Sam Fox study abroad students voice concerns about housing issues and administrative response

and | Junior News Editor, Staff Writer

Rubble from a partially collapsed ceiling on a student’s bed (Courtesy of Sophia Palitti).

Mold on the wall of a student’s bedroom (Courtesy of Sophia Palitti).

Participants in the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts’ Florence Semester Program have experienced issues with their housing arrangements abroad, including strangers entering the student’s communal apartment, mold, a partial ceiling collapse, and bedbugs. 

Multiple students studying in Florence, including senior Ella Jones, have also expressed dissatisfaction with responses to their concerns by individuals managing their living arrangements. 

“The housing situation was so atrocious, and basically no one was listening to any of our complaints about anything,” Jones said. 

The Florence Semester is Sam Fox’s only study abroad program and operates in partnership with Santa Reparata International School of Art (SRISA). 

Courtney Cushard, the Special Programs Manager for Sam Fox, directs the program for WashU and works alongside SRISA Housing Coordinator Anna Maria Arosemena to arrange and supervise residential placements for students.

“I am dedicated to making sure that the students in Florence have an enriching study abroad experience and I collaborate closely with my SRISA colleagues in Florence to do that,” Cushard wrote in an email to Student Life.

Unfamiliar and Unexpected Visitors 

Students have reported unfamiliar individuals entering their apartment as recently as Feb. 11. WhatsApp message screenshots obtained by Student Life allege that a man entered the shared apartment, which the students said was locked.

“A man suddenly entered the apartment at 3:25 [a.m.] and looked around then left,” said one message sent in the participants’ group chat. 

Arosemena responded to the message the following morning by telling students they should close doors properly, and call her if there is a similar situation in the future. 

Students wrote to Arosemena that they were confident the door was closed and requested proactive action from Arosemena in response to the situation. 

“There is no scenario in which a stranger should ever be able to enter our apartment,” wrote one student’s message. “I personally feel like there needs to be action taken in regards to this situation.”

Cushard said there are efforts to ensure that students are aware of when workers enter their apartment.

“Students in the program now get a notification anytime someone is going to be in their apartment,” Cushard said. “There’s a group chat. Students get a message from somebody to let them know, like, ‘hey, we’re sending over a maintenance person or we’re sending over XYZ.’” 

Junior Sophia Palitti, who is participating in the Spring 2024 Florence Semester Program for Communication Design, said the apartment has a history of unexpected visitors. She said that workers fixing infrastructure issues with the apartment building occasionally enter the students’ living space without warning, sometimes before typical working hours.

“8:30 in the morning, I’m in my pajamas, and there’s three random old men walking in,” Palitti said. “It’s not the most comforting feeling, especially somewhere where you’re living.”

Ty Blumberg, a senior Architecture major who participated in the Fall 2023 Semester Program, said there were often more than three unfamiliar individuals in the shared apartment at any given time. 

“There would be groups of people that we assumed to be workers in the building, in the kitchen or in the common space,” Blumberg said. “They would kind of go into the cubbies in the wall and not come out for a while.”

Blumberg also said he sometimes encountered unhoused people sleeping in the downstairs area of the apartment building. 

“There’d be people asleep on the stairs or asleep in the entranceway to the building,” he said. “It was definitely a little strange to wake up to an open door and a stranger asleep in the elevator area.” 

Infrastructure issues

Several students also said the house itself had infrastructure issues.

“People were having a lot of issues with the bathrooms, like showers not draining,” Palitti said. “One room had some issue where their shower was leaking through to the floor below them.”

The building’s issues led to a partial ceiling collapse in one of the students’ rooms. Palitti recalled seeing the aftermath of the collapse, during which nobody was hurt.

“I was just completely shocked,” Palitti said. “I was like, ‘Do [the housing managers] know that this happened? What the hell is going on?’”

Immediately after seeing the collapse, students contacted Cushard and Arosemena, who arranged for an architect and an engineer to fix the ceiling. 

Palitti said that administrative responses to the issue left students frustrated, especially because belongings were removed from the room without their consent and not returned. 

In a meeting after the collapse, Arosemena told the students that the ceiling collapse could not have been predicted. Palitti said this was a disconcerting conclusion given the building’s evident infrastructure issues.

“There’s water leaking everywhere, there’s repairs being done for the plumbing, there’s drainage issues. You feel like maybe we can predict this happening,” Palitti said. 

Palitti pointed to a lack of effective communication as a root cause of students’ general dissatisfaction with administrators. She said that often, Arosemena would be dismissive of their concerns, and that Cushard was “misinformed” and “condescending,” making correspondence difficult.

Arosemena did not respond to a Student Life request for comment.


Palitti recalled a particularly unsatisfactory conversation with Arosemena about a widespread mold issue impacting multiple rooms in the apartment. 

“[Arosemena] was just like, ‘Oh, Italian mold is different from American mold, it’s not going to hurt you as much,’” Palitti said.

Students created a Google Doc titled “COMPLAINTS” to log their housing issues and their resolutions. Most common in the document are complaints of mold, which in one instance was listed to have been resolved by being “cleaned with Febreze.”

Participants in the Fall 2023 program also encountered mold in their apartment, which Blumberg credited to the building’s air circulation issues.

“There was almost no ventilation in the building,” Blumberg said. “The bathrooms would make a lot of steam and there would be a lot of mold from that.” 

He said students in the Fall 2023 semester also faced challenges getting building managers to address the issue. 

“The struggle in the fight to get them to either clean the mold or provide some kind of equipment to decrease the likelihood of it happening was a big deal,” he said. 

Cushard declined to comment. 

Bedding Issues

Ella Jones and Jessica Price, both participants and roommates during the Florence Fall 2023 Semester, said their beds were infested with bed bugs. 

“I woke up in the middle of the night with bites, and I had bed bugs in my room.” Price said. “I had an allergic reaction and [the housing managers] moved us out. And we just kind of were jumping around from place to place for a while, while they said they were treating the room.” 

Both Price and Jones said they brought only a reusable shopping bag containing some of their personal belongings with them while moving between hotel rooms and other apartments throughout the city. 

Housing coordinators moved Price and Jones back into their original apartment after assuring them that their room had been properly treated for bed bug infestations. 

“Then, I woke up with bites again like a week later,” Price said. 

Eventually both students were moved into a permanent residence outside of their original shared apartment. 

“By that point, we had moved nine times within a six-week period,” Jones said. 

Blumberg said that halfway through the semester, many of the students’ bedding was removed, though not necessarily due to bedbugs. 

“[Housing managers] confiscated everyone’s top sheets and blankets,” he said. “They said that just having a comforter should be enough for everyone to be comfortable.”

Looking ahead

When asked why program participants have encountered recurrent housing issues, Cushard said, “housing in general is a thing that needs to be managed, right? The folks in Florence that we partner with have dedicated staff to managing student housing. And so I think things just come up, it’s unpredictable.”

Unlike past program participants who lived in groups across multiple apartments, some students during the 2023-2024 school year feel their single, communal apartment can get overcrowded.  

Jones said that the size of the apartment was a challenge for students during the Fall 2023 semester.

“They basically rented out part of a two-star hotel and put all 24 of us in it,” Jones said. “There was one kitchen for all of us and one small living room, a dining space for all of us.” 

Cushard said that there will be revisions to the housing arrangements for the Florence Summer 2024 Program. Students will no longer reside in a single, communal apartment. 

“I’ve already communicated with our housing partner in Florence,” Cushard said. “There will be groups of between three and six or seven students, depending on the size and arrangement of the apartments, living together in different buildings throughout the city.” 

Palitti said that she hopes future Florence Spring and Fall Semester Participants are given different housing arrangements. She added that she felt her own overall experience was marred by the housing difficulties.

“[We] asked the administration to not have students here again,” she said. “I don’t really think they’re ever gonna make people feel like it’s a good place to be.”

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