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Auburn Abroad is back with 10 students studying in Italy for summer

Published: June 08, 2021
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Auburn University students have returned to Ariccia, Italy, for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic abruptly canceled study abroad plans for college students around the world.

The Joseph S. Bruno Auburn Abroad in Italy program is the only Auburn Abroad program approved to run this summer, but officials optimistically anticipate a return of full programming by summer 2022.

The mayor of Ariccia, a hillside town about 16 miles from Rome, could not be happier to have Auburn students back.

“The presence of Auburn University in Ariccia is more welcome than ever this year,” said Mayor Gianluca Staccoli. “In fact, after spending very long months in fear inside our homes, we feared that it would no longer be possible to cross the borders between states.”

Lacey Armstrong, an Auburn alumna who participated in the study abroad program before graduating in 2010 and now serves at its executive director in Ariccia, said, “Everyone around town sees the students arriving as a positive sign for the future of the city.”

The people of Ariccia have become accustomed to the influx of Auburn students three times a year since officials for the town and College of Human Sciences agreed in 2002 to offer a unique educational opportunity for American college students.

Unfortunately, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic forced the program’s abrupt closure in February 2020. With the U.S. Department of State elevating the threat assessment for travel to Italy, more than 20 Auburn students evacuated and continued their abroad experience virtually from the states.

“The optimism that this cultural exchange gives to the community is indescribable in words,” added Staccoli. “The union of two different cultures, which look closely at each other and learn to appreciate each other, is a real cure in this moment of recovery. We hope that nothing separates Auburn and Ariccia anymore.”

The Joseph S. Bruno Auburn Abroad in Italy program allows students from any major to spend a semester living in a palace and learning all aspects of Italian culture, including its language, music, art, history, architecture and cuisine. Students also develop leadership and problem-solving skills to help them be competitive in their future careers. The program is so popular, students have been known to sign up during Camp War Eagle in the hopes they will get to have the immersion experience before graduation.

Nearly 15 months after Ariccia bid ‘arrivederci’—Italian for goodbye—to 22 Auburn students, Staccoli and his top administrators joyously greeted 10 new students and an intern at the Palazzo Chigi. Students live in the grand palace, the former home of the noble Chigi family designed by prominent Italian artist and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini, for the duration of the semester-long program.

Skylar Biedenharn, who graduated in May with a degree in global studies, was part of the last class to complete the Ariccia program before the pandemic. She returned this semester as an administrative intern and teaching assistant.

“My journey to Italy marked my first international experience, and I emerged from the semester feeling equipped to take on the world,” she said. “By the end of 12 weeks, I had expanded my leadership skills, increased my cultural intelligence by being immersed in Italian culture and gained confidence in my ability to live in other countries in the future. I fell in love with Castelli Romani, the area near Rome where Ariccia is located, and vowed that I’d be back one day.”

Returning abroad

Auburn students had to be fully vaccinated before traveling to Italy. While abroad, they will be prohibited from using public transportation and traveling beyond an approved itinerary, a vast difference from years past.

Armstrong and the team at the Interlinea Group, the company that helps coordinate educational programs for Auburn, spent the hiatus redeveloping the curriculum to focus on sustainability and cultural intelligence. Students will now experience “more of the hidden gems in Italy,” Armstrong said.

The curriculum in Ariccia remains a modern equivalent to the Grand Tour of the 17th and 18th centuries, when educated European men and women would end their formal education with a trip around Europe, visiting the places they had studied.

Auburn students will continue to participate in weekday field trips to Italian sites discussed in class, but now to lesser-known corners of central and southern Italy via private bus.

Biedenharn said exploring “off-the-beaten-path Italian towns and cities” will offer “an even more authentic Italian experience than previous curriculums.”

In the past, students often traveled throughout Europe on weekends, a major perk of living in Italy. Auburn policy currently restricts such personal travel, and Italian/European Union policies are limiting international movement. However, the Interlinea team has been able to coordinate optional excursions within Italy for every weekend of the summer.

“This takes a lot of the hassle and pressure of planning weekend travel out of the equation for the students, and they are excited to explore corners of Italy they wouldn’t have imagined before,” said Armstrong.

Future of study abroad

Auburn Abroad Director Deborah Weiss said university officials are paying close attention to COVID-19 conditions and regulations in other countries and are optimistic Auburn Abroad programming can return to full strength by summer 2022.

Auburn Abroad will be working with program directors to resume programs gradually through the fall and spring semesters, pending upper administration approval and adjustments to COVID-19 requirements, as needed. There will be programs offered over spring break, but they may be below usual numbers, Weiss said.

Armstrong remains optimistic about the future of the Ariccia program, including welcoming up to 22 students, the ability to use public or private transportation and reintroducing the Italian Families Adoption program, in which students are paired with families for traditional meals in their private homes and build relationships over the semester.

“Our team has taken this opportunity to grow the program into something better, from both a learning and experiential perspective,” she said. “I hope students will continue to dive deeper into this beautifully diverse country and experience more cultural immersion.”

“I hope that the current class recognizes the value of this special opportunity to be truly immersed in Italian culture,” added Biedenharn. “Because of the more unique qualities of this summer’s program, I feel certain that these students will walk away as more competent and capable global citizens who have the confidence to approach new situations with an open mind.

“I hope their lives are forever changed for the better by the mark that this program, its staff and Italy will leave on them.”

Read more about Auburn’s return to Italy here.

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