Recently, on a rainy afternoon in Florence, I had the wonderful opportunity to spend time with students at New York Film Academy’s (NYFA) Florence location, located in a charming state-of-the-art facility on Via Torta, near the Basilica di Santa Croce.
The students had just returned — soaked and exhausted — from a long day filming the last scenes of their final projects. The “crews,” each comprised of four or five students, all used the city of Florence as the “film set” for their visual stories. They were in the homestretch, although they still had a few demanding days ahead, editing their films before presenting their work at the graduation screening and celebration of the conclusion of their semester abroad programs in Filmmaking and Acting for Film. These students came from 12 countries — the United States, Hungary, Ukraine, Iran, Netherlands, Romania, UK, Kazakhstan, Czech Republic, Spain, Italy, and Mexico.
After unloading their camera gear, we sat down and spoke about the impressions of their time in Florence, and at NYFA, during the past 12 weeks. “Life-changing” was the most echoed description; all heads also nodded “yes” when one student said, “this study abroad opportunity has by far been the best experience of my life so far; during these months I have grown so much as a person and as a filmmaker. ”
One student fervently told me that, while he had had a passion for acting from a young age, before NYFA he had doubts about whether it was something he wanted to pursue instead of an economics degree; but now he wants nothing more than to be an actor.
All of the students’ reactions warmed me with joyfulness and “NYFA pride.” There was more under the surface because all of the sentiments were very familiar to me — each word and narrative brought back vivid and distinct memories…
It was 1976 when my feet stepped off a plane at the Leonardo da Vinci–Fiumicino Airport in Rome and a new phase of my life began. Much of it stays with me to this very day, and now, encircled by this wonderful group of young “creatives,” more and more remembrances came rushing back to me.
I arrived at 18, never having previously left US soil, with just $300 dollars in my pocket and a full scholarship to study art in Florence that was graciously provided by publishing icon, Anna K. Meredith. At a later point I learned that Ms. Meredith, who at the time headed the family’s The Meredith Corporation — a massive publishing empire that produces dozens of the most popular magazines (including Sports Illustrated, Fortune and PEOPLE) — personally chose me as the first recipient of her generous study abroad grant.
My route to this study abroad experience was an extraordinary one; I was a freshman at the University of Denver and in the Spring of that year my favorite art instructor approached me — quite out of the blue — and handed me a formal document. “Read it!” she ardently and rather exuberantly stated. It was an acceptance letter from a US-accredited Art School in Florence. I was offered an acceptance and didn’t even know that I had applied! My professor, seeing my dismay, explained, “Jim, I applied on your behalf because I knew if you had this opportunity, it would change your art and your life in so many amazing ways.”
Now, I knew that in a week this delightful group of talented young people would be saying goodbye to the city of Florence, to the New York Film Academy staff and faculty, to their classmates and their friends, and that they would walk forward — as I did 40 years ago — into lives that will be forever changed for the better.
My teacher was certainly more accurate than she could ever have imagined. It is both the magic of Florence and the impact of the experience of studying abroad that simply cannot be explained well in words, because they reside in a spirit deep within the city — and at the same time — in one’s own heart.