We caught up with Lauren Taylor, SAI Florence student at Florence University of the Arts in Fall 2021, and asked her to tell us a bit about her experience. She is completing a SAI Global Leadership Certificate (GLC) as part of her semester abroad, which includes a volunteering component. We wanted to know how the volunteering component of the GLC has been going, and gather some insights that could help future students considering volunteering abroad.
I knew I was going to try to volunteer while I was abroad; it’s something I have always done when I go somewhere new. I was moved by my experience teaching English with the Carolina Survivors Clinic in Columbia, South Carolina, and I wanted something similar for my time in Florence. A few weeks into my Fall semester, I contacted the SAI Florence Director asking to join the GLC program. We discussed my interests, and whether I wanted to pursue volunteering in my major field (international business) or a different passion. I told her I wanted to teach English, and she was able to quickly find a placement in a local school.
That’s how I found myself volunteering to teach English in two different classes twice a week. I’m working with a big range of students, from 4 to 12 years old. I prepare lesson plans each week, and I have found the teachers to be very open to having me fully teach some classes. The teachers at my school are flexible with their plans, and all seem truly appreciative to have my assistance. I am minoring in Italian, so, while I was a bit hesitant with my language when I first arrived in Italy, it has helped me tremendously to connect with the teachers at my volunteer placement. I generally spend about 4 hours on volunteering each week, and it has contributed so much to my overall experience abroad, I wouldn’t change it!
I’ve had so many memorable experiences already with my volunteering, but one thing I loved was to bring Halloween to the students. Italians don’t traditionally celebrate Halloween, but the teachers brought in pumpkins and I was able to share one of my favorite holidays. The kids were smitten with the idea of carving a pumpkin, and I appreciated being able to share an American tradition with them.
My absolute favorite moment from volunteering was when the students from my youngest classes surprised me with books of drawings, made just for me! Each student drew a picture and included silly and sweet comments. They drew me in hilarious outfits (always with my mask on!) and said things like “I would like to play with you”, “We walk in the park”, and “I love you”. It was my reminder of why I chose to do this volunteering, it’s so rewarding to see them have meaningful experiences. It’s going to be hard to say goodbye to my students, I’ve definitely grown attached!
Another special aspect about my experience has been getting exposure to average Italian life outside the city center. My volunteering school is a 20 minute walk from my SAI apartment, a 15 minute tram ride, and then a 10 minute walk from my stop, but it feels like a completely different world. Florence’s city center is stunning, but I love being in these neighborhoods where all I hear is Italian. It’s in these neighborhoods that I get the Italian experience that I came for; it feels like a home away from home. It also doesn’t hurt that the tram drops off at a huge grocery store where I get to do some very simple one-stop shopping.
I would absolutely recommend this classroom volunteering for anyone considering it! While I have some background that has helped me a great deal (Italian minor, experience teaching English), I think it would be completely manageable for someone without relevant experience. The teachers at my school are extremely appreciative of any help, and would be glad to have someone in the room to act as an assistant rather than a lead. They appreciate assistance with pronunciation, and so I often simply read books and passages so that students can get proper exposure.