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STUDYING IN ITALY

REVEALED: What studying in Italy is really like and what you should expect

If you're planning to study in Italy, there's a lot to consider. We asked international students about their experiences of everything from finding accommodation to navigating unusual exam methods.

REVEALED: What studying in Italy is really like and what you should expect
Italy is home to some of Europe’s oldest and most prestigious universities, but what is studying at them really like? Photo by Davide Cantelli on Unsplash

What student hasn’t at least once thought about moving to a foreign country and enjoying life away from home in a new environment? For many, the object of such daydreaming is Italy.

The bel paese is known for the quality of its higher education system and its relatively low tuition fees, which range from a minimum of €900 to a maximum of €4,000 per year at public universities. 

Ranked: Italy’s best universities and how they compare worldwide

Factor in Italy’s culinary culture, picturesque landscapes and warm weather and it’s easy to see why nearly 90,000 foreign nationals move to Italy for educational reasons every year. 

But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. A number of hurdles can turn studying in Italy into a far-from-idyllic experience: snail-paced bureaucracy, accommodation-related trials and tribulations, and locals’ often poor command of English are just some of the problems international students told us they’ve faced.

So, what exactly do prospective students need to know about living and studying in Italy and, above all, how can they prepare for the challenges that lie ahead? The Local asked current and former international students about their experiences to find out.

What to expect from your course

First things first, you should be aware of Italian universities’ teaching and assessment methods. If you’ve never studied in the country before, the chances of you being familiar with the country’s education system are close to zero. That’s because Italian universities have unique teaching methods, replicated hardly anywhere else in the world. 

Most of the teaching is delivered through frontal lecture-style instruction, with hardly any room for seminars or other forms of in-class interaction. Secondly, exams are for the most part conducted orally, with students asked a number of questions (usually around five) about the relevant subject.

Adjusting to this system isn’t always a walk in the park. In fact, some students say they never fully got to grips with it.

“I did my triennale [undergraduate course] at Cà Foscari [University of Venice] and I didn’t like it at all,” says Evelina Gorbacova, a Latvian national who is now doing an MA in Digital and Public Humanities at the same university.

“The system was such that you had to learn everything by heart,” she explains. “You would just go to class, write down some things and then repeat those things at the exam. That was very frustrating.”

Thankfully, Gorbacova says the postgraduate course she is currently on is significantly more practical than her triennale was, and allows for a greater level of interaction between students. 

To avoid any unpleasant surprises, students are advised to pore over the teaching structure of their chosen course before formally accepting a university offer. Usually, such information is readily available online. Should that not be the case, reach out to the university directly and ask for a detailed course handbook.

A student walks outside Milan’s Bicocca University. Photo by Piero CRUCIATTI / AFP

Once you have officially accepted your university offer, how should you then prepare for your upcoming encounter with Italian academia?

One thing students recommend is to start practicing your oral presentation skills early on, ideally prior to moving to Italy, and, if possible, in front of a friend or a family member.

“There’s a certain technique that you need to apply to do well in Italian exams,” says Ibrahim Issa, a British medicine student at the University of Pavia. 

“You need to have this skill whereby you can just keep on talking about a subject at will or move the conversation into an area where you’re more comfortable and confident. That’s something that people looking to study in Italy should try to get used to before moving.”

While that might be easier said than done, even a small amount of practice will save you from problems down the line – whether or not you have a natural fear of public speaking.

What paperwork will you need?

For non-EU students, this is the very first stumbling block you’ll come across.

Unlike students from within the European Union, who enjoy freedom of movement across the entire bloc, non-EU students are required to obtain a student visa (also known as type-D visa) prior to entering the country.

The application for said visa, which you will have to submit to the Italian consulate in your own home country, generally entails producing a number of official documents including proof of pre-enrollment in an Italian university course, proof of sufficient financial means, and valid medical insurance.

READ ALSO: Five things to know before you apply for an Italian student visa

Owing to the rather lethargic pace of Italian bureaucracy, the biggest piece of advice students give is to apply long before the start of the academic year. 

“Bureaucracy is a bit of a nightmare,” says Issa. “Any type of paperwork or governmental process takes so long.”

“When you’re pressed for time, as an international student, it can be a really big headache.”

In concrete terms, converting the necessary documents from your native language to Italian might be the most irksome procedure you’ll face. 

“In my experience, the most difficult thing was getting my documents translated and apostilled,” Issa explains.

“That really takes ages and, if you’re trying to do everything within a specific timeframe, which I was at the time, it can be really difficult. Luckily, my dad helped me out a lot. I wouldn’t have made it without him.” 

So, in short, give yourself plenty of time and, if necessary, seek the assistance of family and friends to steer clear of trouble.

A type-D visa isn’t the only certificate you’ll need if you want to live in Italy, however. 

After entering Italy, non-EU nationals have eight days to apply for a valid residence permit, or permesso di soggiorno. The application, which usually costs around €100, must be submitted at a local post office. 

A statue of the Roman goddess of wisdom, Minerva, outside Rome’s Sapienza University. Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

Students are required to submit a number of documents including a copy of their passport, visa, proof of medical insurance and university enrollment letter. 

This stage is followed by an interview and fingerprint registration at the local Questura (police precinct). Finally, after a three- to six-month ‘processing period’ (yes, we know…), students should receive their permesso, giving them full access to public healthcare, social security and education. 

While the previous piece of advice applies here too – always prep the required paperwork in advance – familiarising yourself with the Italian language, or, at the very least, Italian legalese, is the smartest course of action here. ​​

Italy’s English proficiency is second to last in the European Union, which means that many public officials are not as fluent in the language as might be hoped.

READ ALSO: Why Italians have a hard time learning English – and how things could improve

“Learning Italian will save you so much time and effort when you’re dealing with bureaucracy,” Issa says. “Going to public offices like the post office or the comune without knowing a little bit of Italian can be really, really difficult for newcomers.”

If, for whatever reason, you’re not able to acquaint yourself with the relevant Italian jargon prior to your permesso-seeking quest, you might want to ask someone you know to help you. 

“During my first year, I often had people from my collegio [hall of residence] come with me to the comune or other public offices,” says Issa. “That helped me out quite a lot, even in terms of confidence.”

If necessary, you could also ask your university’s international admissions office for guidance.

What about accommodation?

This is usually challenge numero due for non-EU nationals – and the first one for European citizens. 

According to Numbeo’s Cost of Living Index, Italy sits in the middle of the European pack with respect to rental costs. On average, renting a flat in Italy is cheaper than in the UK, Germany and France, but more expensive than in Greece, Croatia and Poland.

Monthly rent can range from €300 to €600 a month depending on the flat’s location, considering distance from the city centre and the university campus. On average, the monthly rent for a three-bedroom flat close to the city centre is around €1400, whereas renting the same type of flat in the city outskirts would set the tenants back around €900.

When it comes to finding a rental the safest available option for foreign students, and especially for first-year students, is to go for university accommodation

Mauricio Benitez, a Honduras national who recently graduated from Milan’s Bocconi University with a Master of Science in International Management, lived in a hall of residence throughout the first year of his course.

He says: “It was a great deal. Rent was 650 per month but everything – and I mean everything – was included, even cleaning services twice a week.” 

“On top of that, dealing with the university directly was much more convenient and secure than dealing with letting agencies.”

READ ALSO: Ten things to expect when renting an apartment in Italy

If university accommodation ends up being your choice, the best way to go about renting is through the university’s own channels. Keep in mind that the online registration process usually opens in late spring/early summer.

If you would rather go solo and rent a room privately (or just haven’t been able to book a place in a student hall of residence), there are a number of alternatives you can explore. University bulletin boards, student groups on social media, and student-housing websites like Uniaffitti, Affitti Studenti e Studentsville are all viable options.

However, keep in mind that dealing with Italian letting agencies and private landlords can be incredibly frustrating.

Gorbacova was accepted into Cà Foscari in the summer of 2017, but says relocating to Venice in time for the start of the academic year was no easy feat for her. 

“Finding a flat was hard. I had no knowledge of Italian at that point and a lot of people didn’t even bother to reply to my emails,” she says. 

“Sometimes, they wouldn’t even reply to my calls because they just saw a foreign number on their phone screen. I really don’t want to generalise but I think that most landlords actually prefer Italian students over foreign ones.” 

Besides having a rather ambiguous disposition towards foreign students, most Italian agencies and landlords also often require an Italian-born guarantor, making renting an arduous task for international students.

“I think that, whichever way you look at it, renting is just much, much easier for Italian students,” says Gorbacova. “When they [Italian students] are asked for a guarantor, they can just provide the details of one of their parents, whereas when we’re asked for one, our parents can’t really help much unfortunately.”

Social life and the language barrier

Before you plunge into Italian culture, you’ll need some basic knowledge of the language.

As previously mentioned, Italy is one of the worst-scoring European countries when it comes to English proficiency. In fact, it is one of just two countries (the other one is Spain) where English-language skills are classed as “moderate” rather than “high”. This means that most Italians, and especially those over 40, are not exactly fluent in English. 

While at university you will hardly need to speak any Italian – academic staff and local students generally have a good command of English – you will need to have at least some knowledge of the language to fully enjoy all the perks of Italian life.

Jeremias Finster, a 25-year-old from Nuremberg, Germany, recently graduated from Milan’s prestigious Bocconi University with a Master of Science in International Management

“Language matters,” says Jeremias Finster, a recent Bocconi graduate originally from Nuremberg, Germany. “It’s not just about becoming friends with local students. If you’re going to the supermarket or to a restaurant, or if you’re just interacting with the neighbours, being able to speak the local language improves your experience so much. It really allows you to have a different type of connection with the surrounding environment.” 

Your university will surely offer language classes, but all of the students we spoke to strongly recommend laying some groundwork before moving. This can easily be done with free online courses or language-learning mobile apps.

READ ALSO:

Once you’re in Italy, strive to be around local students as much as you can. Although it might feel quite natural for you to hang out with fellow foreign students, try to socialise with Italian nationals as doing so will greatly help you practice and improve your language skills.

“During my time in the country, I really tried to get out of my comfort zone and make friends with Italian students,” says Finster. 

“On lunch breaks, I would often join the ‘Italian group’ in the canteen. That was a great opportunity for me to not only get to know the local people but also practice my speaking.” 

If you’re not the type to bond with others over a risotto, bear in mind that there are also many university societies and activities that you can join in order to get yourself involved with local student life. Buona fortuna.

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MOVING TO ITALY

‘Why I ditched my UK corporate career for an abandoned Italian vineyard’

Many people dream of enjoying a slower pace of life in rural Italy after decades of the 9-5. But some make the leap much earlier. One former UK professional tells Silvia Marchetti how she swapped the London office grind for winemaking and never looked back.

‘Why I ditched my UK corporate career for an abandoned Italian vineyard’

At some point in life living the dream means abandoning one’s job, and this usually happens when people retire and think about what to do next. 

But one UK professional made the opposite choice: in her early 20s, she decided to ditch a promising career in the corporate and consultancy sector to move to deepest rural Italy and recover her ancestors’ long-lost vineyard. 

Scottish-Italian Sofia di Ciacca, with two degrees in law and history of art, worked for four years at KPMG in London and Edinburgh before she took the opportunity to do something different in life.

Her ancestors, who hailed from the tiny village of Picinisco in the province of Frosinone, Lazio, had migrated to Scotland decades ago. Every time she visited Italy as a child during the holidays, Sofia would feel the pull of her roots.

READ ALSO: ‘What we learned from moving to Italy and opening a B&B’

“I found myself presented with an opportunity very young, thanks to my family’s historical connection to the area, and thought: I either take time to build a career, or I can grab this chance,” she says.

“When you’re building a career, you already know what your trajectory will be: that you’ll be in an office here, and another office there. I realised I didn’t want that.”

At 23 she asked herself: why do later in life what I can do now? 

Sofia at work. Photo credit: Sofia Di Ciacca

This awareness took a while to develop, she says.

“As a child when I returned to Italy it was only as a holiday, not my day-to-day life. Imagine a young girl from Scotland, who had to learn about wine. I never thought about it when I was young.”

“Picinisco is so real, out of my comfort zone. That fascinated me”. 

Sofia, now 33, says she decided “to create something of value, that lasts in time and memory”.

Her family had started renovating old buildings in the area, and supported her career leap, but the wine business was something she was going to personally handle and dedicate years of sacrifice, study and hard work to building.

READ ALSO: ‘Do your homework’: An American’s guide to moving to Italy

Sofia had to learn from scratch, in a job that wasn’t quite like sitting in an office in front of a computer, and that required specific physical and social skills. 

She spent around four years studying the secrets of winemaking with Italian wine consultants in other parts of Italy, mainly on vineyards in Tuscany, where she learnt how to clean tanks, press grapes, plant vines, organise and run a canteen, and do the vendemmia (grape harvest). 

“I did traineeships, met experts, other international wine students, and all this helped me to grow,” she explains.

“The wine world is very complicated, you need to learn basic principles and engineering before you can even fathom how to start anything. Only once you learn, study, then you can have your own say, go see how local farmers work, understand how deep they plough the soil”.

Almost 10 years later, her winery now produces premium wines, honey and extra virgin olive oil. The wine is from an ancient grape variety grown in the area, called Maturano, of which production had been forsaken when local families migrated. 

She says it’s all a matter of gaining self-confidence built on hard graft, and it’s best to be honest and humble about things you don’t know, and are willing to be taught. Understanding the “rural respect for farmers” was key for her.

Sofia in the vineyard. Photo credit: Sofia Di Ciacca

One challenge was figuring out how to split her life between two countries: Scotland and Italy, and deciding where to locate the sales site, whether it was best to be in the cantina in Picinisco or marketing her products in Edinburgh. She says the balance is still not perfect.

But the toughest obstacle was tackling Italian bureaucracy. 

“I shed a lot of tears. The regulations hindered the business, like getting grants. You really need to follow the rules, understand the system, get the right people to advise you,” she says.

“But above all, stay honest. People will try to befriend you pretending to help, but it’s not worth it. As foreigners at the beginning you just don’t know how things work in Italy, you need to ask a lot of questions, and don’t be afraid to do that”. 

READ ALSO:

Another feat was the practical side of wine-making itself, which requires a lot of physical work, from hand-picking the grapes in the organic vineyard to getting the winery in shape. 

“You need to get physically fit, and the machinery at first was really not for me,” Sofia says. 

“I wasn’t great at understanding how it worked but luckily I had the right people to teach me”. 

The first harvest came after years of tough vineyard revival. The six-hectare vineyard produces some 30,000 bottles a year, which have already won three international prizes. Alongside the premium white 100 percent Maturano wine, it also yields a sweet amber-coloured passito wine. 

Sofia with her children. Photo credit: Sofia Di Ciacca

“I’ve always been fascinated by grapes, passionate about how they turn into wine,” Sofia says. 

“Recovering the indigenous Maturano variety was a success, it grew well with the fertile soil and the climate. The grapes are left to do the talking, no yeasts are used.”

In the meantime, it’s become a family affair: Sofia got married – her husband, also Scottish-Italian, is a wine importer – and their two toddlers have now started taking part in the vendemmia.

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