Volunteering Abroad

After I spent a few weeks in Florence, I felt this intangible need to give back in some capacity. Throughout my experience leading up to that moment, I felt that I was lucky to be living a dream. When I went to visit the API office I had a very specific idea in mind: I wanted to help clean up Florence as a volunteer. However, I noticed that there was much more than just the usual “pick up litter” volunteer opportunity; there were a multitude of options to engage and help out in Florence. Since I was a history major, one of the API Resident Directors suggested that I be a volunteer tour guide at one of Florence’s churches. I was a little bit floored by the idea; this was something that I did not expect out of my study abroad experience. Moreover, I was concerned that my introverted nature would have difficulty in reaching out to people on the tour. I thought back to the peppy tour guides on college tours and was uncertain that I could make the same impact.

After these thoughts buzzed around my head, I expressed my reservations to the API Resident Director and she told me to at least consider it because she thought that the opportunity was a good fit. When I went back to my apartment, I mused over the form and decided that I would give it a go. Next was the question of where I would serve as a tour guide. I was within pretty close distance of Santa Maria Novella, known for its beautiful façade and picturesque square. However, I was interested in working in Santa Croce, due to its historical significance. The history nerd in me was geeking out at the prospect of visiting the same place that Machiavelli, Michelangelo, Galileo, and a whole host of other people were buried. The decision was final: I picked my spot.

Santa Croce Image 1

Front of the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence.

Overall, the process was very quick and easy to become a tour guide. The only formal experience I had involved studying a small packet of information and then attending a tour by one of the English volunteer tour guides. That was it! I was finished my training and ready to impart some knowledge to others. The typical day of a tour guide involved waiting in the walkway of the Church’s visitor entrance with a sign that read “Free English Tours!” Sometimes I would have company in the form of other English-speaking volunteers. My objective would be simple: to wait for a group of people to show up (usually getting as many groups together as possible) and then taking them through the church.

Santa Croce Image 2

Michelangelo’s tomb, it took a team of artists to match his genius and create a worthy burial monument.

There were so many good groups of people that I took on tours from all walks of life. I remember taking a family that could only speak Chinese, except for the oldest daughter who could speak English. I would relay facts, anecdotes, and stories to her and then she would translate for her family. My experiences involved me interacting with people from all corners of the globe, from Australia to California, from the Netherlands to Canada. It was truly amazing to not only give people some knowledge about a specific location but to also learn from them as well. I had a conversation with an Australian family about Australians in World War II and I discussed English TV shows with an older British couple. Every day, much like my study abroad experience, would be a total surprise as to whom I would interact with and what I would learn from them. One of the best groups that I took through was two couples on vacation – one from the United States, the other from France. I learned that not only did the couple from the U.S. have a niece that went to my college; they actually lived near my neighborhood a couple years ago! I am by no means a fan of saying “it’s a small world” but when I interacted with them I realized how small the world can truly be.

Santa Croce Image 3

Machiavelli’s tomb, writer of “The Prince” and the lesser known but more important “Discourses on Livy.”

Overall the experience really enhanced my time during study abroad. I could volunteer whenever I wanted too, which did not make it feel like I was juggling too many things at once (I usually volunteered once a week for the duration of the afternoon). It is truly hard to articulate my time as a tour guide into a couple paragraphs but the amount that I learned from the world and Florence in such a short time has been hard to fathom. I think that giving back was more rewarding than I could imagine and I hope that other students will go out and pursue volunteering opportunities wherever they might be.

Santa Croce Image 4

In addition to the grandeur of the inside, the church also had a couple of outdoor gardens.

Ryan McCann studied abroad with API in Florence, Italy and is a former API Peer Mentor at Christopher Newport University.

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  1. There’s definately a lot to learn about this topic.

    I really like all of the points you’ve made.

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