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When In Rome

June 7, 2017

“I wanted students to have the opportunity to see Italy as a living, modern, breathing country that is full of people—real people.”

Kathleen Rider, second-year coordinator for Italian, has this goal in mind for the undergraduate students who travel with her on a biannual global seminar focused on urban renewal in Rome. She created the program in 2014 to help students see beyond the country’s rich history and better experience it as a diverse, 21st-century place.

“I don’t want people to think of Italy as a museum,” she says. “Yes, it’s beautiful; yes, it’s physically and aesthetically appealing, but it’s not dead. It’s real, and what makes it real is the people.”

When in Rome

The May-session seminar, which is offered through the University of Minnesota’s Learning Abroad Center, takes up to 25 undergraduate students to Rome and southern Italy for 3.5 weeks. Students study Rome’s urban transformation and examine how each neighborhood’s unique history has been shaped by influences such as public housing, gentrification, urban policy, and tourism.

While housed in the city, the group also takes several trips to southern Italian sites, including Naples, Matera, and Alberobello. These trips give students a chance to experience culture outside of Rome and further drive home the idea that each location is unique.

The students experience each neighborhood they visit through the eyes of local Italians. Rider did not want her students to learn about a given area from professional tour guides, but rather from people who are proud of their home, while aware of and honest about its complexities. This shows students what Rider says transforms a space into a place; value. The personal insight of true natives offer a perspective that is more genuine and less “touristy.”

How to DIE

Rider trains her students to look objectively at each area using a 3-step-process humorously known to students as DIE—describe, interpret, evaluate. “I need them to see that Italy is not the sum of its parts. There is no such thing as ‘Italian culture.’ There are Italian cultures, and even within the city of Rome there are subcultures,” Rider explains.

To practice the DIE method before departure, Rider has her students look at their own city. They visit the Guthrie Theater in downtown Minneapolis, where they begin observing and mapping the area, heading east until they reach the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, adjacent to the west bank of campus. This activity challenges students to think thoughtfully about their own city, and prepares them to use these skills in a foreign context. Because students will also learn about the history of each neighborhood and have the chance to meet current residents, each area can be considered on its own terms. Students aren’t left to speculate about how to interpret a neighborhood; they’ll have the input of the inhabitants themselves.

While examining Minneapolis prepares students to experience Rome, their time in Italy also prompts them to look homeward. This line of thinking is evident in reflective essays written before and after the trip. Students often note in the latter essay that they have returned to the United States with a different perspective of their own culture, and are better equipped to understand the places they call home.

An enhanced opportunity

The program is currently being revised to include two parallel tracks; one taught in English and open to all students, and another taught in Italian, specifically for Italian majors and minors. Rider is excited about the opportunity that the new Italian-language track will provide for her students. Rider hopes that both tracks will be offered as soon as May 2019.

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.