Education in Italy

With limited resources from home, I mostly relied on the Mensa Card (Food voucher card) from the university which we could swipe at university affiliated resturaunts, cafes and grocery shops and could get 7.5 Euros worth of meals, per day. Yes, it was and still is possible to have a decent meal in Italy in self- service resturaunts and small cafes, in this much money. That was the brilliance of Italian cuisine and the human values where humanity came first. The State universities in Italy, not only provide education but also support students cover their basic expenses and tuition fees and accommodation. They determine the level of need-based support scholarships based on the income of the parents/main earner and any other source that would be contributing to that household. Since the European Law gives right to education to everyone, each Italian State University has an office called “Dritto Allo Studio” a.k.a (DSU) which has different names in different regions but offers the same services. They basically have a set procedure of calculating income bands for students, based on documentation provided and have designated Fiscal offices (called CAAF in Italian) which calculate the income bracket of each student (their household) to determine how much will the student be paying as tuition fees and how much need-based support fund/ scholarship be given to a student who applied for DSU. That entails reimbursement of the tuition fees paid, the rent for university accommodation halls (if one doesn’t decide to rent a place in the private market) as well as the Mensa Card valued from 5- 7.5 Euros each day. It was more than I could hope for, because all my life I heard, studying abroad needs 40-50 Grands of Dollars in tuition fees and in addition to that living expenses too. Therefore it is just not possible for everyone who wishes to pursue studies abroad.  I myself could not study at Imperial College of London despite getting in a great programme, solely because my father could not have paid 18000 GBP a year. So, for me, Politecnico di Milano (Polimi) provided a platform for studying at a highly ranked Engineering university in Europe which was more than a blessing, one that I would always be grateful for.

Polimi; Leonardo Campus  Milan( Source: Polimi’s FB page)

The end of first-year of my Master’s degree brought some obstacles as the world economic crisis set in and Italy started struggling more than ever. Education budgets were cut , the debate was hot in the parliament and the “DSU” offices of universities put the scholarships on hold. Since I was not an awardee of a university scholarship and was getting paid through the DSU Organization, I was suddenly in a pickle. I did not want to bother my parents and part time job was not an option in Italy. I quickly came to a point where the 3 months rent for university housing also seemed a challenge. I wrote to my Pro-rector; the kindest person I have met in Italy, asking for an appointment.  He gave me an appointment and I met him in his office, explained to him all my situation and that asking money from home was not an option. I stated that my father was also a professor and has sent me abroad to study, with great hopes and it would really hurt him to see me not having finished my degree. The words that came out of Professor’s mouth next, were the ones I would never forget. His face was flushed with embarrassment and he said “You came here to study a Master’s degree and you will go from here having a Master’s degree in hand, I promise you that. You will not leave Italy without finishing your education, just because you can’t afford to study and our scholarships have become unavailable.” I could not believe my ears on what he asked me next. He asked me my most pressing expenses and I replied that rent was the most pressing and big expense. He picks up the phone, calls the property manager who managed my university lodging which was affiliated with the university but belonged to an external property management. Pro-rector asked the manager to put my rent on hold and not bother me with rent reminders until scholarships were reinstated, by the Govt or another appropriate solution was found. The manager did not argue or deny his request because the word of a professor and that too a Pro-Rector of a State university is valued more than anybody else in Italy. Pro-Rector then asked me how I was managing my groceries and if I was eating alright. He offered to help me personally and I very politely refused the offer and told him I had the Mensa Card and I got by alright, using it. He was still not satisfied and told me that I could always ask for more help if needed.

This was such a new thing for me because I knew the only fact that if one has not got money, educational institutions of this calibre never made any exceptions for anyone (very rare special cases may be). Would it have happened, had I joined any British, Australian, Canadian or American university? No disrespect, but it is true. The best I could have gotten was a student loan perhaps, not this kind of support and empathy that I was receiving from Polimi; the university that ranks number 18 in QS World ranking in engineering and among top 10 in Architecture and Design Universities. Why go far, my own younger brother got zero help from the private university he was studying in, back in my home country. My father passed away during his 4th semester and we struggled to pay the hefty fee of the private engineering university. It was such a stressful and sad time for my family, with a fear looming over our head, of him not being able to finish his degree just because we were in a financial distress due to sudden demise of my father. The university did not offer any help, apart from allowing the tuition fee to be paid in installments. This was our own homeland and this was the level of help to a needy student. How could I not be grateful to Polimi and Government of Italy to basically pay me just to study and finish my education?

Anyway, in the next few days, I get an email from my thesis supervisor and Professor of Waste Water Treatment and Environmental Remediation, that he wanted to see me. I go see him and he tells me he wants to set an appointment with our Hydraulics Professor, who knows that funding is available for female engineering students from South Asia and will be granted from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Italy as part of bilateral relationships between Italy and specific South Asian countries. Of course, I would have to meet the criteria of merit in order to be able to qualify for that. It was December 2010, when this discussion started and a panel of six Professors who met me, asked me for my course plan and when I expected to graduate, made sure I was a serious student with decent grades and forwarded the recommendation to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Italy. This was another avenue my professors were trying for, to help me get a support for my studies. While the bureaucratic process was underway, DSU also issued the payments stuck because of budget cuts. This was late February /early March time and you would be surprised to know how it became possible despite the budget cuts. It was said that the Professors of Polimi, each paid 3% of their salaries contributing to the 300, 000 Euros that were needed to pay out the 3000 euros per student, due to be paid as scholarships. 1000 students benefitted through this initiative. Where else have we seen such care and empathy for education?

The DSU payment gave me a room to breath until I started receiving the scholarship from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from July, 2011. I finished my exams in July and then came the much-anticipated email that I could go to the Banca d’Italia (State bank of Italy) to receive my scholarship. I would never forget the day I went to Milan, to Banca d’Italia and felt like I was in a Royal Hall of a palace or an important Royal estate with gilded wall and roof embellishments and majestic looking structure. My feet sunk in the vibrant red coloured, soft plush carpet with golden poles and ropes to separate the queues, and I felt as if I had a dizzy feeling due to overwhelming emotions that I was experiencing. The man on the counter asked me “Signorina, in what bills you would prefer to have your scholarship?” I looked at him with a very surprised expression and said “I am fortunate enough to have this honour bestowed on me, any bills will do.” He smiled and said that you are an awardee of the most prestigious scholarship of this country and we should accommodate your request. I settled for 50 Euro bills and when I received 6000 euros in cash in my hands, an amount equalling 6 months of scholarship (1000 euros a month), starting from January 2011 to June 2011, tears rolled down my cheeks, because finally my misery was over. I did not have to think and think and rethink of how to pay my rent, I did not have to look at other university mates with envy, enjoying their summer and winter holidays travelling around Europe, living the time of their lives. I was self-sufficient then and could do whatever I liked. I could do that I loved doing most; travel. A thousand euros a month was and still is, a very handsome amount for a student studying in Europe, especially Italy, may be not in Scandinavia but in Italy, I could live like a rich student.

I declared my income to the DSU office and told them that I would not want to receive their scholarship since I had another scholarship source. People called me an idiot that I could have kept receiving both and cheat the system but that was not me and I would never have betrayed the country that respected my wish to study and gave me an opportunity of a life time. I would always owe this to Italy and be grateful to them because without this support I could never have finished my education.

Viva Italia!!!