I sat on the high-speed train departing from the station of Milano Centrale with destination Firenze Santa Maria Novella, where I would meet some friends who had been studying Italian in Tuscany over the summer through Yale University’s Italian Department. I was expecting a lot of things: the excitement of seeing some of my closest friends for the first time after the end of our first year at Yale, the crowds of tourists lined up in front of the Duomo and of the Uffizi Museums in the city center and the Tuscan summer heat that would provide the perfect excuse for a gelato break.
What I was not expecting was to roam the streets of the city and observe tens if not dozens, of people sporting college merch from almost every US university you can think of. It turned out that those passersby would be among the hundreds of US university students, who, just like my friends, traveled to Italy to spend their summer learning Italian.
The summer abroad is a cornerstone of the college experience for students learning a foreign language at many higher education institutions. Universities all around the United States offer language-learning programs abroad as options for students wishing to spend their summers immersed in the culture of the countries whose language they are studying. Italy has always been one of the most popular destinations.
Yale’s summer abroad program in Italy—courtesy of the Italian Department—has been running for more than 15 years according to Professor Simona Lorenzini. The program, open to students ranging from beginner to intermediate levels, consists of language classes in the mornings, and Italian culture classes in the afternoon, on any subject ranging from Italian arts and film to literature and history. This past summer, the program, which ran from the end of May to the end of July, was based in Siena, a small city in the Tuscan countryside.
“Unlike other cities like Florence, Milan and Rome, Siena offers the opportunity to have direct contact with local life and with the traditions of the city; it provides a safe environment for students to go about their daily activities like real Sienese and move around easily,” explained Professor Lorenzini.
Another major feature of this program, according to the Professor, is that it offers students the opportunity to have the real Italian experience by living with host families and put to the test their language skills outside of a classroom setting.
“By staying with a host family we were all able to really gauge what it meant to be Italian, from small things like dinner to the workings of day to day life,” said Maria Vitoria Rodrigues da Cunha, a current sophomore at Yale who participated in the program this past summer.
What mostly drew her to the program, apart from having the chance to become proficient in Italian, was also her love for history: “It was amazing to go to a place like Rome and see thousands of years of history in a single city street,” said Rodrigues da Cunha.
Her experience in Italy, however, was more than a lesson in language learning, acclimating to a new culture or even in history; it was also a window into Rodrigues da Cunha’s personal history.
“In Italy, I ended up finding a whole side of myself that I didn’t even know existed,” said Rodrigues da Cunha. “A part of my Portuguese family, who used to be Sephardic Jews living in Spain, had moved to Portugal during the Inquisition. As was the law at the time in Portugal, they were told to either convert to Catholicism or move away. Although most converted, some did not and I never knew where that part of my family had ended up.”
She told me that when she traveled to Livorno, Tuscany, with her program, they visited a Synagogue and she discovered that Italy must have been where that part of her family had ended up after leaving Portugal. “It was really cool to discover a part of myself that had been lost in time and history.”
Another sophomore in Yale College, Isabella Romero Stefanoni, was also drawn to the Italian summer abroad program as a way to improve her language skills, and by extension, connect with her Italian roots.
“My mother’s side of the family migrated from Italy to Mexico at the end of the 19th century, and because of this, Italian traditions and culture have always had a strong presence in my life. My maternal family speaks Venetian (our regional dialect), and though I cannot speak it, I completely understand it,” explained Romero Stefanoni. “I was always curious to learn Italian in order to feel closer to this part of my life and family history.”
Both Romero Stefanoni and Rodrigues da Cunha commented on the incredible added value of being immersed in the culture of the country whose language they were studying. Conversing with locals, using Italian in their daily activities, from ordering breakfast to making reservations for a weekend trip, allowed them to expand their vocabulary, and gain knowledge about the culture they had become immersed in.
Even Professor Lorenzini places emphasis on this characteristic of the study abroad experience: “I don’t think that there is a better way to learn a language than being in the place in which that language is spoken.”
Similar study abroad programs in Italy are run by many Italian departments across colleges and universities in the United States, and students interested in having similar experiences can easily seek them out.
David Alarcon, a sophomore at Columbia University, and Natalie Goldstein, a senior at William & Mary, participated in a program offered by the Linguaviva school, which brings international students to Italy to study Italian and experience the country’s culture and lifestyle.
Alarcon participated in Linguaviva’s intensive language program in Florence for a duration of four weeks. “I had always been very interested in romance languages,” said Alarcon, when asked to explain his motivations for choosing the Linguaviva program to spend his summer. “Additionally, I have always loved art, so Italy’s, and especially Florence’s, appreciation of art and rich history, were essential for me in choosing this program.”
During those four weeks, he was assigned to a host family, and considered this feature of the program to have been the main way for him to interact with Italian culture and customs.
“For Italians, food is of utmost importance, so my host family and I would have two-hour long meals talking about culture and life only in Italian,” explained Alarcon.
Goldstein was drawn to the program due to her interest in Italian cuisine and a previous trip to Italy that had sparked in her a desire to return and discover other parts of the country. “The two courses I took during the program were a beginner level Italian Language course and a Mediterranean History of Food course,” said Goldstein.
Whether in Siena, Florence, Milan, Palermo, Rome, or any other city, hundreds upon hundreds of US university students flock to Italy over the summer to learn Italian and delve into Italian culture. Whether it’s by forging relationships with local families through homestays, visiting museums and major landmarks or indulging in regional food, students return home, and to their home universities, having had unparalleled learning experiences on both academic and personal levels; enriched by the people they meet and equipped with a new cultural lens that changes their outlook on life.