The University of Iowa

Life and learning in small town Italy

September 10th, 2013

Study Abroad Fair Sept. 17 will feature diverse programs for UI students

By Lauren Katalinich | This story originally appeared in Iowa Now

Sydney Johnson poses with the landscape of Civita di Bagnoregio, Viterbo, behind her.

Sydney Johnson poses with the landscape of Civita di Bagnoregio, Viterbo, behind her.

The first week University of Iowa senior Sydney Johnson was in Viterbo, Italy, she and her friends decided to check out the Festival di Sant’antonio celebrations in a nearby village.

When they discovered the buses had stopped running, they decided to walk the six miles by starlight. Celebrations were in full swing when they arrived, with the whole town bright with the light of a giant bonfire and live music, dancing, and food. The atmosphere was infectious, and that’s when Johnson knew this might very well be her favorite semester as an undergraduate.

Ever since a trip to Italy in high school, Johnson, a Des Moines native, was determined to study abroad while at the UI. In addition to coursework for her international studies major and certificate in sustainability, she took Italian classes to prepare herself for the journey ahead. She knew that she wanted to study in Italy but had no idea where.

“I didn’t even know how to pronounce Viterbo before I left. It was an almost impulsive decision, but the best one I ever made,” she says.

In addition to her classes at the historical Tuscia University of Viterbo, Johnson volunteered with a local elementary school.

Viterbo, a small medieval city about an hour and a half north of Rome, may not be on the average tourist’s list of must-see Italian spots, but for Johnson it was perfect. With a population slightly less than Iowa City, Viterbo's size and traditional aspects of the city made it ideal for getting to know locals and practicing Italian.

Most residents didn’t speak English at all, forcing Johnson and her classmates—several of whom had never taken Italian before—to jump right into the language.

“It’s a small enough town that I saw the same people every day, and English just doesn’t fly in Viterbo.”

She adds that Italian culture is slow and relaxed—a trait that can take some getting used to for Americans. Viterbo is a traditional city that still observes the particularly Italian custom of closing up shop from 1 to 4 p.m. every day for lunch.

“It was frustrating at first, but in the end that’s why you love a place,” Johnson says.

Study Abroad Fair
Viterbo is one of the many destinations and programs that will be represented at the fall Study Abroad Fair on Tuesday, Sept. 17, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on the second floor of the University Capitol Centre. Advisors will be available to talk to students about programs, academic planning, financial aid, and even post-graduation work abroad options. Students who have recently studied abroad, including Johnson, will also be there to share stories and answer study abroad questions from a student perspective.

For more information on the fair, visit the Study Abroad website.

Johnson’s biggest regret from her experience? “That I didn’t stay for a full year. Before I left, four months seemed so long. Then I got there and four months was up. I can’t wait to go back.”

Individuals with disabilities are encouraged to attend all UI-sponsored events. If you are a person with a disability who requires a reasonable accommodation in order to attend this event, contact Liz Wildenberg De Hernandez in advance at or 319-335-1442.