When Ethan Witting visited Florence this summer, he already knew a lot more than other American tourists exploring the historic Italian city for the first time.

Florence still blew him away.

The sophomore finance major at Illinois State spent six days in Florence this summer as part of a new class offered to Honors students. Flipping the script on most European tourist trips, Witting and the 16 other students spent the entire spring semester learning about Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance, before they even left.

That changed everything. Witting learned lots about Florence’s Cathedral, known as the Duomo, an ancient architectural icon. He read about it. He saw pictures.

Ethan Witting takes a selfie

Honors student Ethan Witting, center, takes a group selfie during his recent trip to Italy.

“But just being in the shadow of the Duomo in real life, it really brings you down to Earth,” Witting told STATEside. “That was the coolest part of the trip. We already had this background and felt like we knew all about it. And yet, the real things are 100 times more impressive than we expected to see.”

The course (IDS 102) taught by Italian lecturer Lisa Rosenthal was created to add more international experiences to Illinois State’s Honors Program, which counts travel as a key way to experience Honors learning. The class was built around a unique learning model called “city as text,” meaning Florence itself was the center of learning—its history, geography, culture, and customs. One class session was just devoted to pasta.

The interdisciplinary Honors class was also tailored in part to the students’ majors. They studied how Florence approaches health care, how local actuaries pass their exams, and how the flood-prone city prepares for a disaster.

Like many of the 17 students, Witting had never traveled internationally before, although he always wanted to study abroad. The Florence class, with support from Illinois State’s Study Abroad program, proved to be a very affordable way of doing that.

It also matched up with Witting’s interest in learning Italian. Inspired by the class, he’s now planning to take two years of Italian classes and thinks his international resume could help him land a job later.

“I definitely see this trip as something that would jump out in any kind of interview, because it was such a life-changing experience,” he said. “It’s my favorite thing I’ve ever done. It was the best time of my life.”

Many of the students found the trip transformative, said Tim Fredstrom, director of the Honors Program and one of the chief architects of the new class.

Fredstrom traveled to Florence with the students, and he saw firsthand how much they learned by getting off the beaten paths, going beyond the tourist spots, and digging deep into one city. Witting said the students became “like a big family,” eating every dinner together by choice.

“They had time to sit at a café, drink lattes, and play Italian card games that Lisa taught them,” Fredstrom said. “That was very much part of this experience. We were giving them a taste of immersion.”

The Honors Program is now planning a second installment of the “city as text” course in the spring 2015 semester. The destination will be Germany, with a focus on technology, Fredstrom said.

“It gives students a chance to explore something they would not have a chance to explore in any other place on campus,” Fredstrom said.

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Ryan Denham can be reached at rmdenha@IllinoisState.edu.