I graduated the High School of Fashion Industries 30 years ago. It was 1992 and Chelsea was not the neighborhood it was PRE- COVID. I could describe it as gritty, rough, the ‘wild west’ of the village, the tail end, aftermath of the AIDS epidemic and it was felt as it is located a stones-throw away from STONEWALL. The building on the corner of 24th and 7th that now houses multimillion dollars apartments and the first WHOLE FOODS ever was the immigration headquarters where hundreds of foreigners lined up for their chance to ‘belong’. I witnessed these lines when I walked my way to school every morning. Today POST-COVID, it feels the same but I still remember the days when Chelsea was seen as paradise and that was when my study abroad program began, ten years ago.
I experienced ‘study abroad’ when I went to college at FIT many moons ago and it expanded my mind, in a colossal way. I studied and LIVED in Florence, Italy in 2004 and completed my Bachelors in Fine Arts in 2005. This experience changed ME, FOREVER and as a little girl from a Dominican-Ecuadorian background it was impacting to say the least. I did not have the love and support of a traditional ‘mom and dad’ home which is the statistic for girls like me and this means that I did this ALONE. After graduating FIT I decided to stay in Florence and learn as much as I could and if ever returned, bring it all back to my students and that is exactly what happened. I worked in a leather factory, Pierotucci, learned Italian and travelled and kept in contact with my former mentors from Fashion High. They wanted me to return and teach where I was once a student and so it was.
I returned from Florence in 2009 and began teaching in 2010 and studying abroad never left me. Truth is that when you insert yourself in another environment you pickup their ‘ways’, their ‘traditions’, their ‘truths’ and it alters, changes who you are. Florentines are proud ‘Latins’ and that pride wove itself in me. And now, Stateside I wanted the same for the young humans before me. Kismet appeared and I was introduced to an amazing woman I soon learned was myself in maturity, Gabriella Ganugi, the founder of Florence University of the Arts. Her strength and pursuit through passion embodied my purpose and thanks to FUA, the study abroad program I began in 2012 grew. After this past summer I can count over 90 inner city students have earned college credits thanks to study abroad, yet I am no longer part of that achievement. The administration at Fashion High has decided that it will now be conducted by another staff member. The feeling left behind has been devastating.
‘Imagine you have a 10 year old child, and you are told you must never speak to her again. You are to never talk about her, praise her, live her and that someone else will take care of her. How would you feel?’ This was the comparison I offered to a colleague. This child was my study abroad program to me. I know consciously that it isn’t the same but for those of us that made the deliberate decision to not have children yet to serve others children as our purpose in life, it is.
Today I continue, for the love of my students.
At my core, I am a very polar minded being, it is either BLACK or WHITE, RIGHT or WRONG, YING or YANG and teaching for over 20 years has taught me that there must be room for that area in between. The grey exists, the elastic is real and the love for my students is more important than any administrators decision. And so I will continue for them, this non-profit will go on and Study Abroad will not stop. It just will not go forward for now and when it returns, it will serve as an opportunity for ALL of the NYC high school students that resemble ME.. the little Dominican-Ecuadorian that grew up without a mom, an absent dad and an ‘abuela’ that made sure she never needed.
Rosa Isabel Chavez Carvajal – President