Out from Under the Tuscan Sun and into the Marist Bubble
“Are you a freshman?” asked a second-year student.
“No, no, I actually go here,” responded Hallie Lothrop ‘21. She, like several other members of last year’s Freshman Florence Experience (FFE) program, has concurrently started her sophomore year and her first year on the Marist College Poughkeepsie campus.
For many in the FFE program, the most difficult part of the experience is not leaving behind their country of origin before opening their first college textbook; rather, the true challenge lies within returning to a campus they have never lived on, rejoining fellow students they have never met, and resuming a lifestyle they have never led.
“When you are abroad, you get so comfortable being uncomfortable. Not understanding the cultural norms around you becomes the norm,” said Lothrop. “Still, I think coming in and having everyone assume you are a freshman is tough.”
While other novice Red Foxes stepped onto campus as residents for the first time on Saturday, August 25, returning FFE students had already been there for four days. An orientation program designed specifically to aid the sophomores in acclimating to on-campus living began once they were moved in.
The program featured personal tours of the campus led by former FFE juniors and seniors, information sessions, and excursions out of Poughkeepsie into the greater Hudson Valley area. Dia: Beacon, the modern art museum south of Marist, was the first destination of many, according to International Programs Coordinator Jean Hinkley.
Hinkley works predominantly with FFE students after they return from their experience abroad. Her position entails organizing resources including 33 peer mentors, all of whom spent a year overseas. Frequent events foster networking and bonding opportunities for students with their mentors, including trips to apple orchards, Poughkeepsie’s “Little Italy,” and ice cream sundae-making.
“My mentor has been wonderful, we went to the football game together last weekend,” said Aaron June ‘21. “It’s such a nice feeling to have someone that has been through what you’ve been through, a shared experience. I lucked out.”
Ankofa Billips ‘19, the current Student Government Association executive vice president, was one such mentor. She worked to enable her mentees with helpful insight and delighted in seeing them flourish.
“It was tough because we were doing things and thinking about things [abroad] that other people were not doing and thinking about on campus,” said Billips. “We challenged each other to be better people -- hungrier, more mature, more cultured. Coming back to campus, we were a snooty group.”
The decision to pursue an entire year’s coursework in Italy is one made by “highly motivated” freshmen, according to the Marist Italy page. A wide range of motivations sent the young students to Europe: a passion for art history, a compromise with parents after seeking a gap year, and even an infatuation with the city of Florence sparked by the video game “Assassins Creed II.” Fundamental differences in the mindset of the average Marist student and those of the FFE program generate an initial social rift between the two groups.
Initial observations of comparison made by returning FFE students paint the typical Marist student as more reserved and laid back in the classroom, and more outgoing outside of class. June noted that campus students prioritize partying a bit more than former FFE students. Others cite a difference in societal awareness, that many remain trapped inside the Marist Bubble.
The “Marist Bubble” refers to the narrow mindset formed by spending too much time in a cultural echochamber; static residents of the Poughkeepsie campus may have a more difficult time comprehending the larger world outside New York State, according to some of the FFE students.
“People who have studied abroad have a wider scope of significance. People who were here since freshman year are more focused on smaller things, they have a hard time mentally getting outside the American Northeast,” said Sophia DeLoatche ‘21. “A vastly different kind of person is willing to do FFE; you have to be unconventional and willing to take a chance.”
“Some people don’t have a great understanding of what lies outside the Bubble. I am extremely lucky to have experienced a new way of living,” Lothrop said. “We [as Americans] are stubborn and stuck in our ways, and often will not admit that someone else has done something better than us.”
Despite several early hurdles presenting challenges for on-campus assimilation, things have gone well for the former Florentines in Poughkeepsie. Participation in a wide range of clubs, including Habitat for Humanity, MCTV, and Fox Photo, as well as admittance to organizations like the Honors Program, has facilitated the formation of a new network of colleagues and professors for these students.
Contrasting the experience of all 50 FFE students residing in one building with current campus life, the returning class is much more spread out, living in Upper Fulton, Upper West Cedar, and a few of the new North End buildings, expanding their social connections even further.
A major shift in living style that has frustrated some students is the lack of mobility found on a college campus like Marist. They became used to stepping out one’s door and thrown into a cultural epicenter of the world, passing historical sites, grand cathedrals, and legendary pieces of art, as well as a myriad of peoples, just on their walk to class. The transition from walking 10 minutes to a bus or train and venturing anywhere in Italy and surrounding Europe, to lacking a car to travel to places in Poughkeepsie, has made some feel trapped.
“Classes were taught like the world was our playground. We could gain knowledge by doing. The classroom can be restrained and systematic,” Billips said. “When you can experience things, it ignites a tangible hunger for knowledge. Every opportunity becomes a place to learn."
Hinkley wishes for students to apply this mentality to their time studying in the Hudson Valley. In addition to the larger FFE alumni and mentor events, Hinkley’s close personal relationship with many of the students she has worked with has taken them off campus together.
An early weekend in September, she drove a few students over to Peach Hill park, the largest point in the city of Poughkeepsie. Quaint buildings, distant water-towers, and a plethora of leafy trees comprised the view from the grassy overlook.
As the students wandered around, gazing at mountains or studying the varieties of vegetation scattered about the ground, a familiar comfortability came over them. Hinkley, a mentor and a source of guidance to them, recognized the returning spark of curiosity and discovery.
“Keep that adventurous mentality of exploration you had abroad,” Hinkley told them.