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April 23, 2015

A semester under the Tuscan sun

Want to stroll past Florence’s famed Duomo cathedral every morning on your walk to class? Just keep reading. (Photo courtesy of FUA)
Want to stroll past Florence’s famed Duomo cathedral every morning on
your walk to class? Just keep reading. (Photo courtesy of FUA)
Bravo! You finished your homework at the cafĂ© while sipping a cappuccino in an appropriately small mug. Go ahead and treat yourself to a tiramisu or a scoop of gelato en route to the piazza, where you’re meeting your international friends for an outdoor concert in the warm autumn air. You are in Italy, after all.

UAA has its Fred Machetanz paintings, FUA has its Renaissance masterpieces. (Photo courtesy of FUA).
UAA has its Fred Machetanz paintings, FUA has its
Renaissance masterpieces. (Photo courtesy of FUA).
Since 2007, UAA students have been studying abroad at Florence University of the Arts (FUA) in Florence, Italy. The partnership between UAA and FUA means students can spend a full semester in Florence earning credits towards their degree, all while maintaining their scholarships and federal grants.

The two cities have very little in common: students here circle the lot for parking spaces while students there hike through cobblestone alleys to reach the classroom. Central Italy’s Mediterranean climate is at odds with the deep dark winters of Alaska, and most Florentine buildings are centuries older than anything in Anchorage. Although both cities attract a mass of tourists, international visitors don’t leave Florence when the summer ends.

Florence and Anchorage may be strikingly different, but UAA and FUA share several academic programs. Music students can study opera in the land of Verdi and Puccini. Journalism students can work on an Italian newspaper. If you’ve always wanted to study fashion design or architectural restoration, there are few finer cities than Florence.

The majority of UAA students head to Florence, though, for the food. Since 2007, UAA’s culinary arts program has partnered with FUA’s International School of Hospitality to offer seamless semesters abroad for culinary students.

Most of the UAA students who travel to Florence are hospitality management and culinary arts majors (FACT: you can’t spell hospitality without I-T-A-L and Y) (Photo courtesy of FUA).
Most of the UAA students who travel to Florence are
hospitality management and culinary arts majors.
(FACT: you can’t spell hospitality without I-T-A-L and Y)
(Photo courtesy of FUA).

When UAA met FUA


Tim Doebler—a culinary arts professor at UAA—has been advising students on the FUA program since he helped launch the partnership in 2007. In the last five years, he’s had 29 students spend a semester in Florence working toward their UAA hospitality and culinary degrees.

FUA’s culinary students often spend their semester serving sweet treats to neighbors and passersby at Fedora, FUA’s student-staffed pastry shop. (Photo courtesy of FUA)
FUA’s culinary students often spend their semester serving
sweet treats to neighbors and passersby at Fedora, FUA's
student-staffed pastry shop. (Photo courtesy of FUA)
“Everyone has a different reason for going,” he said, citing students’ specific interests in chocolate or wine, or just an innate drive to see the world. “Florence—aside from being the Renaissance art capital of the world—is also a food capital,” he continued. “It’s just an artistic place.”

Aside from the unique courses, Tim also sees the value of sending his students off on a four-month international journey. Most of his UAA students are Alaskan, and most are either living with parents or just finding their footing outside the nest. “As a person who grew up in Fairbanks, Alaska, I understand the value of going out of state, broadening your horizons and then coming home,” he added.

FUA’s culinary faculty includes award-winning chefs, Andrea Trapani—the head chef of pro soccer team AFC Fiorentina—and Michelin-starred Massimo Bocus. (Photo courtesy of FUA)
FUA’s culinary faculty includes award-winning chefs,
Andrea Trapani—the head chef of pro soccer team
AFC Fiorentina—and Michelin-starred Massimo Bocus.
(Photo courtesy of FUA)
Culinary students first hear about FUA during student orientation, and can learn more during their required advising sessions with professors. Tim has visited the program in Florence several times—including, most recently, in March—and he’s the go-to guy for interested UAA students. The culinary program accepts 12 transfer credits and, thanks to the arrangement between the universities, classes in Florence are readily accepted back in Anchorage. “If you don’t pass the class there, you don’t pass the class here,” Tim noted. “It’s not a blow-off semester.”

Feet on the ground in Florence


Culinary arts student Ryan Armstrong was one of 10 UAA students to spend a semester this school year immersed in the food scene of Tuscany. (Photo courtesy of Ryan Armstrong)
Culinary arts student Ryan Armstrong was
one of  10 UAA students to spend a semester
this school year immersed in the food scene
of Tuscany.
(Photo courtesy of Ryan Armstrong)
This year, 10 students signed on for a semester—four in the fall, and six this spring. Ryan Armstrong—a junior in the hospitality program—recently returned to his hometown of Anchorage after spending the fall semester abroad in Florence.

“I hadn’t been out of state very much and hadn’t been able to experience living somewhere else,” he said. In fact, Ryan had never left the country before studying in Florence. He certainly made the most of the experience.

FUA provided Ryan with an apartment next to Santa Croce—a 15th century basilica and one of the main landmarks of Florence. Each day, his walk to class took him directly past Florence’s famed Duomo—the city’s central cathedral.

FUA provides apartments for students in the heart of the city. Ryan ended up in the neighborhood of 15th century landmark Santa Croce. (Photo by J. Besl)
FUA provides apartments for students in the
heart of the city. Ryan ended up in the
neighborhood of 15th century landmark
Santa Croce. (Photo by J. Besl)
“You never get acclimated to that building,” he said. “Every day you walk by and it’s just breathtaking.”

His course load for the semester included an Italian language class and an intensive master class on international cakes, which focused each day on the unique pastry techniques of a different country. “It was me, one other student, and the chef,” Ryan said of the intensive course (the one other student, by the way, had also been operating her own pastry shop for three years).

The culinary courses at FUA use Italy as the classroom, and Ryan traveled throughout the region on course field trips. He took a class on Italian food culture and society, and traveled to Modena to study the 25-year aging process of balsamic vinegar. Another trip took the class further north to Parma (home of parmesan cheese) to witness the curing process of Parma ham.

Ryan traveled to Montepulciano in southern Tuscany with his wine-pairing class to learn more about the grapes of the region. (Photo courtesy of Ryan Armstrong)
Ryan traveled to Montepulciano in southern
Tuscany with his wine-pairing class to
learn more about the grapes of the region.
(Photo courtesy of Ryan Armstrong)
A course on food and wine pairing brought him to the hillside village of Montepulciano in southern Tuscany to research the grapes of the region. “That class was outstanding,” Ryan said, crediting the professor—sommelier Massimo Coppetti. “His life is wine,” Ryan said. “The knowledge he had about wine—it was amazing just to listen to him talk.”

Ryan also took advantage of his weekends, traveling independently across the country. He hiked the steep footpaths of the Cinque Terre, saw the sights of smaller cities like Bologna and Ferrara, lingered a little longer after finals to take in Venice, Lake Como and Rome. All in all, it was an epic semester.

“I absolutely think that everyone in the hospitality program should do it,” Ryan said of studying abroad in Florence. “If they have the means to do it, I would absolutely recommend it.”

“I think initially I wasn’t that familiar with study abroad programs and now, post-2007, I couldn’t imagine not offering this option for our students,” Tim noted. “I think especially for people who are from here and have never left—or even if they have left, but really haven’t broadened their horizon or their mindset—it really is an amazing experience.”

“I can’t imagine not having this experience for our students. I want to go be a student,” he laughed.

If you'd like to study in Florence (or anywhere else), contact the Office of International & Intercultural Affairs, located on the ground floor of Rasmuson Hall (Photo by J. Besl).
If you'd like to study in Florence (or anywhere else), contact the
Office of International & Intercultural Affairs, located on the
ground floor of Rasmuson Hall (Photo by J. Besl).
Students interested in studying in Florence—regardless of their major—can start the process at UAA’s Office of International & Intercultural Affairs in Rasmuson Hall.


Written by J. Besl, UAA Office of University Advancement. This story originally appeared in Green & Gold News on March 11, 2015.