experience to me. Florence is also such a great city to travel out of, which was apparent during my time abroad as I journeyed to 11 different countries and 25 cities throughout Italy within the four months spent there.

What is the best thing about your program that future participants need to know?

There are many different things that make my program in Florence stand out, but I think the best part was the Italian language requirement that Athena requested of us as students. Taking an elementary Italian course was extremely beneficial as it really encouraged me to learn the language from a young professor who was raised in the city of Florence. Many of my friends that I met during my time in Italy were not required to take an Italian language course while they were abroad, which really hurt their abilities to communicate with the locals in the native tongue.

View of the Amalfi Coast in Italy
A trip to the Amalfi coast will never disappoint.

My desire to fit in with the locals and really become a citizen of Florence started with learning the language. I had spent the entire summer learning the first level of Italian, giving me the edge over many students when I arrived, but it also gave me the ability to excel in the classroom and use my skills throughout my trip. I can certainly say that I came back to America knowing three times the amount of Italian that I did when I first arrived in late August.

Another amazing part of my program was the housing situation that we as Athena students were put into. Rooming with three strangers from across the country, we shared a two bedroom apartment in a great part of town. This apartment had the vintage Italian feeling that my grandparents might have had back in Calabria, and was a constant reminder to me of how fortunate I was to be there. I had close access to all of the parks, supermarkets, main sites, and most importantly the classrooms from my apartment location, which I could cover in just a matter of a few minutes walking. There was never a need to take any form of public transportation as I was within close proximity to everywhere that I needed to be, which is what makes the city of Florence such an outstanding place to live.

Do you have any advice for future participants?

Something that I definitely recommend to future participants is to become close with the professors as the networking abilities that result from the relationships simply cannot be matched by others. I have kept in contact with a few of my professors, and hope to build my professional career based off of the things that they taught me while I studied in Florence. My abroad experience has sparked an interest in pursuing a career that allows me to work mostly internationally, and the knowledge of these people will play a very beneficial role in my newfound professional aspirations.

What’s one thing you wish you would have done differently?

If I was to do one thing differently from my time spent abroad, it would have been to study for an entire year. Going into the experience, four months seemed like a long time in my eyes, but after the first few months in Italy, I quickly realized that it was something that I would have enjoyed doing even longer.

Man sitting in front of a graffitied wall
Graffiti that turns into art

While only having classes on Monday to Wednesday (our school did not have Friday classes), soccer a few nights of the week, and a meeting every Tuesday with my internship associate, I had a great deal of free time to fully explore the city during the week along with the rest of Europe on the weekends. I spent most of my weekends traveling, but this really encouraged me to take full advantage of Florence during the weekdays that I was in town.

I am beyond satisfied with my experience as it was the best four months of my life, but it left me wondering how much more I could have accomplished with an extra few months both educationally and culturally. Looking back and not having a single regret from my entire trip to this day other than not staying longer, confirms the fact that I chose the right place to be and that others should strongly consider Florence for their study abroad experience.

Now that you’re home, how has studying abroad impacted your life?

Studying abroad has changed my life completely. The time spent overseas satisfied many personal desires, but it also has made me more appreciative of the life that I have today. Simple takeaways from Florence, such as learning to become non-reliant on technology and being encouraged to step out of my comfort zone has shaped my everyday life since returning to America.

Not only having international familiarity, but also having international work experience has prepared me for a life after college that I would have never thought possible. Through my study abroad in Florence, I have confirmed my interests in potentially working internationally in the near future.

Going into the program not knowing anyone was a little intimidating, but I can say now with full confidence that I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. I have become more of an outgoing person than I was before, and uncertainty does not bother me like it used to; I now encourage it. Sure, there were times where I felt out of place, but all I could do was laugh, smile, and reiterate the fact that I was in Italy having the time of my life!

International student in Italy with new friends
La mia famiglia all'estero (My Abroad Family)

The classes that I took abroad were eye-opening as the professors were incredibly passionate and electronics were prohibited, teaching me that I did not need advanced technologies to learn. This practice of leaving my computer and iPhone home during classes has transitioned back at the University of Cincinnati where I continue to use my Italian work ethics.

Many would say that I am a completely different person after my time abroad, that I am a more happy person. Even five months after returning, I am still adjusting to life in the U.S. and the different obstacles that are constantly thrown my way, but without my study abroad I do not think overcoming them would be as easy. I strongly believe that I am a more driven, focused, and compassionate individual as a direct result from this experience, with a mindset of “I can do anything” now implanted in my head. As Walt Disney once said, “All of our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them.”