Christian Lucas enjoys his time in Prato, Italy.
By Richard Burnett
Christian Lucas recently tried a new Italian restaurant in the Orlando area, where he now lives and works. Amid great food and a lively atmosphere, he soon felt like he was back in Italy itself, on Beacon College’s 2018 semester abroad in Tuscany.
“One of the women at the Orlando restaurant was originally from Italy and we had a great conversation,” said Lucas, a nonprofit business manager who graduated in 2021 with a bachelor’s in business management. “It’s really neat that I can still connect with people like that by speaking basic Italian that I learned for the trip.”
For Lucas and other “Beacon in Tuscany” alumni, the experience gave them indelible memories that have enriched their lives, both personally and professionally. More than 100 took the study-abroad trip from 2017 to 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic put the program on hold.
This year, the Tuscany adventure, believed to be the only semester-long study abroad program for neurodivergent students, is back on the manifest. Nearly two dozen students have been selected for the September to December semester at the University of Florence’s campus in Prato, a town about 40 miles from Florence. Leading the study will be Dr. Andrea Brode, Beacon’s coordinator of international programs, and Michael S. Fallon, coordinator of the Business & Technology Department.
As the departure date approaches, Beacon is taking every precaution and preparing to implement any pandemic-related restrictions necessary for foreign travel, according to Beacon President, Dr. George Hagerty. The school’s own best practices for protecting students and faculty have been effective during the pandemic, he said.
“Our study abroad program has proven to be a life-transforming experience for participants prior to the era of COVID,” Hagerty said. “We are confident that the informed safeguards the college will be implementing for both our students on campus and overseas will allow Beacon’s collegians to pursue the best of undergraduate preparation while maintaining a priority on health and wellness.”
The making of a Maserati
Academically, what awaits the students this year is a focus on the business world — with classes like Luxury Marketing in Italy, International Business & Management, and Global Franchising. There’s also the always-popular Travels in Tuscany class — taught by Dr. Brode — which showcases the visually enchanting land of Prato with its rolling hills, mountain peaks, palaces, castles and cathedrals, along with visits to Florence and other historic cities.
For Brode, who will make her fourth Beacon in Tuscany trip this fall, the travel class represents the heart and soul of the Tuscany experience for students.
“They learn an independence they have never known before, navigating an unfamiliar place where English is not the primary language and learning how to communicate with the local population,” she said. “It’s all about observing your world as you walk through it, something that I hope really resonates with them. It can make the experience absolutely transformative for everyone who does it.”
Getting the chance to teach in such a setting is a dream opportunity, Fallon said. It has given him an adrenaline rush as he prepares his lesson plans and comes up with different field trip ideas. As an example, for the luxury branding course, Fallon hopes to arrange a tour of a Maserati factory, maker of uber-luxury vehicles some of which can cost more than $400,000.
“It would be a blast to tour that place,” he said. “You couldn’t find a better place to teach luxury marketing than a Maserati factory. We’re also researching other companies to visit that would bring these concepts to life and give these students experiences they couldn’t get anywhere else in the world.”
As a veteran world traveler, Fallon brings a certain flair to the Tuscany curriculum, going “above and beyond” the conventional classroom experience, said Provost Dr. Shelly Chandler.
“We really want to show the students a new view of the world,” she said. “And we’ve gotten great reaction from the students and their parents. The families tell us the experience visibly changed their children. They’re friendlier, more confident, more open to learn. We believe when they interact with people in different cultures, it gives them a better understanding of human nature and other people.”
Learning outside the classroom
Unlike most of the students on the 2018 trip, Isabella Chavez had already done some international travel, including prior trips to Italy and other parts of Europe. Still, the three-month Beacon in Tuscany experience was like nothing she had encountered before.
“As I got to know the people we met in Italy, I began to realize how similar they were to people in my own culture,” said Chavez, a before-and-after-school program manager who graduated in 2021 with a bachelor’s in psychology. “And as they got to know us, at the hotel or the restaurants, they really cared about us. They were like family members. It gave us the opportunity to grow and mature and live on our own, without the comfort of being on campus.”
The experience of navigating a foreign city, meeting people on your own or figuring out directions to a restaurant or theater can be life changing for Beacon students, said Russ Bellamy, head of Beacon’s Studio Arts Department, who led the first Beacon in Tuscany trip in 2017.
“This can be such a confidence builder for them,” he said. “The idea that they have accomplished something in a totally unfamiliar foreign city opens up the possibilities of what they feel they can do here at home. If they can figure out a train system in Italy, for example, then they feel confident they can take a trip to somewhere like Montana too.”
‘This will be with them forever’
As he prepares for the upcoming Beacon trip, Fallon reflected on his own college study abroad in Paris:
“Those experiences have guided my path in many ways,” he said. “It lighted a fire in me for the love of travel. In the same way, this trip to Italy will become a part of our students’ lives. This will be with them forever. They’ll remember who was with them, what they did, what they learned. Facebook memories will pop up with photos on the anniversaries. They’ll never forget it.”