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Two Italian Experiences, One Study Abroad Program

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Big city, small town. That has become a winning combination for French and Italian Studies, which revamped its study abroad program in Italy to include both settings. The program is targeted to students enrolled in first- and second-year Italian.

The Colosseum in Rome was among the sites visited during the UW study abroad program in Italy.

The Colosseum in Rome was among the sites visited during the UW study abroad program in Italy. 

For more than a decade, the program ran its spring quarter language- and culture-oriented study abroad program from the UW’s Rome Center, in the heart of Italy’s largest city. But faculty worried that students were missing out by spending all their time in an urban area, often surrounded by classmates rather than locals. “My definition of study abroad is immersing students in the culture,” says Giuseppe Leporace, senior lecturer in Italian. “There was something missing.”

To address these concerns, the program was redesigned to include more interaction with Italians in Rome and to provide a small-town experience for half the quarter. After a month in Rome, students now travel to Rogliano, a small town in the Calabria region of southern Italy, where they live with local families. Leporace took the lead in redesigning the program, tapping personal and institutional contacts in Rome and in Calabria, where he was born. (Leporace and other Italian Studies faculty lead the program on a rotating basis, with Italian Studies lecturer Ruggero Taradel participating every year.)

As in the past, students take three UW courses while in Italy to explore Italian language, art, history, and culture. But now students also volunteer, ensuring closer contact with Italians. 

Students admire the view from a hillside above Assisi during an excursion from Rome.

Students admire the view from a hillside above Assisi during an excursion from Rome. 

During their month in Rome, students volunteer at two archaeological sites for four mornings a week: Trajan’s Markets and the Museum of Roman Civilization. They spend two weeks at each site, translating materials for English-speaking visitors, serving as guides, or taking on other projects as needed. Working alongside Italian volunteers, they invariably strike up friendships with their new colleagues.

“Learning content is important,” says Leporace, “but more important is the relationships our students build with the other volunteers, who are also college students. We encourage them to mingle with the volunteers after hours.” 

By the time the students leave Rome for Rogliano, they are more comfortable speaking Italian and living in another culture. That’s a good thing, says Albert Sbragia, chair of French and Italian Studies, because their stay in Rogliano is much more intense. “Rome allows them to get their feet wet,” says Sbragia. “Rogliano is a totally different thing. They are thrust into a family environment. It’s a small, isolated place with a strong local identity, so they spend a lot of time with their host families and in the town.”

Weekdays, the students attend UW classes, with a break for lunch with their host family. Twice each week, they volunteer in the elementary school for several hours, working with local children on English language skills. They develop their own lesson plans, which might include singing songs, playing vocabulary games, or other hands-on activities. 

Rogliano had a special meaning for Leni Stelzner (above)

Rogliano had a special meaning for Leni Stelzner (above), whose grandfather was born just six miles away. 

Evenings are spent with the host family and might include a local concert or a stroll through the town square. There are occasional surprises, like this year’s local party during a visit from Mauro Fiore, the cinematographer for the film Avatar, who hails from the neighboring town of Marzi. Rogliano is a springboard for program trips to Paestum and Sicily, but mostly students experience quiet, small-town life in a community where almost no English is spoken. 

For international studies major Elena (Leni) Stelzner, Rogliano was particularly meaningful because her grandfather was born in a small village just six miles away. “I was not concerned about staying in a small village,” she says. “I was looking forward to more personal interaction and a stronger sense of community.” 

Stelzner lived with a family of four, including two teenage children. “I will mostly remember the affection and utter selflessness the family showed me through the wonderful home-cooked meals, the family outings to the beach, cheering [for the son] at his cycling races, meeting up with all of the aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents for sumptuous dinners, and evening strolls through the streets of Rogliano.” 

Corbin Schweitzer poses with his host brother Francesco, in Rogliano. "He is ten years old and we have an amazing relationship," says Schweitzer.

Corbin Schweitzer poses with his host brother Francesco, in Rogliano. "He is ten years old and we have an amazing relationship," says Schweitzer. 

Not surprisingly, Stelzner’s language fluency improved dramatically during her stay. “The linguistic immersion was total—everything from television, to greetings on the street, to saying good morning each day to my family,” says Stelzner. “In fact, I was so acclimated to hearing and speaking Italian that when I returned to Washington, I had trouble adjusting to speaking English!” 

Corbin Schweitzer, a cinema studies major who had completed only two quarters of Italian language before the trip, worried whether he would be able to gain enough fluency to communicate with his host family. But like Stelzner, his skills quickly improved as he developed a close bond with the family. “My massive improvements were entirely because of my family,” he says, describing them as his “home away from home.” 

Schweitzer plans to return to Rogliano next summer to visit his host family. He is continuing with Italian language classes at the UW this summer and next year in preparation for the trip. Stelzner is also hoping to make a return visit, as are several other students. Those deep connections are what Leporace had hoped for when he redesigned the study abroad program. 

“The program is a wonderful experience,” says Leporace. “At the main square, when the bus leaves Rogliano at the end of our stay, the whole town is there to say goodbye. It’s a river of tears. So although leading the program is tiring and takes a lot out of you as faculty, it’s totally worth it. You feel you’re doing exactly what you’re here for.”