The realities of Rome

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Being a student back in Irving and seeing photos of what students studying in Rome are up to, it can be easy to reduce the Rome semester to a free trip to Europe with some blow-off Core classes. 

Yet this mentality overlooks a side of Rome that is not often talked about. Though the semester is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience that every UD student should participate in if able, it is not without challenges. It would be naive to go into the semester thinking that it will be an extended vacation. 

The Rome semester presents a host of unexpected challenges for students, and they are often hardly discussed when incoming Romers are being prepared before departure. Many of these things have to be experienced by students before they figure out ways to manage them, and many are only warned about them by talking with past Romers who aren’t presenting the trip with a written script. I had the opportunity to interview several students about certain aspects of Rome they were not prepared for, what challenged them, and what advice they had for students who plan to embark on the Rome semester.

There are three general areas of Rome that are discussed by the UD community: traveling, social life and academics. Each of these areas plays a key role in one’s Rome experience, and how one balances and prioritizes these domains will determine the course of the semester. One thing for any student who intends to go to Rome to realize is that everything they choose to do comes at a cost. Due to the packed schedule and rather unpredictable nature of the semester, an activity that a student chooses to do will be at the expense of doing something else. It boils down to one single question: What do you want your Rome semester to be?

Traveling will obviously be on the mind of any student traveling to Rome. One of the unexpected aspects of traveling around Rome and Europe is that it can test friendships that have been built between people from previous semesters at UD. As Theresa Kottkamp, sophomore English major, said, travel brings out different sides of people, and can make stressful situations going abroad even worse if clashes arise between people in a group. 

“You need to travel with different people, otherwise you will get sick of the same group over time.”

One suggestion that Kottkamp had was to make sure that you do not travel with the same people for multiple trips, as things can get tense over time being in such close proximity with the same people both on campus and then on trips abroad. Group size is also key. She recommended groups of three to four people to be a perfect number for the long weekends, adding that even one extra person can throw off plans and make the trip a more unpredictable venture. With a smaller group, people can more easily make plans and it reduces the chance for conflicts to arise over how the trip should go. 

Additionally, the UD campus is not actually in Rome — it is in a city called Marino that is outside of the city, and unless you’re feeling like going on a lengthy hike, you will have to take a bus and metro to get into the city. Though this becomes easy with practice, it’s important to plan these trips ahead of time to make sure you have enough tickets to get in and out of Rome and adequate time to visit sites and stores. 

This ties into the area of social life in Rome. One key detail about UD’s Due Santi campus is that, while incredibly beautiful, it is also very small. Those who think the Irving campus is cramped are going to be in for a rude awakening once they get to Rome. This means that it can be difficult for students to take breaks and have time for themselves to study or rest after long trips. Chau Hoang, sophomore biology major, noted that one thing she was not prepared for was how difficult it was to have privacy on the Rome campus. 

“The campus is so small that it can be difficult to have conversations and not feel like everyone can hear you.” 

Having adequate time to recuperate and study can be hard to come by, especially if doing so makes you feel like you may be missing out on a fun activity on campus or a trip with friends into the city. The confined nature of Due Santi can lead to strain being put on friendships and relationships. As one professor of mine noted rather cryptically, Rome is a great way to make a lot of friendships, and a great way to unmake a lot of them. 

Though the Rome semester is a great opportunity to branch out and build relationships with people you may otherwise wouldn’t, you must make sure to check in with your friends and maintain good communication with them. Giving them adequate space and making sure they’re adjusting to the changes the semester brings will go a long way in avoiding conflicts in the future. 

Something that I heard from previous Romers was that academically, Rome is one of the most difficult semesters they have experienced at UD. Though I originally thought they were exaggerating, I can confirm that they were in fact not. One of the first sights I saw when entering my room on day one was a massive box filled with books for the semester, so be prepared to do a lot of reading. 

The classes you take in Rome are all Core classes with a few exceptions, so most students are studying the exact same materials. This is great in that it allows for easier cooperation with other students, but challenging if your major doesn’t pertain to areas like theology, philosophy or literature. Sebastian Guitterez, sophomore computer science major, noted that if he could have done the semester again, he would have changed his studying habits to better prepare for the types of topics he was studying. 

“You can’t study for a theology exam the same way you would for an Italian test or a Lit Trad quiz,” said Guitterez. 

Though it can be annoying at times, I cannot stress enough to keep up with class readings. It will save you a lot of work in the future once finals roll around, and they are also just great reads! It’s not everyday you get to read the plays of Shakespeare or the writings of Pope St. John Paul II in Europe, so take advantage of this great opportunity while you are able. Sparknotes can only get you so far. 

You can certainly enter the semester knowing that you will have a host of unforgettable experiences that you will carry with you beyond Rome and your time at UD. But also be prepared for difficulties; flights will get delayed, locals might be impatient with tourists, and you may be unlucky enough to have your phone or wallet stolen. 

And in the case of the spring 2022 semester, two major disruptions made things even more complicated: COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine. Masking and vaccine requirements were the norm of traveling; though some of these restrictions are supposedly being lifted in the near future, they made for some “interesting” encounters when going around the continent. To take one example, a few of us were almost caught in a skirmish on a bus when two people started to fight over wearing masks. 

There were also more than a few protests and riots that people saw in different countries, more often than not related to COVID-19 policies. One group even encountered a Neo Nazi rally while walking around in Spain at night. 

Once the war broke out, the UD staff highly encouraged students not to go to countries that were close to fighting; many people’s spring break plans had to be drastically changed since they were in countries that were right next to Ukraine. Students also reported seeing large amounts of refugees in the places they visited, and large public demonstrations over the conflict that often got incredibly tense. Some even had their flights canceled and couldn’t get their money back for the tickets they purchased.

Maureen Riley, sophomore economics major, noted that managing your budget is a necessary skill if you want to make your money last during the semester. “You will have to be ok with having one drink a night if you are near broke at the end of the semester.” 

Being in Rome, you are responsible for your actions in a much more significant way being on your own in a foreign country away from family. Spending money wisely is one of those areas, and some students encountered difficulties in Europe in this area. One particular grievance is that many European establishments would not accept all types of credit cards. Though many do accept credit or debit cards, it’s wise to have an adequate amount of cash on hand in case a store doesn’t accept your card, as well as to avoid conversion fees that go with electronic purchases. 

What’s more is that many places in Europe that you would not expect are not free. For example, we nicknamed certain churches “pay to pray” because you could only enter certain parts if you forked over enough cash. Some bathrooms require a euro or two to use. This can make accessing certain sites a rather annoying and difficult process. 

“It’s ok to take a weekend off or not go into Rome every night,” said Kottkamp.

Many students noted that spending one of the long weekends on campus rather than traveling was really relaxing and helped to spend time with friends and catch up on school work. Some students also went into Rome for a weekend and made memories. Some got to climb the dome of St. Peter’s at the Vatican, and others got to have Mass in the Pantheon. Some also toured a few not-so-well-known spots in the city such as Rome’s only Protestant cemetery. 

In the end, you need to avoid falling into the trap of expecting every moment of Rome to feel like a fairy tale. You will get tired of people, begin to feel burnt out, and will probably want to go home as the last week and days approaches. 

Every UD student should go to Rome if they can. It’s important to enter the semester with a realistic idea of the semester. You should thoroughly enjoy your time in Rome, but you should do so knowing your limits and what your priorities are. It will make for a more enjoyable semester and leave you truly satisfied with the time you spend abroad. 

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