I was part of the Brandeis in Siena program in the past summer, in which I took classes on Tuscan art history and oil painting in Italy. As one of the Brandeis-led summer study abroad programs that was highly advertised by the study abroad office, it deserved the good words spoken and written about it, but also had many drawbacks that could be improved.
My favorite part of the program was simply being in Siena. The apartment we stayed in was great– it was a real medieval building with old-fashioned stone walls and wooden windows. We had big common spaces and a beautiful balcony where sunrise and sunset could be spotted from. The Tuscan summer was just like what you see in “Call Me by Your Name”: the days were hot and long, and the night came when the sky changed from blue to pink to purple. When the night fell, the mountain wind would sneak through the windows and get trapped in the stone walls. Fresh peaches and house wines came in all forms including gelato flavors. The best part was observing the palio (the biannual Sienese horse race) and witnessing all the contrada (neighborhood) traditions while being in the crowd. To learn about history, we must live in history, and Siena is the heart of medieval history.
However, I think the study abroad office could do a better job managing and designing the program. The program was very over-enrolled this year with 25 students, given the maximum number of people it ever had in previous years was around 15. The program was supposed to be rolling admission with a limit, but the study abroad office eventually decided to take everyone who applied even at the later time of the application. However, this was beyond the capacity that the program could afford. Many people lived in forced triples in the apartment. The classroom and studio (although the faculty claimed that they rented bigger rooms this year) were both too small for the overcrowded group. It was also hard to organize such a big group for field trips and hotels. When we were having art history classes in the museums, we were often told by the staff that we were blocking access for other visitors or we were getting too close to the artwork. It was unrealistic that more than 25 people could fit in a tiny exhibit room full of delicate works while maintaining social distancing.
I also found the program physically challenging. We had three hours of class in the morning and another three hours in the afternoon, both of which we could not sit down during if we went onsite to museums. The school was a 30-minute walk from our apartment with no public transportation, and we had to do the walk at least twice a day. We also had a large amount of field trips that we had to wake up for at 7 a.m. to catch buses or trains. Given that we were often physically exhausted, it was hard for us to do well academically when we needed to rest. I personally think that how well we perform in class should not be connected to our physical capability.
Some advice that I would give to the Office of Study Abroad is to keep the program limit and try not to cram so much content in such a short period of time. There was so much content that we wanted to see, but the reality was that we had to save time and energy for those we really needed to see. All in all, I would still say this was one of the best summers in my life.