CSU Florence Director : The Surprisingly Complete and Intensely Immersive World of CSU Florence

CSU Florence Director Alypios Chatziioanou has been interviewed by Leyla Yasemin Tarhan

Alypios Chatziioanou

Among the several American universities offering study abroad programs in Florence, California State University stands out. CSU has run a campus in Florence for 46 years. Over that period, it has built a strong relationship with the city, so that its students have a very uniquely Florentine experience. The program lasts a year, rather than the more typical semester-long system in place at most American universities. In addition, students are encouraged and at times required to participate in the local culture through sports, volunteerism and internships.

In a recent interview, the current director of the program expanded upon the finer points of CSU’s program and its wider impact both on the American students who participate in it and the Florentine Community. Dr. Alypios Chatziioanou is a professor at California Polytechnic State University, where he has taught subjects ranging from civil engineering to Computer Aided Design. He acted as director of the Florence program in 2007-2008 and has returned for the current academic year.

The first topic which Dr. Chatziioanou addressed was the program’s close relationship with Florentine institutions, such as the Accademia di Belle Arti. When asked how this relationship affected the students’ learning process, Dr. Chatziioanou responded that it had a generally positive effect. He described the usefulness of studying under the European system, in which professors do much less to guide and instruct their students than those teaching in the U.S. In these universities, such as the University of Florence, it is the students who must take the initiative to produce work that goes beyond specified parameters, ask for reviews and pursue a closer interaction with the instructor. This, Dr. Chatziioanou argues, is beneficial to students who might otherwise graduate from college without ever being challenged to make their own rules. Life in the real world would be a harsh surprise for them, he says. In addition, studying under such a different system provides students with a new perspective on education which may also prove useful.

But this can be a difficult shift for some students. Over the course of his tenure as director, Dr. Chatziioanou has noticed that while some students take to the system of underspecified rules easily, others struggle. But it is a good struggle, a useful conflict, which helps students to succeed in adapting to their new surroundings.

Another important feature of the CSU program is that almost all of its courses are site-specific. This is to say that the school offers classes only in architecture, art history, studio art, Italian literature, social sciences, history and classics, all areas which relate directly to the program’s setting in Florence. This is a strategy which has been embraced by some study abroad programs, while others prefer to offer as wide a range of subjects as possible, preferring not to limit their students to the areas favored by their location. But according to Dr. Chatziioanou, this is unquestionably the best way to construct an academic program abroad. He argued that students inevitably benefit from studying a subject when they can draw concrete connections to it. For this reason, most CSU classes center on on-site visits, which allow students to get a deeper sense of their subject matter. Instead of having to visualize a given facet of architecture or art history and being forced to study it only as an abstraction, students in the CSU program have the freedom to smell, hear and “be” in the scenes of their academic projects. For this reason, Dr. Chatziioanou considers it necessary to concentrate on on-site material. He asserts that in Florence, one has to begin with what is specific to the city and branch out from there. However, this may not be so true of different cities. Because Florence was the center of the Renaissance world, it is perhaps crucial to relate the academic program directly to its surroundings. But a less historically and artistically significant city may support a wider program.

Dr. Chatziioanou also insisted that spending a full year in Florence was necessary in order for students to glean the greatest benefit from their experience abroad. This is a feature which has been dictated by the school’s trustees in order to achieve full immersion. Students participate in an intensive language program at the beginning of their fall semester. The first eight weeks are taken by six hours of Italian language classes and study periods each day as part of their Preparatory Language Program (PLP). That would take up half of a semester-long program. With the luxury of a year, CSU students can not only gain a deep understanding of Italian, but they can also become a part of the Florentine community through extracurricular activities such as volunteering in local schools.

Beyond the on-site visits that feature prominently in CSU students’ academic experience in Florence, the program includes seven mandatory field trips around Italy. When asked which of these is his favorite, Dr. Chatziioanou (after some difficulty) chose the trip which combines the eastern cities of Ravenna and Urbino. His choice was based on the importance of these cities to Italian history and culture. Ravenna was once an important Roman port. Because of its location on the Adriatic Sea (the geography of the area has since changed so that it is now an inland city), Ravenna acted as an important conduit between the East and the West. This hybrid culture shows through even today, revealing a fascinating collision of two empires. It also boasts stunning mosaics, a favorite of the Director. Urbino was similarly important to Italian history, and presents an impressive castle reminiscent, in the Director’s words, of Hogwarts.

However, the trip which the Director considers to be the most valuable to the students’ education abroad takes the program to Naples. This city contains elements of a vast range of historical eras, from the ancient Greco-Romans to the modern day. In addition, Dr. Chatziioanou pointed out that this trip exposes students to a different set of cultural mores and attitudes, demonstrating the differences between Northern and Southern Italy. And, of course, the Neapolitan food never disappoints.

The one-year post of Director is clearly a labor of love for Dr. Chatziioanou. Originally Greek, he spent several years living in Italy as a child. When the opportunity to transfer his family and his life to Florence for a year came up, he jumped at the chance to return to the country which he remembered so fondly. Although living in Italy has proved difficult at times, especially when efficiency and speed are on the line, and although his family initially protested the move, Dr. Chatziioanou is very content to have returned not once but twice to his boyhood home. And despite their protests, his children grew to enjoy life in Italy and have now had the benefit of living the European style of life, an invaluable cultural experience. It seems that his students are in the midst of a similarly important year, one which will change their perspectives both of themselves and of the world.