Before I started my study abroad program, I was asked what my top 3 goals for study abroad where. To this I replied that I wanted to learn about the cultures and languages of the countries I visit (check), to be more independent and worldly (check) and lastly to participate in some of the volunteering opportunities offered by my program. This past week I worked on accomplishing my last goal. In the beginning of the program I went and signed up to get notified when volunteer opportunities presented themselves and last week, I was able to participate in one event. This event was to teach English to high school students in Italy.
I met up at the volunteer office around 9:00 am to meet up with the rest of the group which consisted of four other American volunteers before heading over to the high school where we would be teaching. This was a public high school called Russell Newton and we would be visiting two classes: third year students and fifth year students. This high school was in Scandicci, a little town further from the center of Florence and it required us to take a 30-minute train over which was very easy and enjoyable.
One of the interesting things I learned about the high schools in Italy is that students are enrolled for five years instead four like we have in America. We started off visiting the fifth year students who were between the ages of 18 and 19 years old and spoke English intermediately. I was in a group with all guys and one other female volunteer and we had a blast. These boys had us laughing the entire time, they were very willing to participate in conversations with us and they gave us a very good insight of what their lives where like.
I learned that those boys have been classmates their entire school career and differently from us in the States, the students stay in their distinct classrooms and the professors move from classroom to classroom. They told us a bit about how their school is, how many students are in each grade, and what their classes were like. We also talked about them going to college: how common it was, how far, what it takes to get in, and the cost. It was very interesting to see their views on college. They only had one nearby which they would commute to by train and they all said it was easy to get in, but very hard to do well in school while you’re there. They also explained the reason behind having five years in high school, which was to take most of their general education courses instead of taking it in college which for them is three years long.
In addition, we talked about how half of them had just gotten their license at the age of 18 and some were still getting training because they drive standard cars which are harder to learn. They thought it was crazy that 16-year olds were allowed to drive in America. From there, we talked about our favorite places to travel in Europe and got some good pointers of where to go in Europe as well as places to travel to in Italy. They also gave us some recommendations of what food to try as well as what places have the best nightlife in the city. I loved learning all the little secrets of the locals.
The conversation did not stop there. With them we also talked a lot about fashion, and they re-emphasized the idea that in Italy fashion is important and that even going to school it matters if you look good. These boys were all fashionably dressed so I could definitely see the truth in their words. It felt good talking to them and for most of the time I nearly forgot they weren’t fluent in English because we got along so easily. We also talked about less important things like which social media was most commonly used for them, which Netflix series they were into and also showed pictures of our pets. It was fascinating to see all the similarities we had and made me think that even though we are from two completely different parts of the world we are still in tune with each other and are more similar than we think.
When the time came to leave I was genuinely sad to go however, it made me feel good when the teacher said that the conversation we had with those boys was the most effort and participation she had ever seen them use when it came to speaking English. That was the goal of this volunteer opportunity, so I was happy that they felt comfortable putting their English skills to use with me.
From the fifth year class we moved to third year class which was had students between the ages of 15 and 16 year old. They didn’t speak English as well as the other students however, they had two less years of experience. It was a little harder to communicate with them partly because of their English-speaking skills, but also because they were shy. However, by the end of our long conversations they were a lot more comfortable with me. This time I was the only volunteer in the group but I didn’t mind, I brought up similar topics like the ones we discussed in the last class which worked pretty well.
I learned more about their high school where they are offered an intriguing way of attending school. They explained to me that when you start high school you have to choose between two options about how you will be completing your schooling. One option being that you attend school Monday through Friday for six hours, which is what we do in the U.S. or you can go to school for a shorter amount of time M-F but then you would have class on Saturday for 4 hours. They explained to me that most of them did the second option because they thought going to school for 6 hours straight was too much for them and I agree. From there, we talked about the music we listen to, our hobbies, our siblings, our past vacations in Europe and what we wanted to do when we were older. I had an amazing time talking to all the students. It was my first long term interaction with locals and I really got to know some of them on a personal level.
In conclusion, through this volunteer experience I not only got the chance to talk to some local teens, but I also got to see a part of Florence that was purely locals which I hadn’t seen before. It was so fascinating getting to learn what their life was like and being able to compare it to mine in Greece which was similar and my life in the U.S. which varied. Leaving the high school I felt different, I was happy I could help these students speak more English and answer their questions but I was mostly happy that they gave me the opportunity to talk to them too. It was a mutual learning experience that I will often think back on because it taught me that meeting people from different cultures does not in fact mean we are separate but through communicating and connecting there are more similarities that unite us. This is exactly what I was hoping to get out of this volunteer opportunity and I am very grateful for it. I am also thrilled to have completed all the goals I set that were important to me for this trip while learning some life lessons in the process.