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Reflections on the Past

Italian Colonialism through Oral Histories
January 2, 2019

Portrait of Gino Polverari

Portrait of Gino Polverari
Photo by Jacob Van Blarcom, CLAgency student

When thinking about colonialism, Italy isn’t always the first thing that comes to mind. However, for 2018 graduate Gino Polverari, it is. The Aron M. Blankenburg Memorial Scholarship recipient used his Arabic major and Italian minor for his year-long senior research project on Italian colonialism in Somalia.

By conducting interviews with Somali residents of the Twin Cities, Polverari was able to draw connections between Italy, Somalia, and the immigrant experience here in Minnesota. He compiled his research into a website to share his findings with future students who are studying this topic. Polverari reflects on how his research experience has shaped his undergraduate studies here at the U.

Empathy is Key

Interested in teaching English, Polverari decided to volunteer at the Open Door Learning Center, a partner of the Minnesota Literacy Council, for five hours a week during his senior year. The learning center gives new Americans the opportunity to improve their English at little or no cost. Polverari leveraged his ability to communicate in Arabic as a way to connect with his Arabic-speaking students from Somalia, who appreciated something as simple as his ability to pronounce their names.

With the connection to the learning center, Polverari focused his research on analyzing the problems in Somalia to find what connections they had with Italian and British colonialism. By conducting interviews of his students, he began to draw and understand these connections. He explains that after British and Italian influence pulled out of Somalia, tensions were high among the people who had only been unified by colonial powers. The resulting power vacuum led to civil war. “Almost all of my research subjects grew up in refugee camps or had their lives permanently altered as a result of this war,” says Polverari. “Almost none of them have any connection with Italy today, but it goes without saying that Italian colonialism had a hand in what Somalia has become today.”

As he interviewed his students, he learned that the effects of decades of civil war continue after moving to a different country. By listening to the complexity of a person’s life story, a deeper level of empathy can be achieved. “Sometimes we don’t understand other people’s behavior,” Polverari says, “but if we knew someone’s whole history, we would understand.”

Reflection on the Research Process

By working with Professor Susan Noakes, Polverari was able to take his interviews about Italian colonialism and look at the data through many different lenses. “Professor Noakes was able to take many of my questions and observations regarding colonialism in Libya and Ethiopia and contextualize them to help me understand these time periods better,” he explains. This experience taught Polverari that there are always more questions to ask and more perspectives to hear.

In addition to collaborating with a professor or other expert who can help contextualize the project, Polverari has some advice for students who are conducting research through interviews: “Take a lot of notes and organize them by topic, not by person. That makes it much easier to see patterns and similarities across the group.” He also advises interviewers to “be bold when asking questions—and be sure to be polite. Don’t be afraid to ask personal questions, but make sure your interviewee knows they can refuse to answer a question if it is too hard or uncomfortable to talk about” He also recommends studying master interviewers at work through programs such as 60 Minutes.

What the Future Holds

Polverari’s research could contribute to the formation of a class on Italian colonialism within the Department of French & Italian here at the U; his website and interviews are useful information to help students understand Italian colonization in Africa. The website would be “a resource for future Italian students so they can have a guide on Italian colonialism.”

Polverari has a passion for public service and hopes to become a judge one day. In fall 2019, he plans to study law at St. Thomas University with a full-tuition scholarship. He believes that his liberal arts background and his experience with Italian and Arabic classes help him “approach everything from a holistic view, not just historical or political or legal.”

This story was written by an undergraduate student content creator in CLAgency. Meet the team.