RIC senior Amber Lopez used to describe herself as an “extremely shy girl from Providence,” but since studying abroad, she said she can now find enough common ground to communicate with anyone.

An art history and Africana studies major, Lopez was awarded a Ridgway F. Shinn Jr. Study Abroad Scholarship to Florence, where she studied for three-and-a-half months.

She arrived in Italy in spring 2013 as part of the American Institute for Foreign Study (AIFS) program. The program brought together a group of 170 study abroad students from across the United States.

“Everyone had traveled with a friend, but I didn’t know anyone,” Lopez said. “I had to learn to open up and meet new people. I got a lot better at communicating, and I met someone who has now become my best friend.”

In Florence, Lopez enrolled in two art history courses and an Italian language course at Richmond University, while living in an apartment in the city’s historic center among the works of great artists.

She said, “There’s nothing like seeing the physical art in front of you rather than looking at it on slides. You see the texture, the play of light and the enormous size of the canvas. It creates a totally different relationship with the piece.”

“And walking through the Piazza della Signoria, you find huge sculptures out in the open that are carbon copies of the originals housed in museums. It was amazing,” she said.

Lopez also explored Spain, France, Czech Republic, Croatia, Bosnia, England and Italy on weekends with newfound friends. “Studying abroad helped me become more self-sufficient,” she said. “I flew there by myself, paid for most of the trip by myself and planned the weekend trips. But without the staff and faculty at Rhode Island College, I wouldn’t have believed I could do it.”

Because the total cost of the trip was $20,000 ($17,000 for tuition), with $6,000 covered by the Shinn scholarship, she had to come up with the balance on her own. 

She said James Montford, artist and director of RIC’s Bannister Gallery, provided financial backing by employing her at the gallery over the summer.

“James has been there since the beginning of my college career,” said Lopez. “He’s always been there when I was in need. He also helped me decide what I wanted to do, as far as meshing Africana studies with art, and I often use him as a resource.”

Montford also introduced her to Antoinette (Tony) Gomes, director of RIC’s Unity Center, who also quickly became a mentor. “Whenever I leave Tony’s office, I leave feeling better,” Lopez said. “She always reminds me that I can do anything I put my mind to.”

By working two jobs – one at Bannister, the other at Marylou’s Coffee – Lopez managed to save $4,000 for the trip and to pay the remainder with student loans.

“I don’t think RIC is given enough credit,” she said. “RIC has been great for me. And, yes, I would love to visit Florence again,” she said, “but it has also made me hungry to see art in Asia and Africa.”