La Vita è Bella: Study Abroad in Florence, Italy


Laurie Hamame – Florence, Italy

My STEP Signature Project included a study abroad trip to Florence, Italy, the capital of Italy’s Tuscany region and the birthplace of the Renaissance, where I stayed for seven weeks. While staying in Florence, I studied at Accademia Italiana, one of Europe’s premier institutes for art and design. Located in two beautiful renaissance buildings directly across from the famous Pitti Palace in Florence’s Oltrarno district, this university offers a variety of courses offered in both Italian and English.


I spent two months learning about Italian life and culture and getting to know the people, the place, the language, and the traditions of this exuberant country. I took two classes, Photographing Florence and Italian Language, during my time, and I documented by stay through photography and blogging on my personal site.


I learned that the best skill you should attempt to hone abroad is to do absolutely anything you can to embrace the culture as fully as possible. I learned that in order to have the most authentic experience, I had to shed my inhibitions and run straight into the language barrier, which is more of an obstacle than a barrier. I was shown that I am more independent that I think I am. I taught myself Italian, traveled all over Italy alone, and interacted with people from every walk of life…all without my mother on speed dial.

Before this summer, I have never traveled alone, never stepped foot in an airport by myself, or planned travel arrangements on my own. I came back with valuable lessons about my own ability to live and thrive outside of Ohio. I have a a new, flaming confidence regarding my ability to adapt to different environments. To reiterate this point, I must share that when I came back to Ohio State, I tested into Italian 1103; I didn’t speak a work of Italian prior to my trip!


Every day in Italy was filled with excitement, but something I will never forget is running in the second oldest road race in Italy: the 76th annual Notturna di San Giovanni (The Night of Saint John). I ran a 10k with thousands of Italian athletes through the  city of Florence. Holy. Smokes. When I started running a little over a year ago, I never imagined I’d run in a different state, not to mention a different country.


Running in this race allowed me to immerse myself even deeper into the magic atmosphere of Florence. Running on cobblestone roads past historical monuments, gorgeous bridges, and breathtaking churches with 1,500+ other athletes in ITALY is undoubtedly one of the greatest things I have ever done in my entire life. No words will ever exist to describe the feeling. The energy was electrifying. I smiled the entire hour it took me to finish. At one point in the race, the joy overtook me and I yelled out to the sky, “LA VITA È BELLA!” Life is beautiful.


Those seven weeks of pleasure, the 49 days of eating and speaking Italian, will always count amongst the happiest of my life. I realized that it is our duty and our entitlement as human beings to find something beautiful within life, no matter how slight and small. If something licks at the flame within you, grab onto the ankles of that happiness.


Before Italy, I did not know what I deserved. I thought the best kind of life was an active life. I plunged into social gatherings; I thrusted myself at all opportunities; I studied until day turned to night and back to day again.

I justified my glorification of busy by referring to it as seizing the day or being an active participant in my life. I swapped balance for busyness and freedom for the fear of lost time. I stopped caring for myself and taking care of myself. I obsessed over every detail and panicked over every empty calendar space to the point where I substituted meal time for meetings and let my fridge sit empty for weeks.


But Italy changed me. The easiest, most fundamentally human way to say it is that I have put on weight. Of course I did. Every day, I took in ghastly amounts of cheese and pasta and bread and wine and chocolate and pizza dough and gelato. I’m didn’t exercise (besides the miles I walked every day), I didn’t eat enough fiber, I didn’t take any vitamins, but my body was such a good sport about all it all, as if to say, “It’s OK, kid. Live it up.”

I know when I go back to America and After Italy Laurie arises, my little experiment with overindulgences and pure pleasure will tone down. I will leave Italy a little bigger than when I arrived, but I cannot even be bothered to think about it.


I exist more now than I did a few months ago. There is more of me. I am not even speaking solely in regards to physicality. Learning the art of il dolce far niente and living in il bel paese and experiencing la dolce vita, has left me an expanded person. I left Italy believing that the magnification of my life was an act worth experiencing, that the expansion of and the amplification of myself was an act of worth.


Before Italy, I didn’t know what I deserved. I didn’t know that I deserved a break– even two breaks. I didn’t know that I could slow down without wasting time. I didn’t know that I could engage in pure pleasure without feeling like I needed to be punished. I didn’t know that by saying yes to something, I could be saying no to myself.


 This is probably why, when I thought about coming to a country where I’d learn the art of pleasure, I felt completely irresponsible, as if this trip was a self-indulgent luxury. When I realized that the only question at hand was, “How do I define pleasure?” and that I was truly in a country where people would permit me to explore that question freely, everything changed. All I have to do is ask myself every day, for the first time in my life, “What would you enjoy doing today, Laurie?” Instead of measuring the number of errands I’ve crossed off my to-do list, I measure my success by the number of times I’ve smiled about nothing, watched the sun set, or by how long it took me to linger over dinner.


These experiences have been very personally valuable, but also academically valuable. I have been able to experience a culture very different than the community that I grew up in and also adapt to a new environment, which will help me to adapt and understand new cultures in the future as a journalist when I work with many different people. I have been able to gain many practical skills including learning how to navigate traveling independently, speaking another language, maintaining a blogging website, and also meeting and interviewing many new people I would not have been able to connect with without this experience.


I had always wanted to study Italian, but the lack of practicality turned me away. My opinion quickly shifted after studying in Italy. I realized, “Does everything I do in life have to have a practical application?” I decided the answer is a profound, “No.” When I came back to Ohio State, I dropped the language I was studying and picked up Italian, a language that sparks a fire in me. Do I want to work in Italy? Of course. But if it doesn’t happen, I will still hold another country in the palm of my hand and have an experience that was utterly transformative.


Engineering Service-Learning at Montana De Luz


I participated in an Engineering Service-Learning course through OSU where we traveled to Honduras over Spring Break 2015 and implemented sustainable engineering solutions for an orphanage.

Montaña de Luz (Mountain of Light), is an orphanage for children with HIV/AIDS. Founded in 2000 as a Hospice, the orphanage has now become a loving home providing hope for these children thanks to the availability of anti-retroviral medications. Located an hour and half to the East of Tegucigalpa on top of a mountain overlooking a valley of small towns and sugar cane fields the mountain of light is a refuge for children who desperately need the specialized care, nurturance, healing and love provided to them in this refuge from a world where AIDS is stigmatizing.

Our class had three student teams that worked on different projects. The Water Team installed bio-sand filters at the orphanage and conducted water quality tests in an ongoing effort to bring clean drinking water to MdL. Currently, MdL pays for bottled water which ends up costing them a lot of money every year. The Drip Irrigation Team installed a drip irrigation system which will help to start a vegetable garden to provide MdL with fruits and vegetables.


I was on the Electrical Team and we rebuilt a backup generator by scavenging parts from another generator of the same model which was in a much worse condition. We scoured the neighborhood and local shops for parts and rebuilt the fuel system of the generator and made electrical repairs to the alternator. After adding some fuel, the generator worked! Then we worked on integrating the generator with the electrical grid of the orphanage, specifically the kitchen. We installed a new circuit box and created a three way switch hooked up to the generator which provided backup emergency power to the kitchen to help preserve food and anti-retroviral medicines for the children.

So What?
Honduras gave me a chance to apply what I had learned in school to a real world problem. We had to repair a generator which we knew almost nothing about and then we had to integrate it with the orphanage’s electrical grid. I’ve never undertaken a project of such magnitude before. But once we were successful, I was immensely satisfied that our hard work was going to affect other people’s lives in a positive way. This experience reaffirmed that I was on the right career path and that Engineering was the correct field for me.

My time in Honduras also showed me that there is so much more to life than getting a job and making sure you can work 40 hours a week. I had been struggling with my plans for the future, even though I was doing really well in school and had good internships. I was focused on my career and not paying enough attention to whether it would actually make me happy. Then I met the long term volunteer at the orphanage Dr. Chris Ratcliff. He spent a lot of time and money in obtaining a PhD in Electrical Engineering. He spent years working on silicon conductor research in a dark basement. But today, he is a volunteer at the Montana de Luz orphanage in Honduras and is focusing on sustainable agriculture to provide healthy food for the children.

Why would he make this decision? If you were to visit the orphanage, you will understand immediately. The children have difficult lives, they are struggling with one of the worst diseases to afflict humanity, HIV/AIDS. But if you look at their glowing faces and bright smiles as they run around the yard playing football or midnight tag with ring lights on their fingers, they look like the happiest human beings on the planet. I think Chris realizes this. To him, a well paying job working in a fancy laboratory or teaching at a prestigious academic institution doesn’t hold a candle to when he picks up little Erik and puts him on his shoulders. The bright joy that lights up his face is evidence of this. It’s never too late to do what makes you happy.


At the end of the day, it wasn’t the Engineering aspect of the experience that gave me the most joy. Without access to our cellphone or WiFi, we developed very strong connections amongst ourselves as we lay in our hammocks at the end of the days and talked about life, sang songs, played music, and pranked each other. Every day we played football and other games with the children. We made ice cream with them. We ate so many delicious foods and shared a truckload of watermelons. Those dazzling smiles created an instant bond despite the language barrier. The sense of community I experienced was the biggest thing I took away.

Now What?
I will use the problem solving and technical engineering skills I learned in Honduras and apply them throughout my career. I will take the time to connect with those around me and take a break from the constant distraction of the internet to instead have real, meaningful conversations with a purpose. I will become a strong contributor to my community and give back as much as I can in the form of physical and mental service. Whenever I face any obstacles in life, I will remember the smiling faces of children facing a life-threatening disease and overcome those obstacles in stride. Honduras taught me to live more with less, be a part of people’s lives, and to do what makes me happy. For me, this will definitely involve using my technical skills to work on projects involving a huge service component.

Over 10 days, I made a lot of new friends, learned so much more about the important things in life, and played a lot of football. This is an experience I will cherish forever.

Service in Vietnam

What?I volunteered at an orphanage for children with developmental disabilities for two weeks in Vietnam during the summer of 2015. I commuted to Thien Phuoc, the orphanage, each morning on the back of my uncle’s two-wheeled motorbike and stayed there for 7-10 hours each day, becoming immersed in the children’s daily activities. Some days I assisted in the children’s physical therapy and some days I was in charge of it. I would strap the children I was in charge of onto an exercise bike, one at a time, to help them exercise their legs and work on their range of motion. I would also strap some of the children onto standing frames to help them develop their ability to walk and maintain an upright posture. Throughout the morning physical therapy I would feed the children I was working with water or lemonade and physically help them to use the restroom whenever they needed to. Some mornings I worked on physical therapy with the younger children instead and massaged their muscles with a vibrating therapy machine since these children were stationary and horizontal most of the time. When lunch time came each day, I spoon-fed some of the younger children their porridge and flan and then soothed them until they fell asleep. While they slept I helped the nuns clean up and wash the cloths that were used to help clean after the children as we were feeding them, and after the children’s nap, I changed the diapers of the younger children and fed them milk. After caring for the younger children, I played with them or went to play with the relatively older children. I played with them and developed relationships with them and laughed with them. After playtime, I helped to spoon-feed the younger children in the early evening during the first week and the relatively older children during the second week. And after feeding the children porridge or rice and then water, I played with the children even more until the evening; throughout the late afternoon and evening I would continue to help the children use the restroom when they needed to and also help the nuns bathe the children by drying the children and dressing them. After the sun has set, my uncle would come to pick me up and drive me back home.

So What?My favorite part about my STEP experience was getting to know the children and returning to see their faces each morning. My time at Thien Phuoc was more incredible than words can ever describe. Prior to my experience I believed that I was naturally bad at dealing with children and even more awkward at dealing with disabled people—which was a reason why I wanted to get out of my comfort zone and participate in this experience. However, as I became more immersed in my role at the orphanage and more engaged in the children’s daily lives, I became to wonder why I had ever doubted myself so much. I naturally enjoyed spending time with the children, whether that meant helping them mold shapes with clay or wiping their butts clean. I valued them because I saw that they were capable of so many great things, even if they were limited and confined to the orphanage. They had warmth within them that was contagious and gave me more energy. They were resilient and powerful, even when they were scolded by the nuns for accidentally peeing in their pants or when they didn’t want to participate in the physical therapy because it felt too hard that day. Their capacity to love and to have fun remain unchanged by their disabilities, and I saw something so incredible in that that I felt so grateful to be volunteering where I was, so happy to be able to help them, so blessed to be a part of their universe, even if only for a little bit. I felt like I was always feeling thankful for the children and the nuns instead of the other way around. I’ve realized that people truly are stronger than they look, even when they are in the form of ‘broken’ or ‘incomplete,’ young children. They aren’t helpless; they don’t need help. What they need is love. It was so amazing for me to be able to experience this love beyond borders.

Now What?Because of STEP, I was able to learn about cultural differences in perspectives on disability and discover the importance of psychological support over physical support in therapy. On an academic level, my experience abroad has given me a clearer direction and vision in terms of what I want to do as a career. More specifically, I want to steer away from medicine and set my focus on a career that impacts children and childhood development in some kind of way. I want to contribute to changing and bettering the lives of the younger generations, something I had generally avoided before without my realizing it.On a more personal level, I was able to rediscover self-efficacy in working with children, which drives me in my pursuit for a career with children. I was also able to redefine disability and physical therapy, explore my cultural identity as a Vietnamese-American, and solidify an even more optimistic mentality. I have found a new comfort zone in working with disability and people who are disabled, a huge step from where I had been prior to my experience. Because of STEP, I have gained a new and impactful understanding of what it means to be Vietnamese and what it means to be Vietnamese-American. Family to me has also taken on a new meaning; familial love and family ties have taken on a deeper meaning and I am now always working harder to develop better relationships with my family members and mend broken relationships. Additionally experiencing the contrasting lifestyle of Vietnam has stimulated and amplified my curiosity and wonder as a cultural learner, adventurer, risk-taker, and traveler. I’ve encompassed amore stress-less-live-more attitude, which permeates to all other aspects of my life and since my return to the United States, I have been traveling more and generally experiencing even more new things (even if it means doing so in my own company).Because of STEP, I genuinely feel that I am living an overall happier life.