Florence legacy

By Hannah Owens | Photography by Grant Schol |

Aug. 28, 1990
“I can’t believe this day is finally here! We are leaving Harding at 10 a.m. for the airport in Little Rock. We should get to Amsterdam at 9:10 a.m. — 2:10 a.m. our time. I really don’t know if I am ready for this or not. I am so thankful to have this opportunity to spend the next three months in Italy. This is truly a dream come true. Here we go … “
Kim Beach Swenson, ’92

A 16TH-CENTURY VILLA sits mong the rolling hills of Tuscany in Scandicci, Italy. From the view on the second-floor terrace, the city of Scandicci is visible from afar glowing in a soft haze at the feet of mountains. The terrace looks over the property the University has owned since 1980 as the home for students spending a semester abroad at Harding University in Florence. Approximately 3,000 students have spent a spring, summer or fall semester at HUF throughout the program’s 36 years. Each semester, calendars are full of activities for students in Florence and scheduled group trips throughout the Italian countryside. Though the program in 2017 might look different than it did in 1980, senior Kailey and sophomore Collin Swenson found many of their experiences were the same as the ones their mom had 26 years ago. Kim, assistant professor of nursing, attended HUF during her junior year in 1990.

“The opportunity to see and do so many things just was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up,” she says.

And it was an opportunity Kailey and Collin couldn’t pass up either.

Sept. 1, 1990
WE FINALLY ARRIVED in Florence today about 10:10 a.m. It was raining and very cold. We walked down the road to the bus stop while our luggage was being taken to the villa. We took a bus to Scandicci, and a group of eight of us decided to make the walk up the hill to see how long it was. Well, it was long and uphill but so amazingly beautiful! I cannot believe this is my home for the next three months. When we arrived at the villa, they had breakfast prepared for us. We took some time to look around the villa and get our things settled. Robbie [Shackelford] told us all about the program and established the rules and expectations. At 9 p.m. we had hot tea and cookies. I can get used to this. We all hung around just getting to know each other and had some good laughs, and now we are heading to bed for the night. It was indeed a good day. I can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings. –Kim


Sept. 17, 2016
TODAY WAS OUR FIRST FULL DAY in Italy! I was afraid I would be jet-lagged, but I woke up bright and early, excited to tour the town! They had yummy chocolate-filled pastries set out for us at breakfast. I hope it’s like this every day! Afterward, we had orientation where Robbie spoke to us about rules and some Italian culture aspects. There were four things he wrote up on the board that I know will stay with me through the rest of this semester: 1) Wake up with a song in your heart. 2) Aggressively seek beauty in every day. 3) Communicate with our Creator. And 4) John 3:16 and 1 John 3:16.

I can already tell that this trip is going to make a tremendous impact on my life. I can’t wait for the rest of this trip. Lunch was pretty amazing — I am never going to get tired of this food. After lunch we hung around a bit and played some cards before we went down the infamous hill into town. It took about 20 minutes, so it wasn’t as bad as I expected. It was rewarded with our very first gelato stop. I got Stracciatella, and it was delicious! We walked around a bit more to where we took our group picture — it was so cool because the guy who took it was the same guy who took my mom’s picture when she was here in fall of 1990!

We then went over to Mario’s to try some Spuma (it tasted like fruity ginger ale) before getting a ride back up the hill — thank goodness. We had another delicious meal and then we played some get-to-know-you games. I really like our group. I think we’re all going to get really close this trip. I’m really excited for what the rest of this adventure has to offer. We ended the night with Mona [Shackelford]’s s’mores dip. I think it was a pretty great way to end the night. Now, to bed for another great day tomorrow. Buona Notte. –Kailey

THE SWENSONS LIVED IN PENNSYLVANIA before moving to Searcy in August 2016, and Collin and Kailey left for Italy five weeks later. Kailey said traveling to Italy had always been a dream.

“I just always have been fascinated by traveling, the whole culture of Italy, and obviously the food,” Kailey says. “I would have loved to be a part of any of the international programs, but I kind of pinpoint Italy as one of those places you just have to see. All the places in Italy and all the trips we have gone on here have been so fascinating and beautiful.”

Collin was originally signed up to go to Harding University in Greece, but after hearing stories from others who had studied in Florence, he changed his mind.

“I had no idea what I was getting into at first,” Collin says. “I just heard everyone talk about how beautiful Italy is. Of course I’ve always wanted to come to Italy, and I love Italian food, but I am loving everything that has happened here, and I wouldn’t change anything about it.”

Kim says her study abroad experience didn’t influence Kailey’s and Collin’s decisions to study there, but they were both familiar with the time she spent in Italy.

“They had heard about it,” Kim says. “They had seen my pictures and heard my stories, but it was completely their decision. It gave me comfort that Kailey and Collin were over there together.”

“It definitely does help having Kailey and my girlfriend here and having people close to me to experience it with me,” Collin says. “It was very overwhelming, but once you get used to it, this is like a home away from home.”

EACH STUDY ABROAD PROGRAM allows students to immerse themselves into the traditional culture of the country in which they are living, and HUF includes a number of activities to teach students about Italian living. A staple activity for the fall semester is the olive and grape harvests. Students have the opportunity to participate in a grape harvest at an area vineyard, and they also help harvest olives from the many trees that surround
the villa.

“I don’t remember a lot about it, but I do remember one of the guys fell off the ladder and ripped his pants,” Kim laughs. “I saw some of Kailey’s pictures from their olive harvest, and they look similar to mine.”

“You definitely don’t think about what it takes to get the olive oil that you use,” Collin says. “I’m really happy about the fact that we get to take home the olive oil we worked for.”

STUDENTS PARTICIPATE IN CLASSES throughout the semester, but instead of learning about history and art only from a textbook in the classroom, they get to stand in the presence of architecture and artistic masterpieces that had a significant impact on the world.

“For someone who had never really studied or experienced anything like that, it provided some insight that was necessary for me to understand what it was,” Kim says.

“Being able to see things that you have only ever seen in history books is just mind-blowing and beautiful,” Kailey says.

Students carry around a small Moleskine journal in which they take notes at on-site classes throughout the semester.

“I’m really excited that I get to go home and have this Moleskine, and I get to look back at it later,” Collin says. “ I get to show my friends and my family everything that I’ve learned, and if I do come back to Italy, I can use it.”

WHILE KIM WAS OVERSEAS, she remembers waiting in a long line for a turn to use the one villa phone to talk to her parents. “They would call at 4 in the morning in Italy because that time was good for them back home,” she says. “But I was so happy to talk to them, it didn’t really matter.”

During Kailey and Collin’s time at HUF, Kim has been able to keep up with them regularly and get real-time updates on their activities through social media.

“I think about now when I went a couple of days and didn’t hear from the kids, I thought, ‘What are they doing? I haven’t heard from them! Are they safe?’ And I think my parents didn’t hear from me for weeks at a time. It is a lot different.”

REFLECTING BACK ON THEIR EXPERIENCES, Kim, Kailey and Collin all marvel at the many things they were able to do, and they all experienced feelings toward the end of the semester that made them ready to be home.

Looking at it from one angle, it feels like we have not been here long at all,” Collin says. “Looking at it from another angle, thinking back to the first day to the party we had to get to know each other, and wow, that feels like forever ago. We have been here so long, so I kind of miss home a little bit.”

“That certainly was the longest I had ever been away from my family,” Kim says.

From horseback riding through the Tuscan countryside and learning to cook an authentic Italian meal to free traveling through more than 15 different countries, they all feel their study abroad experience changed them and connected them in a special way.

“It was definitely cool to read some of the stuff in my mom’s journal that she did — all the relationships that she’s made and all the places that she went,” Kailey says. “So it’s also pretty cool that I get to see it from her eyes because I had already talked to her, read some things in her journals, and seen her pictures. Now I got to relive that through my own eyes.”

“I have not been back since studying abroad, but said I would love to go back,” Kim says. “It is a goal of ours as a family to go, especially now that they have been there, too.”


Nov. 21, 1990
TODAY IS GOING TO BE an awesome day! This has been such an amazing experience, but I am so ready to see my family. We are sitting here in the hotel in Amsterdam, and I am trying to fit everything into my bags to fly home. Pretty sure I’m going to have to throw some things away. Not realizing I couldn’t re-enter the airport, I went in to the waiting area for my plane and didn’t get to say goodbye to anyone. I was so sad not to be able to see the friends I had grown so close to over the semester just one last time. We waited anxiously to board, and the plane ended up taking off 20 minutes late. I watched “Presumed Innocent” with Harrison Ford. Not a bad way to kill some time, I suppose. When the pilot announced we were flying over Boston, you would have thought we hadn’t been home in 10 years. We were so excited to be back in America and to see our friends and family. We made our way to the front of the plane and were among the first ones to get off the plane. It is so good to be home. This was the perfect end to a near perfect semester, and my life has been changed forever. Italy will always be a second home to me, and I can’t wait to go back. Ciao! –Kim


Dec. 8, 2016
HERE IT IS — the day that we all knew was coming from the beginning but the day we never thought would come so soon. Despite all of the last minute packing and cleaning up, we still got our chances to say goodbye to people as they left through the villa doors for the last time. We all got the chance to eat lunch together around the table when it finally started hitting us that this group would never all be together again. The end of the day came pretty quickly, and I wasn’t ready to say goodbye yet. The villa became my second home so very quickly, and I know its contributing factor was the amazing staff. I am so incredibly grateful for this experience in Florence, and I wouldn’t have changed any minute of it. I think everyone should get to experience this crazy adventure — it has definitely changed my life. I won’t be able to not travel again. I want to see the rest of the states and even return again to Europe. I want to continue to aggressively seek beauty as Robbie taught us on the first day. My time to leave the villa came so quickly, so I turned the light off to my room and said my goodbyes, trying not to cry. I can’t wait to see what my final two weeks in Europe have to offer! Buona Notte. –Kailey

Categories: Features.


  1. Lura Lacy

    Hello. I went to Harding’s Italy program fall of 1983. Do you know the Scandicci address of the villa? It was not the one that is featured on this site. Thanks


  1. […] Our seven international programs continue to provide life changing experiences for many, and I am always thankful when I get to witness this firsthand. The beauty of New Zealand almost overwhelmed Ann’s and my senses when we had the opportunity to visit the Harding University Australasia program this fall. Hannah Owens takes us on a journey with our oldest international studies program begun in 1980 in Florence, Italy, as she relays the story of two students following in their mother’s footsteps 26 years later. See the story here. […]

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