Thursday, November 10, 2022
Leah Cook at Leaning Tower of Pisa
Leah Cooke in Pisa, Italy

When I chose Italy as my study abroad destination, I thought I knew what to expect. I assumed everyone would be friendly, relaxed, and kind, and it would be significantly more diverse than life in Iowa. But while life was certainly more interesting in one of Italy’s metropolitan centers, it wasn’t at all what I expected. The Italians would have you believe they’re a very laid-back people, but that isn’t always true. The Florentines are constantly in a rush, easily inconvenienced, and even judgmental.

As soon as I arrived in Italy, I noticed people staring at me on the street. At first, I thought it was because I wasn’t adhering strictly enough to Italy’s fashionable dress code, but there were plenty of people looking less put together than me. Eventually, I realized that it was almost certainly because I was visibly not Italian, i.e., not white.

Less than 1% of Italy’s population is of African descent. The country is overwhelmingly white, and it seemed that even in a cultural center like Florence, I obviously didn’t fit in. At first, feeling people watching me everywhere I went made me angry, but soon I realized I didn’t actually care. I like myself the way I am, and I wasn’t going to let anyone change my mind about that. If anything, it made me feel better about myself because I’m lucky to come from a place where physical appearance doesn’t set you apart. 

I loved my experience in Italy as a whole; the food, the cultural opportunities, and the history were all amazing. But living there reaffirmed my values of equality and acceptance in a way I didn’t expect. I think I would say it felt strange to be othered the way I was, but it only made coming back home that much better because I know I’m right where I belong.

Leah Cooke (English and creative writing major), a Diversity Ambassador Scholarship recipient, participated in the Wells College Florence program in spring 2022.


The Diversity Ambassador Scholarship program provides awards to study abroad for a summer, semester, or academic year. The scholarships are intended to support the diversification of students who study abroad. Upon completion of the study abroad program and return to UI, award recipients are asked to submit a photo and an open letter to prospective students or suggest an alternate means of sharing with prospective students.


Please note that the opinions and views expressed by diversity ambassadors are solely those of the students and do not reflect or represent the views of International Programs or the University of Iowa.

International Programs (IP) at the University of Iowa (UI) is committed to enriching the global experience of UI students, faculty, staff, and the general public by leading efforts to promote internationally oriented teaching, research, creative work, and community engagement.  IP provides support for international students and scholars, administers scholarships and assistance for students who study, intern, or do research abroad, and provides funding opportunities and grant-writing assistance for faculty engaged in international research. IP shares their stories through various media, and by hosting multiple public engagement activities each year.