Homestay closures disconnect students from Florence locals

With homestays on pause at NYU’s global sites due to COVID-19, study away students are finding alternatives to connect with the city on- and off-campus.

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Roshni Raj

The Villa La Pietra estate houses NYU Florence. Due to COVID-19 guidelines, NYU Florence has paused homestays for the fall 2021 semester. (Staff Photo by Roshni Raj)

By Aurora Russell, Staff Writer

FLORENCE, Italy —  NYU’s historic, 57-acre Villa La Pietra estate gives students a glimpse of the Tuscan countryside — the expansive olive groves, historic villas and an aerial view of the city center downhill. However, this enchanted oasis is a 30-minute walk to the archaic churches and stores that make up the city center. This distance can cause some students to feel disconnected from Florentine culture.

Before COVID-19, students remedied this feeling of isolation by living with a host family in a homestay, one of three off-campus housing options for students who are not first years. 

After living in the villa for her first semester, CAS junior Tiana Urey spent the spring 2020 semester residing in a homestay with another NYU Florence student, which helped integrate her into the city. 

“Our host parents would invite guests from all around Italy, and so we got to know many different perspectives,” Urey said. “The food I had with my Italian host family was the best I’ve ever had in my life. The dinner parties especially went all out with amazing Italian food. Our host parents were so sweet and accommodating to us.”

NYU used to offer semester-long homestays at their campuses in Buenos Aires, Paris and Florence. Second-semester first years and upperclassmen were eligible to apply for homestays, however, the onset of COVID-19 cut the program short in Spring 2020. 

Despite maintaining COVID-19 health guidelines and welcoming students from around the world for in-person classes, on-campus and expanded off-campus student housing, NYU Florence has not reintroduced homestays for the fall 2021 semester. While the status for applying for a homestay in the spring semester remains unclear, the university hopes to reintroduce the program to students soon. 

“Prior to COVID, we would typically have between 10 and 25 students in homestays each semester,” Lorenzo Ricci, NYU Florence’s associate director, said. “The university does hope to be able to offer [homestays] again as an option in the future.”

Located in the center of Florence, NYU’s off-campus residences allow students to live in the same building as locals, which are within walking distance of the city’s museums, stores, restaurants and other attractions. 

Before the pandemic, all first-year students were required to live on campus for their first semester, while other students could choose to live on campus or off campus in an apartment residence or at a homestay. 

Now, upperclassmen can only choose between an off-campus apartment or an on-campus villa. While many students opt for an off-campus apartment, some students, like LS sophomore Olivia Wang, would have preferred to stay with a host family.

“For me, it’s all students that live in this building,” Wang said. “I haven’t been able to meet a lot of locals. My top choice was a homestay. With a homestay, I would be able to really talk to the locals and, you know, live with them. And learn about their culture and language.”

While all study away students are required to live in housing arranged by NYU, accepted upperclassmen at Florence who are semi-fluent in Italian and familiar with the city can apply for a housing exemption to rent an apartment or live with relatives. Stern sophomore Misha Nosenko says living outside of university housing allows students to live independently while studying abroad.

“I definitely feel like I get to spend enough time in the NYU community, just not here on the campus because a lot of us spend our time in the city,” Nosenko said. “I get to be a part of the whole city community with all the Italians. I like the fact that I can walk out and meet up with some friends a few blocks away and just walk around the city, and get to explore the sites.”

Unforeseen circumstances caused Nosenko to apply for a housing exemption. Since NYU accepted Nosenko’s application, he now lives with extended family members in the city center. Nosenko says this unplanned experience feels similar to what he imagines a homestay would be.

“It’s somewhat close to living on my own, in the way that I’m not with other university kids,” Nosenko said. “It’s pretty much like the homestay NYU [couldn’t] give us. I’m liking it. It’s a bit different but I get to practice my language so it’s not bad actually. I definitely would’ve applied for a homestay. If they offer them next semester, I might change from my own housing to that.”

Similar to previous years, the majority of students living in on-campus housing — the Natalia and Colletta residential villas — are part of NYU’s Liberal Studies First Year program. GLS junior Sandra Myer lived in the villas as a first-year before the pandemic. Myer recalls that living on campus allowed her to interact more with Florentine residents than after the pandemic when she returned. She specifically remembers an event where students from a local Italian high school joined in for a few foosball games after an Italian class activity. 

“When the Italian kids came and played foosball with us, that was actually like a community thing, and that was really fun,” Myer said. “They were speaking English and I think some of us were trying to speak in Italian … We actually played a game and we were fighting, so that was fun.”

However, activities such as foosball are no longer permitted due to the pandemic, leaving students living on campus feeling especially isolated.

According to LS first-year Varvara Rodionova, being on a campus 30 minutes away from the city center makes it difficult to visit often. 

“I would love to practice Italian more than just in my Italian class and at restaurants,” Rodionova said. “I would like to get to know people who actually lived in Florence their whole life and are part of this culture. I also miss home-cooked food very much and I want to taste more of Italian traditional cuisine, as well as cook for myself.”

Contact Aurora Russell at [email protected]