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Advice to Incoming EUPS Students

M.A. in Political Science, European Union Policy Studies

By Malik Smith

Dear EUPS Class of 2023: 

As our graduation day approaches and my time in the JMU European Union Policy Studies Program comes to an end, I reflect on this last year and the advice I could give as you embark on this journey for your time in Firenze. Completing a master’s degree in Florence is a very unique experience with the pace of Italian city life moving around you. The road ahead will be unlike anything you’ve experienced thus far, so try your best to take advantage of every moment, every day, every conversation, and keep experiencing new things as this year will bring forth so many unexpected new opportunities. 

Although European Union policy wasn’t something I was an expert in before sitting in my first class in September, I quickly understood the value of studying the EU’s political institutions while living among them. I also appreciated the ability to have meaningful conversations alongside EU practitioners with experience in international politics and diplomacy that could speak for them. I grew to find it refreshing to leave my American-oriented undergraduate study of international affairs and explore the European perspective on global political events happening today. It’s one thing to read a news article on European support of Ukraine against the Russian invasion but entirely different to see the Ukrainian flag draped around historical sculptures or the flag colors decorating various cities around Europe as citizens express their solidarity.

Our academic excursion to Brussels placed us in the heart of EU policy-making, witnessing first-hand the European Commission, the European Council, and the European Parliament seats of government we’d seen on PowerPoint slides in class. Our trip to Rome reinforced my understanding of Italy’s presence in the EU and gave me a deeper appreciation for the political history embedded in Roman architecture and history. Immersing in European political culture will truly prove to be invaluable as I carry these experiences back home to a professional work environment in the U.S. 

The academic program was all-encompassing but I can’t deny I was even more excited to be in Italy and Europe for the travel opportunities, taking advantage of this incredible time where I could cross off bucket-list destinations one by one. Being diligent and productive with coursework during the week allows for free day and weekend trips to the Cinque Terre, Siena, Turin, Rome, Lucca, Venice, and many other train-accessible cities up and down the country. Unsure of when I’d be on this side of the Atlantic again, I made sure to also visit as many European cities on breaks and weekends as I could afford. RyanAir flights out of Pisa and Bologna with just a backpack will get you far. A combination of curiosity and restlessness from two years in a global pandemic took me to Paris, Edinburgh, Zurich, Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Mykonos, Corfu, Nice, Madrid, and London. 

Living in Florence and walking by the massive Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral on the way home would often feel too good to be true. The city was unfamiliar at first but quickly became a home away from home. As a cultural hub of Italian art, food, and wine, it’s hard not to be overwhelmed with all the city has to offer. In times of stress, I loved being able to see an amazing sunset any night with a quick stroll up to the Piazzale di Michelangelo. The lifting of Covid-19 restrictions also brought so many tourists back to the city. So, on days when I didn’t have the energy to weave in and out of crowds, trying (unsuccessfully) not to photobomb travelers’ pictures, I could escape to the quieter Giardino delle Rose and sit with a book. 

Explore Florence. Quickly find ways to make Florence feel at home. The city has so much to offer anyone who steps foot in it. I implore you to find the parks, activities, restaurants, friends, and routines that root you in the city. These are the things you will look back on and remember the most. 

Don’t stop being a tourist. A couple of months into the program, when some of the lore around Florence had worn off after living in the heart of the city on Via de’ Benci, it was easy to get complacent. There are more than 70 museums in Florence! Most notably, the Uffizi Gallery, Accademia Gallery, Palazzo Vecchio, and Pitti Palace among countless others. Instead of staying inside and choosing a new show to watch in your free time, explore a new museum, garden, or find a wine tour in the Tuscan countryside. 

Organization and time management is key. Compressing an American two-year master’s degree into a 10-month period comes with many challenges. The workload is intense and time-consuming, especially when students must balance EU meetings, reports, events, personal lives, and relationships, in addition to coursework outside of class. Maintaining an organized schedule and budgeting time well is not only encouraged but vital to success.

Be Intentional. To get the most from the EUPS program, be active in class discussions, prepare questions for EU practitioners, and take advantage of the extensive alumni network to help shape your future career aspirations. To get the most from Italy, plan trips to travel around Tuscany and beyond. Be sure to make the most of each week because 10 months in Florence has certainly flown by much quicker than I would have liked. 

Malik Smith is an EUPS student pursuing the Economic and Social Policy track and is the EUPS program’s Social Media and Website Graduate Assistant. Last May, Malik graduated from JMU with his Bachelor of Arts in International Affairs with a concentration in international conflict and security and minors in French and Music Industry. After finishing the EUPS program, Malik aspires to work in international development and with human rights organizations, as well as casually pursuing a career in music.

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Published: Sunday, June 19, 2022

Last Updated: Thursday, January 4, 2024

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