Tiana – Semester in Prato

Tiana Mahncke is one of our Arts Global Scholars, a scholarship program available for Bachelor of Global Studies students. Tiana went to Prato, Italy, and shared the highlights of her overseas study experience. 


It may seem like a Hollywood fantasy to swing open your bottle green window shutters and gaze out to a medieval city surrounded by the sun-drenched hills of Tuscany. However, when you study at Monash University’s Prato Centre, it will be your reality. Yet Prato is much more than a charming Italian town steeped in rich history; this culturally diverse region is also an ideal site to study the lived experience of migrants and refugees.

I travelled to Prato to develop ethnographic research skills and study cultural diversity in contemporary Europe. Although largely untouched by tourism, Prato is in fact Tuscany’s second largest city and home to an array of nationalities, including Chinese, Romanians, and Nigerians among others. Thus I was gifted with a golden opportunity to design my own research project examining what it means to be an outsider in one’s host community.

The Prato economy has long been inextricably linked to textiles. A visit to the local textiles museum will reveal a unique collection of intricate Renaissance wools and ceremonial fabrics from around the world, all created by Pratesi manufacturers. However, the industry suffered with economic globalisation, and Chinese migrants were scapegoated due to their role in introducing low-cost textiles to Italy. Whilst newer generations are now integrating and flourishing, there is evidence to suggest that, in many ways, the Chinese community remain outsiders.

More recently, geopolitical instability across several sub-Saharan regions has resulted in mass migration to Southern Europe, bringing African refugees to Prato. Like the Chinese before them, this population now faces the challenge of negotiating an identity and position within a society that strongly values the maintenance of traditional Italian culture.

A student temporarily residing in Prato will also oftentimes feel like an outsider. Fortunately, residents are accustomed to the presence of Monash students, and Monash runs programs to assist students with settling in: Parliamo, an introductory Italian course and Buon Appetito, an opportunity to be hosted by a local family for a home-cooked dinner. In a non-English speaking country where the simple notion of communication is a major obstacle, I found these programs invaluable. Certainly, learning simple phrases is not only much appreciated by locals, it also enhanced my immersive Italian experience. 

The Monash University Prato Centre is located within Palazzo Vaj, an 18th century palace in the historic city centre. It’s just a train journey away from other vibrant Italian cities, including Florence, Pisa, Bologna, Siena, and Lucca. Even with the intensive study load, there is ample opportunity to enjoy the sweet life. There’s incredible pizza and gelato to eat, world-renowned art galleries to see, and some of the most stunning natural scenery in the world. However, whilst Italy is undeniably a beautiful place to visit, the social, political, and economic tensions that bubble beneath the surface is what makes it a genuinely fascinating place to study. Certainly, I found an in-country case study approach to studying international affairs invaluable for solidifying my understanding of the complexities of global challenges. And of course, what could be more true to la dolce vita than developing your research skills in an 18th-century palace?