Story and Photographs by Grant Schol
Article first appeared in UCDA’s Designer magazine (Vol. 43, Issue 2, Summer 2018)
Grant Schol is a 26-year old Arkansas-born American transplanted in Florence, Italy, which he now calls home. Before making the big jump across “the pond,” Grant worked as a marketing and public relations photographer in higher education.
Currently serving as the assistant to the director at Harding University Florence, an international program run by Harding University in the city of Florence, Italy. Grant’s professional passion is melding photography, design, and words together to create something beautiful.
When I was a young kid I had huge fascination with ancient history and I think my interest with Italy goes back to around the 6th grade when we started learning about the Romans. Slowly, over the next few years, that interest grew and I remember trying to think of ways to convince my parents to take a trip to Italy so I could see it all for myself.
Once I was in high school, my interest in the ancient Romans faded but my desire to see Italy had only intensified. So I was determined to find a way to
I decided to attend Harding University, a liberal arts school in my small Arkansas home town. One of the huge selling points for me, especially since it meant four more years in the same town I grew up in, was the school’s campus in Florence, Italy.
My dream finally came true in the fall of 2012 when I boarded a plane, headed to Europe for the very first time for a semester abroad. Needless to say, I don’t think I ever quite fully came home. My semester aboard was an eye-opening, earth-shattering, and life-defining moment in my life that gave me a new lens to look at the world through. It gave me more understanding for other people and cultures unlike my own. It gave me an intense taste of what the working world would be like one day; you won’t like everyone but you have to co-exist together in a peaceful way. It taught me that it doesn’t really matter what you are doing or where you are, it’s far more important to care for the people around you.
During the program we took many trips and visited several towns in Tuscany. We stopped at the tiny hill-top town of Monteriggioni for a little break to walk around the medieval town. Kyle, who was the Assitant to the Director at Harding University in Florence, waved me over and said “let’s get a coffee.” This wasn’t out of the ordinary for him as he was always offering this sort of thing to students. While we sipped our caffé macchiatos, he said something in passing that I doubt he remembers or realized the importance of in the moment. He said in the most nonchalant way, “You ever think you’d move to Italy some day? I think you’d be good at my job.” He then paid for the coffee and walked away, not thinking of the thought storm he had just created in my mind.
Before that moment I had never even thought it a possibility to move to Europe and actually live there, not just study or vacation. But I was a college sophomore so I put the thought in the back of my mind, though every now and then it would resurface, poking my brain to think about it and consider that maybe, just maybe, it could really happen.
By the end of my senior year I knew I would go to Europe—somehow. Whether that was through my current route or teaching English somewhere or just by backpacking for a few months. I knew it’s what I needed to do.
But then there was the rational side of my brain that kept yelling and nagging and making its presence known. The side of my brain that kept telling me I have loans to pay and other bills and what about a career? Many of my friends would be starting career track jobs, if we are going to all be neighbors in 10 years in the same suburb then I better get on that career track, too.
I graduated from Harding in May 2015 with a degree in public relations and absolutely no idea what I wanted to do. I knew I could probably make it doing freelance photography but the constant uncertainty of that kept me up at night just thinking about it. My entire portfolio was work I had done in college for the school newspaper, yearbook, and official publications. I felt like I had found my niche. But jobs in university photography don’t come open very often.
I applied for a job as a social media content producer at an ad agency in Little Rock where a couple friends worked. At the same time I applied for that job, a friend sent me a job posting for a university photographer at the University of Central Arkansas. I couldn’t believe this job was open, nor did I think I would get hired. And like all things in higher ed, it took them a while to get back with me. So in the meantime I took the job writing social media posts for car dealerships, while looking for any way to get out of there. But after weeks of waiting and two interviews later I was living a dream (for the first time). By October of 2015, UCA had offered me the photographer job and I was settling into my new office and learning how to use a Nikon in a remarkably short amount of time.
I couldn’t believe that I had landed this job not even a year out of school. That fact was further impressed on my mind almost every day the first few months as people on campus asked me my major or what dorm I lived in or “Did I have you in class?” I discovered youth can sometimes come around to haunt you. Regardless, I loved working at UCA. I was a part of a team of professionals who’s sole purpose was to promote a beautiful, vibrant school. While I was only there for a year, I felt like I grew leaps and bounds professionally.
Since ending my study abroad experience with Harding University in Florence three years earlier, I remained in contact with the program’s director and wife, Robbie and Mona Shakelford. They had at that point been running the program for 24 years, three times a year, and had a way of making each group feel as if they were the only one they had every known. I stayed close with Robbie and Mona, writing them every now and then as I progressed through school. They would come to Arkansas for visits and we would meet up for a coffee or a meal.
During one of their visits to Arkansas, Robbie and Mona told me their assistant was leaving to take another job in Italy. They told me they thought I should apply when the job was posted. So in the winter of 2015/2016 I applied for the job. And once again, like everything in higher ed, it took them a while to get back with me.
Robbie and Mona were in Italy so my interview was done by the dean of international programs in early March of 2016. By the end of the month they had offered me the job and I started making preparations to leave my life in Arkansas behind. In fact, when I attended the UCDA Design Summit in Santa Fe I already knew I would be moving to Italy in just a few short months.
Though it may sound like the decision was an easy one, it was actually intensely difficult. My entire life was in Arkansas. I had never lived anywhere else except for a summer in Nashville. I loved living in Little Rock: all of my friends were there and we had made a sort of post-grad group who all did things together. There was so much unknown with packing up my life—except for what I crammed in a very small storage unit—and moving to another continent. But there was also so much excitement. Eventually the excitement of it all won over and before I knew it I was carting four suitcases to the check-in counter at the Little Rock airport.
Once I arrived in Italy, the first three months were the “honeymoon phase.” After that, culture shock set in pretty hard and I was unhappy for a little while. I was used to being able to do things for myself but in a country where I didn’t know the language, that proved be hard. That first summer I went to language school 5 days a week, 4 hours a day and though it was the most frustrating thing I have ever put myself through, it was probably the most rewarding. Not only did I learn (a little) Italian but just the fact that I had to leave my apartment every single day to go to town helped pull me out of the darkness that is culture shock. The transition was more difficult than I anticipated but looking back on it, the difficulties were almost all misconstructions of my mind.
A lot of people ask me why I chose to move to Italy and they expect me to say, “The pasta! The pizza! The amazing scenery!” And those things are amazing, but I had to have some-thing more substantial to motivate me to uproot my life, quit my dream career a year in and move 6,000 miles from everything I’ve ever known. And honestly I can say I did it because I was a student once and people invested their lives in my experience here, to help me see the world differently and become a better, more well rounded person. I know what study abroad did for me and I know what it can do for others. I do what I do and work for this program because these 19-20 year olds will be 30 some day and they will be leaders in society. I guess my job is my way of helping make the future a little bit brighter.
If I’ve learned anything from my experience in Italy it’s this: always try to inspire young people: they need dreams to chase, too. Keep connections. Never burn bridges. Some day they could take you places.
Photos shown are of Grant's institutional work for Harding University Florence.
Learn more about Harding University Florence at harding-firenze.org.