An Italian student just spent a semester abroad visiting multiple countries, reconnecting with her family’s heritage, and creating memories with friends she’ll keep for life.

Gina Tonno, a senior marketing and communications major with a minor in vocal performance at the University of Rhode Island, spent last spring semester studying abroad in Florence, Italy.

“I’ve always wanted to go to Italy since I was little to really discover my heritage,” Tonno said. “I’m 100 percent of Italian descent; my grandparents were the first generation in my family to be born in America.”

Tonno studied abroad through the American Institute for Foreign Study, or AIFS. Through the program, she took courses in English, including classes that would transfer for general education credit and an accelerated course on the Italian language. During the program, Tonno lived in a student apartment with nine other American students, six from URI and two from Manhattan College.

“Florence is a popular American study abroad city,” Tonno said. “We ran into a lot of Americans, and it is ‘touristy’ enough that most people could understand English. I tried to communicate in Italian out of respect for their culture, though. And if I got it wrong they would correct me, but there are so many students there that they would be understanding.”

Even though the language of the classroom was the same as at home, it was still a big adjustment outside the classroom.

“I tried to keep an open mind, but there’s a fear of the unknown, living in a foreign country for months at a time is scary,” Tonno said. “Each day was a journey in itself. But that’s one of the most valuable things about studying abroad.”

What helped, she said, was the program’s structure that allowed a lot of freedom for students to choose what they wanted to do. There were travel companies that allowed the students to take trips together, including to Prague, Barcelona and Greece.

“We could be as involved in the culture as we wanted to be, helping students with English, volunteering, or just talking to people [in Italian],” Tonno said.

As for the coursework, Tonno said that the day-to-day experience differs from the United States in its structure, more flexible policies for punctuality, and the the shorter lengths of Italian classes.

“You just kind of get used to a slower pace,” she said. “[About] 75 percent of the education I got was outside of the classroom, living in a different culture, adapting; it’s more about the life experience. You establish this sense of independence; it prompts a lot of realizations, at least it did for me.”

In learning Italian while abroad, Tonno focused on useful, everyday conversation. She purposely took the more intensive option to completely immerse herself in the language in hopes of being able to use it during her time in Italy. Tonno said that she eventually moved from just basic greetings to being able to shop, order food, and even have a conversation with an Italian relative.

But coming home after spending so much time in Italy was a strange experience for Tonno.

“You do experience a culture shock [arriving], but you come home and experience the same thing in reverse, and coming home can be even harder,” she said. “At some point, people want to stop hearing about it, but the experience kind of feels like it was surreal.”

Overall, Tonno is certain that her experience studying abroad will have a lasting impact on her, since Italy helped her gained an appreciation for global education and cultures. She is now considering doing an MBA after graduation because she would like to study outside the US again.

As a result of her positive experiences with study abroad, Tonno is now a student ambassador for AIFS on campus. The goal, she said, is to help other students find opportunities to study abroad.

“I’m very grateful and very lucky to have this experience and the impact it’s had on my life,” Tonno said. “Every student should be able to experience that, even though less than 10 percent of students end up studying abroad. That’s why I’m so proud to be with AIFS, because I want other students to have the same experience I did, and help people know that it’s possible.”