Experiential Learning Seminars are designed to be an interdisciplinary learning experience where students travel and immerse in the local culture — this summer’s trip to Italy is an example of this philosophy.
Led by Mark Cosdon, professor of communication arts/theater, and James Niblock, associate professor of music and director of choral activities, 18 students traveled to Italy, where the group enveloped themselves into Italian culture and society for four weeks.
“Over the years, I’ve developed a number of different study-travel experiences for my Allegheny students,” Cosdon said. “This particular one from this past summer was especially focused on language and culture, and introducing the students to the contemporary Italian landscape.”
The first half of the trip was spent in Amelia, a 3,000-year-old hill town about 60 miles from Rome. There, students were assigned host families with whom they lived and received two hours of language instruction each day. The professors hosted students from their apartment in the town and would have outings to other Italian cities and towns such as Orvieto, Spoleto and Assisi.
“I think it’s really important for students to get a real sense of the region, of the local economy, of how the local towns sort of work together,” Cosdon said. “so the students visited a number of pretty historic sites in and around Amelia, but also places like a vineyard, an olive oil producer and had cooking lessons while they were there.”
Some students have never stayed with a host family before. English major and chemistry minor Lauren Isaacs, ’22, was one of the few attendees who has been to Italy before, but has never stayed with a host family.
“It was an eye-opening experience,” Isaacs said. “I stayed with a 6-month-old, a 2-year-old and a 6-year-old.”
Isaacs last visited Italy when she was 15, after her first year of high school. She said she knew she was destined to return and, when she did, looked at the country with different eyes. However, after never taking a spoken language class in high school, she found basic communication difficult.
“There was a huge language barrier between my family and myself,” Isaacs said. “I started learning Italian about three months (before visiting Italy) to learn basic Italian vocabulary, and even though I did all that work beforehand, it still was very tough to communicate with my host family.”
The language barrier was also difficult for Bronte Arreola, ’20, an English major with a creative writing/nonfiction focus, and psychology and philosophy double minor. To overcome the barrier, she often acted out different motions with her host family, a single mother and 12-year-old daughter.
“(The host mom) wasn’t what you think of when you think of a typical Italian,” Arreola said. “She didn’t drink coffee (and) didn’t like wine, but she was very open with having family in her house.”
This was Arreola’s first EL trip — she wanted to attend because of the religious aspects of Italy, since she is Roman Catholic.
This was also the first trip for computer science major and economics minor Simon Burrows, ’20, who had always wanted to study abroad but was never able to fit the experience in for a full semester. Like many of the attendees, the ability to experience another culture for a month was intriguing for Burrows.
“It was a little weird for the first couple of days trying to fit in and overcome the language barrier and stuff like that,” Burrows said. “But it ended up being incredibly nice, … so it was a really great experience.”
This is the eighth EL trip to Italy co-led by Cosdon. He helped coordinate students’ homestay experiences in Amelia, which has blossomed into a warm and rich experience for students.
“I know a lot of the (homestay) families especially well, and many of the folks who live and work in Amelia have become especially good friends and some of them have hosted three (or) four students in the past,” Cosdon said. “(The homestay families have) this real great memory of previous generations of Allegheny students who have also lived in their homes and been alongside their children and had pretty extraordinary experiences together.”
The students are enrolled in a program, Eurolinks, a language school in Amelia led by Simona Pernazza, who has become a close friend to Cosdon over the years. Pernazza teaches Italian, German and English courses and helped create a course on Italian culture and language centered in Amelia. This was the seventh trip to Amelia that Cosdon has led, and the fifth trip in which the attendees were enrolled in Eurolinks.
For the second half of the trip, the group traveled to three more well-known Italian cities: Florence, Naples and Rome. When in Rome, the group met a soon-to-be familiar face in the Allegheny community: President Hilary Link.
“I reached out to President Link to begin to explore if she was going to be in Rome and if she would have time to meet with the Allegheny students when we were there,” Cosdon said. “It really worked out pretty beautifully that President Link came to meet the students for about two hours while we were in Rome, and we had a pretty wonderful conversation in Rome, a place that President Link especially knows well.”
Before serving as Allegheny’s 22nd president, Link was the dean of Temple University Rome, a position she held for six years. Her encounter with the Italy EL occurred on June 3, during her final month in Italy before moving to Meadville.
Students found out about Link’s planned visit prior to their arrival in Rome, even though it was supposed to be a surprise.
“Someone figured it out, that she was (working in) Rome,” Arreola said. “I thought it was a really awesome opportunity to get to meet her firsthand, and since it was a small group on the trip, we got to have a more personal interaction with her.”
Burrows agreed that, although it was not a complete surprise, the interaction was enjoyable.
“She was very friendly and answered a lot of questions and asked us a lot of questions, and so it was really nice to meet her and interact (with her),” Burrows said.
Isaacs agreed with other attendees, emphasizing the uniqueness of being one of the first groups to meet the new president of Allegheny.
“There were only 18 of us on the trip and right off the bat she tried to get to know every one of us,” Isaacs said. “Just from that discussion and everything that happened after, it just felt like Dr. Link is such a wholesome and pure person.”
Cosdon was thankful for the interaction and was glad that his students were able to have a one-on-one with Link.
“I think for the students it was a really wonderful moment to begin to explore with the new president before she had officially assumed duties and (determined) how she was going to begin to articulate her vision of this campus community,” Cosdon said.
Overall, the attendees said they enjoyed the trip. Arreola’s favorite part of the trip was seeing the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City, while Isaacs enjoyed their travels to Naples. Burrows said visiting Pompeii was his personal favorite.
“(Pompeii) was something you always grew up and read about in books and stuff like that so being there was pretty surreal and really cool to see,” Burrows said.
The attendees recommended that future students consider the EL. Isaacs cited the structure of the trip as being a selling point.
“I think that the four-week trip being split into (two weeks) and another two weeks gave us the whole picture of Italian culture, and I really felt like I was immersed in Italian culture during those four weeks,” Isaacs said.
Arreola echoed her fellow attendees, stating how travel is always a beneficial life experience.
“It shows you the way other cultures live and ways of life that can be better than how you’re currently living your life and things to keep in mind about how other people live theirs,” Arreola said.
Cosdon said he supports the EL Seminar program and believes his students learn a lot from the experience by acting like travelers rather than tourists. He also believes the greatest thing is how the trips are truly interdisciplinary learning experiences.
“It’s a pretty extraordinary learning experience where it, I think, articulates the vision of (Allegheny) as a truly interdisciplinary institution,” Cosdon said.