Florence program director Elizabeth Whatley kneels in front of her rose garden for a photo with her two dogs, Izzy the chocolate lab and Jack the pointer, during the quarantine. Whatley said her dogs have been confused by the amount of time she’s been home during quarantine instead of at the Villa.
Photos courtesy of Elizabeth Whatley
In her 22 years as director of the Florence International Program, Elizabeth Whatley has never seen the villa this empty.
From the suspension of the program in February 2019 to the planned arrival of students for spring 2021, almost a year will pass before Pepperdine students return to Florence — the longest break in the program’s history. Impatient for students to return, Whatley is on the edge of her seat.
“I’m just eager and [champing] at the bit waiting for them,” Whatley said. “I’m afraid I’m going to be so excited that they’re going to say, ‘Please take a chill pill.’”
A Seaver alumna (1984), Whatley participated in the first Florence summer program in 1985 while working toward her Master’s in Religion. The Florence program became an academic year program in 1987, and Whatley started her first year as Florence director in 1998.
The Florence program, like many other programs, has seen its fair share of international crises over the years such as war threats from Iraq in 2008 and the depreciation of the U.S. dollar during the 2008 recession. Spring 2020, however, was the first time International Programs sent Florence participants home early.
“It’s all about the students for me,” Whatley said. “And that’s probably what was the biggest shock for me when they left — I couldn’t believe it. And I was pinching myself for a week, like, ‘Is this really true?’”
Whatley recounted the events leading up to the Florence suspension as a whirlwind, with the situation changing literally overnight. She told program participants Tuesday, Feb. 25, at convocation that International Programs had the situation under control and she was confident students would remain in the area. The situation shifted rapidly, and less than 48 hours later, students scrambled to fly home that weekend.
“When I said goodbye to them […] early Saturday morning because they were getting ready to leave the next morning, it was like a dream,” Whatley said. “It just seems so surreal; it still seems kind of surreal to me that it happened.”
About a week after students left, the city went into complete lockdown, Whatley said.
“It surely was the right decision for the University to make,” Whatley said. “There was never a doubt of whether that decision was right.”
Whatley said the lockdown in Florence was unusual because residents were self-motivated to follow all the regulations rigidly in fear of getting sick or spreading the virus.
“We’re all very diligent about social distancing, wearing our masks, following all of the rules and regulations,” Whatley aid. “So it’s strict. But we also have the least number of cases right now in all of Europe, so it shows that our diligence and our work have paid off.”
While the city begins to open up, Whatley said people continue to do their due diligence regarding government mandates and safety measures.
The Florence program staff transitioned to remote work March 4 and began administering classes over Zoom that week, Whatley said. Faculty received training from Pepperdine on how to administer classes online and taught for the next six weeks virtually.
Since March, Whatley said she’s been in several different rounds of planning in preparation for students. She planned to have students in Florence for the summer 2020 programs, the fall 2020 program and continues to make arrangements for spring 2021 with different guidance and information from Pepperdine throughout each stage.
Whatley said the Florence Villa is not yet equipped with new safety measures for students while they await guidance from Pepperdine and the local government on safety measures for the spring, but program staff purchased supplies such as tape and plexiglass.
“I have all my markings, all my measurements, everything ready to go,” Whatley said. “So it’s just a matter of knowing, and we’re hoping to be ready to have the students here.”
For fall 2020, Whatley said some of the Florence faculty teach General Education courses online for Malibu, and the Italian professors collaborate with Malibu professors to incorporate more conversational applications of Italian for students. All of the house staff, including the chef and cleaning staff, are on furlough through Dec. 31.
Florence itself is beginning to open back up, with indoor dining and discoteche closed, Whatley said. Museums began to reopen with strict limitations, and public transportation operates as usual.
“In January or February, when our students come, there will be still some limitations, but I feel like we’ll still be able to provide them with an awesome experience,” Whatley said.
Over the past seven months, Whatley said she learned a lot about herself because she’s spent the most time at home ever.
“For me, it’s been a time to reflect — and probably my spiritual life has grown the most because I really had to rely on my faith a lot because it’s not easy to be here without my students,” Whatley said.
Throughout quarantine, Whatley said she’s stayed connected virtually to Pepperdine and friends — something she was unable to do from Florence before the pandemic.
“One of the things that has been the best for me is my connection with the Malibu campus,” Whatley said. “I have been really more involved with Malibu than I have been in the last 22 years.”
Whatley attends University Church of Christ Sunday services, President’s Briefings and strategic planning meetings, and she is now involved in a faculty book club reading “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo.
Whatley also reconnected with former Florence program participants and parents from as far back as 1988.
“So many people have reached out to me during this time — people I haven’t heard from in years,” Whatley said. “I have felt truly loved and taken care of because so many people reached out to me at this time, and I’m still getting people to reach out to me. So that has been a big blessing because you know that people really care.”
Whatley remains hopeful that, with decreasing COVID-19 cases in Europe, students will be able to attend the Florence program in the spring, and she continues to plan and prepare for when the newest students arrive at the Villa.
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