Philly UArts students abroad watch as their school collapses

A month-long study abroad trip to Italy has become a mixture of tears and revelation.

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Students hiking on a path.

Alex Stevenson, Brielle Walton, and Katerina Arsenlis hiking the Path of the Gods on the Amalfi Coast. (Courtesy of Mara Flamm)

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It was supposed to be a trip of a lifetime.

Instead, nine University of the Arts students traveling through Italy for a month-long study abroad program are watching their school collapse from 5,000 miles away.

Last Friday, two weeks into the trip, several students spent the night dancing in a nightclub in Rome, oblivious to what was unfolding in Philadelphia. When they returned at 2 a.m., their phones came back online, erupting with texts and phone messages.

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“It was the most out-of-body experience to be in the streets of Rome at two in the morning, crying and calling our loved ones,” said Evie Bondon, a rising senior studying dance. “Trying to break the news with still such little information to pass down to them.”

Students posing for a group photo
Jennesa Lincke, Evie Bondon, Brielle Walton, Anna Scattoni, Paige Sheldon, and Alex Stevenson at Santa Croce in Florence. (Courtesy of Mara Flamm)

Last Friday was when news broke that leadership of UArts decided to shut the school down permanently in just seven days, citing a still undisclosed financial crisis. The sudden announcement shocked faculty and the student body, who had no notion such a closure was on the horizon.

The UArts faculty member who organized and is in Italy leading the trip, Mara Flamm, went into a panic.

“I was, like, the date is not 2024. They have to mean 2025,” she said. “I had to find other sources that said June 7th, 2024, because I was so shocked that it would just be a week.”

Students standing on the sidewalk eating gelato
Sergio Lorenzo Natal, Jennesa Lincke, Anna Scattoni, Paige Sheldon, Evie Bondon, and Gelareh Kolahchi enjoying gelato in Florence. (Courtesy of Mara Flamm)

They spent the rest of the night hunkered in an apartment trying to figure out what to do next. Most of the students are rising seniors who no longer know where they will complete their studies. Some are international students whose visas are contingent on an institution like UArts. One had just signed a lease for an apartment she will likely be unable to use. They will be traveling until June 13, but their university health insurance expires June 7.

Students posing for a photo wearing 'I Love Roma' t shirts
Jennesa Lincke, Evie Bondon, Paige Sheldon, and Anna Scattoni in Rome. (Courtesy of Mara Flamm)

“I had two campus jobs that I adored, I was creative director of the UArts Ballet Ensemble, and was prepping to present my senior thesis,” said Jennesa Elise Lincke, who is studying dance. “All the things I was looking forward to and proud of are vanishing before my eyes, and I can’t be there to witness or say goodbye to it all.”

Their peers in Philadelphia are scratching for information from the University, taking to the streets to call for transparency and scrambling to find a new path forward for their education. These students are watching from halfway around the globe, in a time zone seven hours away.

“There’s so much that needs to be done,” Alex Stevenson, a rising senior studying photography. “It has to be done in the time difference. It has to be done quickly before the school closes. It’s all very stressful while we’re trying to enjoy what we have left of this wonderful trip.”

Students posing in front of the statue of David
Anna Scattoni, Sergio Lorenzo Natal, Ekaterini Arsenlis, Jennesa Lincke, Brielle Walton, Paige Sheldon, Evie Bondon and Alex Stevenson at the Statue of David in Florence. (Courtesy of Mara Flamm)

“It’s the lack of information, too,” added Anna Scattoni, a rising senior studying dance and creative writing. “We want to plan but we’re really behind.”

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But first: Italy.

This is still a trip of a lifetime. After a long night in Rome filled with worry and tears when nobody got any sleep, at dawn they boarded a train to Naples where they would hike the Path of the Gods along the Amalfi Coast.

They had already seen the lush Renaissance art of Florence and the contemporary installations at the Venice Biennale, where they saw the conspicuous absence of the Israeli pavilion due to the war in Gaza, and electric string lights powered by rotting fruit.

“Very poignant, a lot of political, socio-economic issues currently in the world,” said Alex Stevenson, a rising senior studying photography. “That was my standout. The Venice Biennale was a big thing for me.”

The Italian trip is transformative for Scattoni, whose parents are Italian and Jamaican. She had visited Italy many times to visit grandparents, but it was never a satisfying experience.

Students posing for a group photo at the fountain
Sergio Natal, Anna Scattoni, Evie Bondon, Jennesa Lincke, and Paige Sheldon at the Trevi Fountain in Rome. (Courtesy of Mara Flamm)

“My dad is from a very small, closed-minded town, and I haven’t had the best experience. Being bi-racial in this very small town can feel a little isolating,” she said. “I feel like there’s so much that I could get from Italy that I’m not getting because of this place that I have to be in. I feel like I go to Italy but I can never really see it.”

The students are always conscious of a cloud hanging over their experiences. Flamm said one of the students decided to cut the trip short to deal with the fallout of the UArts closure.

The rest are sticking it out, determined to get everything they can in the time they have left in Italy. The trip ends with an artist retreat in Tuscany, where they will spend time making art and processing what they have seen and experienced, the good and the bad.

“I’ve never been so impressed with a group of students,” Flamm said. “This is not an easy trip. We’re not, like, in buses. We are on and off trains — it’s chaos, it’s Italy. They are champs. It’s been amazing to witness them.”

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