In January, 79 students embarked on what many considered a semester to remember: study abroad in Italy through the University of Georgia. The COVID-19 pandemic interrupted that study abroad experience, but their learning didn’t shut down and could possibly be more memorable because of it.
Italy was one of the first countries to be hit hard by the coronavirus, and the University of Georgia acted fast to bring home the students at the UGA International Center in Cortona, the School of Public and International Affairs program in Verona, and other affiliate programs in the country. They returned on March 1, just one month into their planned three-month semester abroad. In all, 202 UGA students studying abroad were brought home at the start of the pandemic.
Despite their travel being cut short, their classes weren’t. Like the rest of the UGA community, study abroad students learned early on that they would be completing their work remotely. “Our faculty really did something that was seemingly impossible,” says Kristine Schramer, associate director of the UGA Cortona program, which hosted 19 students for the spring. “They taught a curriculum of studio art and art history online to students who did not all have access to even the most basic materials, like brushes and canvases. They accomplished it with an amazing amount of creativity and energy and inspired their students to make the best of the situation.”
For example, the first online assignment in Jeni Hansen’s ceramics class called for students to forage for clay in their own backyards. Drawing and painting professor Jeffrey Whittle taught concepts of light, color, and composition through photo montage—rather than paints—using objects students found in their homes.
“During the time I spent in Italy this year, everything I saw was new and different to me. I wanted to document everything I saw, so I photographed buildings, people, cars, food—all of it” — Angelica Millen, study abroad student in Cortona, spring 2020
Photography students were perhaps a bit more portable. While they began building their portfolios while in Italy, they had to adapt to their new surroundings when they returned to the United States.
“During the time I spent in Italy this year, everything I saw was new and different to me. I wanted to document everything I saw, so I photographed buildings, people, cars, food—all of it,” says Angelica Millen, a rising sophomore from Woodstock.
Coming back to the United States so quickly, though, taught her a lesson—one she used for her art. “We live life without knowing what will come next and only knowing what is right in front of us. In my photographs, I am literally focusing on the present, revealing only the thing immediately in front of the camera.”
Schramer, who is one of four UGA Cortona staff members who live full time in Italy, kept students, faculty, and alumni alike informed about life in the town during the pandemic through social media channels. Staff are working now to ready the campus for the fall semester, which UGA currently intends to run, dependent on public health guidelines.
On April 26, Cortona’s semester-ending celebration of student and faculty artwork, La Mostra, premiered online as the newly renamed Mostra Virtuale. The vast majority of the work was completed through distance learning.