Like many of you, I am a proud product of the North American education system. I studied in the United States from pre-school all the way up until the very end of my Bachelor’s degree. Even though I hopped around quite a bit during my undergrad years, my “host universities” in Italy and Greece were completely American with the same grading system, learning language, and academic culture.
After earning my Bachelor’s degree and enduring a quarter-life crisis which almost resulted in a one-way ticket to Brazil, I decided that I still wanted to pursue further education but I was ready for a change.
What was the solution? Running off to Italy of course!
An intense month of investigative Googling led me to find the best Italian university in the field of international relations: l’Università di Bologna. After applying, surviving months of tenuous visa paperwork, and receiving my acceptance – I boarded my one-way flight to Italy and gladly said
If you’re interested in studying abroad for the next stage of your academic career and perhaps you’ve entertained the idea of Italy, this article is especially for YOU.
Now let’s go through all of the wild ways university in Italy is a unique experience like no other.
Disclaimer: This reflects my experience as an American attending the University of Bologna. However, most schools in Italy are pretty similar in nature.
How is Studying in Italy?
First, Let’s Talk Money
Before you go on about how attaining a degree abroad costs a ton of money and yada yada yada, let me stop you. Money was one of the reasons I LEFT the United States. $60,000 tuition outside of the United States is not a thing. I’m dead serious.
Universities in Italy are extremely accessible and anyone can take classes at public universities. However, in order to sit exams and actually receive a degree, you need to pay a small tuition fee.
My tuition fees total up to around 3000€ per year. Most Europeans actually consider this expensive; however, the fact that I can actually work on the side and pay for the tuition myself without taking out loans makes me an extremely happy camper.
On the flip side, it’s a lot more common for Italians to take more time completing their degree and become Professional Students than Americans since it’s so affordable. However, that’s a discussion for another time.
Attending Classes – If You Choose
Don’t feel like going to class? No problem. In Italy, most classes do not have mandatory attendance.
You can take a course either as frequentante or non-frequentante. If you are frequentante, you agree to attend class at least most of the time and usually your exam is slightly easier.
If you are non-frequentante, you do not have to attend class at all but you might have to read an extra book or two before sitting the exam.
I know what you’re thinking: Why would you pay for university but not attend the classes? Everyone has their reasons. Some students work full-time and can only commit to a certain amount of classes, others do so because they commute from far away. Personally, I have been non-frequentante in two courses up until now because the English-level of some professors is not… erm.. intelligible. Face it, if you’re Italian you’ve been non-frequentante at least once.
What are Textbooks?
Part of the struggle of attending university in the States is the hefty sum you pay each semester for the textbooks. Normally you need to dish out hundreds and hundreds of dollars and pray you actually need the books you purchase. Not in Italy.
In Italy, or at least Bologna, international copyright law is thrown out the window because broke students ain’t got no time fo’ that. Everyone heads to their local copisteria with a textbook checked out from the library, leaves it for a day, and comes back with a freshly-printed photocopy – all for 10 €.
Let me emphasize the fact that I’m not encouraging anyone to break the law, but I’m merely trying to explain the reality here in Italy. Part of the culture is that many laws are interpreted as suggestions.
The Myth of Punctuality
I still have nightmares of the times I would stumble into an American lecture hall 5 minutes late and everyone would stare at me as I found the last remaining seat.
Meanwhile in Italy, we have the quarto d’ora accademico. Everyone naturally shows up 15 minutes late – even the professor. In fact, there’s even a break halfway through the class, and if you’re lucky, you’ll leave 15 minutes early.
I’ve grown accustomed to the fact that when I think I’m late for class, I’m actually early. The starting time on my schedule has now become the time that I arrive at a café to sip a cappuccino before slowly making my way to lecture. Punctuality doesn’t exist here, you’ll have to get used to it.
Lectures All Day Err Day
The teaching styles in the United States and Italy are pretty different from one another. In the United States, courses range from small discussion-based classes to giant lecture halls which still encourage participation. I have always loved American courses because of how interactive they are in nature and how they pressure us to debate with our peers and form a community.
In Italy, classes tend to be purely lecture-based. Instead of interacting, you can expect to spend more time listening to the professor scroll through slides on a presentation – or just talking. As an American, this has been a difficult adjustment and I often find it hard to concentrate.
The Alternative Exam Culture
Exam week was always an adventure in the American system. I remember staying up practically all night for the last week of every semester trying to cram as much information as I could into my brain. Once the week ended, we were absolutely done and it was time to enjoy the holidays with our families.
In Italy, this seems to be a foreign concept. Instead, exam sessions span three months (December-February and June-September). You can choose which month you take each exam and usually you can retake them as many times as you would like. Most students decide to spread their exams out over the course of this three-month period and spend their entire vacation studying. I personally try to cram my exams in at the beginning and end so I can still enjoy a decent break.
Exams in Italy decide your entire grade. On the other hand, most American universities divide your grade evenly between final exams, midterms, papers, attendance, and miscellaneous assignments. Yup, you can even get a gold star for participation.
Oh and one more thing, in Italy we have oral exams. Essentially, your professor interrogates you and tries to see how well you can explain what you learned in class under pressure. This varies a lot from the United States’ emphasis on purely written exams.
Organization, or Lack Thereof
Even though Italy constantly wins in the money category, universities in the States are much more organized, efficient, and customer-service based.
From my first day of college orientation in the United States, I was able to meet with an academic advisor who helped me organize my obligations so that I always knew what I needed to get accomplished and when. If I ever had an issue with my schedule, it was always resolved the same day. In essence, there was a strong support system and my hand was always held all the way up until graduation.
Italy ended up being a whole different story. When I arrived in Bologna, I received no guidance on how to finish my university registration paperwork nor did I have any idea where or when I would be attending my classes. Most of us arrived in the city and then asked ourselves “Now what?”
Italian universities lack structure and support which make it extremely difficult for most American students to adjust to. Every single time I head to an office in order to resolve an issue, I leave with more questions than I had when I arrived. In essence, dealing with the Italian bureaucracy should be a course in itself.
Varying Grading Concepts
The last aspect I’ll mention here is grades. In the United States, we use the letter system (A through F) which then converts into the GPA scale with 4.0 being the highest attainable grade.
In Italy, grades are on a 30 point scale and the highest score you can possibly receive in a course is 30 con lode. In order to pass a course, you must receive at least an 18.
Additionally, grades seem to matter a heck of a lot more in Italy than they do in the United States so there’s a lot more pressure to score well. In the United States, most employers just care that you earned your degree.
What’s the Verdict?
The truth is that I cannot tell you whether studying in Italy or the United States is better for you – YOU must decide that for yourself. The price may be a lot more attractive in Italy, but maybe you prefer the strong support and community within the United States’ university system.
Anyways, which countries have you all studied in? How is their culture different from American and Italian university culture? Let us know in the comments below!