As my experience studying abroad in Bologna comes to a close, I'm ready to share what I've learned about this fascinating, medieval city, in the hopes that it might help others decide whether this city will be a good fit for their study-abroad experience. Read on to learn more about Bologna and my time here.
There are several study-abroad programs for American students located in Bologna. The biggest of these is SAIS Europe, a program offered by Johns Hopkins University. Brown University also has a strong program in the city. I attend a smaller program called the Eastern College Consortium (which is operated by Wesleyan University, Wellesley College and Vassar College). Each of these programs accepts applications from students that do not attend their home institution, and the biggest difference among them is how many classes you're allowed to take at the Università di Bologna versus how many in-program courses you take.
Italian bureaucracy is notoriously ill-managed. Depending on where you’re located in the USA, it can take months to get an appointment at an Italian consulate, and you may have to travel a considerable amount to do so. I had a nightmarish time securing an appointment, so I counsel everyone who is interested in studying in Italy to sign up to pay a visit to the consulate at least three months in advance.
Bologna is an incredible place to go for students who are really serious about learning Italian. The city is surprisingly untouched by tourism, given its reputation as the food capital of Italy, and you’re likely to be spoken to in Italian by most people you meet. If your priority while abroad is European travel or partying, on the other hand, Bologna is less well-equipped. The airport is close to the city center but smaller and a little more expensive than airports in nearby Milan and Florence, and the nightlife is certainly vibrant but is by no means the best that Italy has to offer.
Going from a small liberal arts school to the Università di Bologna was a striking transition. In America, I had grown accustomed to an emphasis on individuality and the value of developing a capacity for critical thinking. That’s not the case in Italy. UniBo, the oldest university in all of Europe (established in 1088), is perhaps the best example of a classic Italian education. In UniBo classes, the students are not expected to develop their own opinions on the course material but rather to studiously regurgitate exactly what was taught to them. At times, it can feel like you're engaging less with your courses, but that's just how this system works.
The Bolognese bring out their leather jackets on the first day of September and shiver their way into winter from then on. The temperature remained 60 degrees or higher until the first week of November this year, which seemed positively summery to me, but my Italian roommates have all been consistently shocked by my attire and amazed every time I insist that I'm not cold. Many Italians are scared of experiencing colpo d'aria, which means being hit by air — similar to the superstition in the U.S., they believe that being physically cold can heighten your chances of getting sick, so they do all they can to avoid getting "hit" by the cold air.
You can tell that this city is liberal even if you barely speak Italian when you get here from the sheer amount of feminist graffiti on the walls. Bologna itself is a very left-leaning city due to its large student population, so it's not uncommon to see an antifascist sentiment scrawled on the walls or a communist hammer-and-sickle painted over a stop sign.
The number one thing that family and friends warned me about when I decided to study abroad in Italy was Italian men. Coming from New York City, I figured that I had already experienced catcalling and could handle male attention, but I've been very surprised by the sheer number of comments my friends and I receive on a daily basis here. I’ve been hollered at, which I don’t consider a huge deal, but I’ve also been followed, I’ve been cornered, I’ve been physically grabbed and men have groped me in the middle of a city street in broad daylight. All this in a very liberal city with a huge student population. I’m not sure how representative my experience has been, but it's been a difficult element of my time abroad that I would be remiss not to mention when illuminating the wonders of Bologna life.
All in all, I've had a wonderful experience in Bologna. The city is beautiful, the people are interesting and the language may be challenging, but I've found myself capable. Despite some negative aspects to my time here, I would still recommend studying abroad in Bologna because of the sheer amount of Italian you find yourself speaking. For true language lovers, this is the place to choose.