Italian International Student Reflects on the Potential of the Liberal Arts

In this column we will showcase the experiences of students studying abroad. Whether it is a student from the 5Cs who is studying in Quito, or an international student from Milan on an exchange with Pitzer College, their stories are an important part of the broader 5C experience. This weekly column will provide a window into cross-cultural exchanges within the Claremont community.

Before arriving here at Pitzer College, I did not have a real conception of a liberal arts college education. I was just convinced that it would have a lot of artistic courses. 

When I was still in Italy, filling in all the forms for my exchange program, I looked for courses that matched up with my university requirements and only glanced at other possibilities. I couldn’t really understand what all those courses with strange names entailed, so I gave up and decided that I would make choices upon my arrival in Claremont.

Then, during the first days of orientation for exchange students, we had a meeting which explained the educational objectives of Pitzer. It was there that I first heard about the concept of “breadth of knowledge,” which is the idea that university education should not be concentrated only on the subjects related to a specific department but should be as open and unbounded as possible. The idea was amazing and scary at the same time.

In Italy, we have a completely different approach to education: The university is as fixed as possible, and there is little free choice. When I was 19 and finished high school, I had no idea of who I was or who I wanted to be. But I had to make a decision about my course of study. 

At that age, you have no idea about how the world works, what the possibilities of life are, or what you are really good at. But you have to choose your field of study. In three years of university, I was only allowed to independently choose three courses, one each year. Even then, those courses had to be related to my field of study. At the time, unaware of my real desires, I chose a fitting compromise and began a degree in international business. 

But I also really liked drawing. And writing. And I was interested in psychology, too. But I just could not try them all; I had to just decide. Many times after making that decision I regretted my choice, thinking of the infinite possibilities I had had in that moment that I will never have anymore.

The idea I found here that students have two whole years to figure out what they really want to do before declaring a major is simply amazing. You can be interested in psychology, but also try chemistry, take an art class, and at the same time attend a course about women’s rights. And that’s only in one semester! I believe that this kind of approach helps to develop all the human possibilities in life. There’s no better way to understand if you like something, or even more if you don’t like it at all, than to simply try it.

Italian universities surely believe that with their approach they can provide some sort of deeper knowledge—a more complete one. That’s probably true, but what if someone does not know what their future holds in store? 

In Italy, we have one of the highest university abandonment rates, which is likely due to this approach, I believe. Most of the people start doing something they thought would be right for them but then realize that it isn’t a good fit. There is a lot of pressure to choose the right course of study, because what you are studying ultimately determines your career and by some definitions who you will be. If you are studying economics, then you are smart and you will be a manager. If you are studying languages, you are someone who may be unemployed for your whole life. 

At Pitzer, there seems to exist an opposite approach: Every subject has the same value and social status. A student majoring in economics may be also taking some language courses in addition to photography and sociology. What really counts is the person you will become, and that is the sum of all the unique choices you make during your four years. 

I’m taking advantage of this amazing opportunity to explore the liberal arts. This semester, I will be a Spanish student, a photographer, and a psychologist. Maybe one of these things will turn out to be my future.

Ilaria Cazziol is an Italian international student studying at Pitzer for the semester. At her home institution, Carlo Bo, in the small town of Urbino, Cazziol studied languages for business, a major that focuses on Spanish, English, and economics. For Cazziol, who originally hails from Milan, this year abroad will bookend her university career.

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