Michael Wright and Alana Sacriponte (Duquesne University Study Abroad program in Rome)

Raccontare ai ragazzi italiani e americani di oggi il sacrificio dei ragazzi americani di un tempo per liberare il nostro Paese: Be the Difference-Never Again

Apr 11, 2023 1831 ITA ENG

This new interview is particularly dear to me for three reasons. The first is that it tells how even young Italians can be guided to learn about the sacrifice that thousands of American heroes made to liberate Italy. The second is that very often I get suggested interviews that are not exactly in the flow of this column, which explores new and special things and people and stories: so for today's guests I have to thank our mutual friend Elizabeth Bettina, who introduced us.

The third reason is that almost always my interviews are devoted entirely to something from the past, stories from the past; or entirely to stories from the present and the future. It is difficult for them to have past and future together. But this time that is exactly what happens. So I very gladly welcome on We the Italians Michael Wright and Alana Sacriponte, who run the Duquesne University Study Abroad program here in Rome

I would start by asking you to tell our readers about Duquesne University's study abroad program here in Rome. Who are your students, where are they from, what are they studying in Italy?

(Michael Wright) Duquesne University is a private, Catholic university in the Spiritan tradition located in Pittsburgh, PA with an international campus in Rome, Italy. 2021 marked the 20th anniversary of Duquesne’s campus in Rome, where we host 200 students annually on our beautiful property located with the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth in the verdant Acquafredda Nature Reserve of Rome, near the busy working-class neighborhood of Boccea.

The Rome campus hosts students for a semester or a summer program from the university’s nine schools. The academic semesters are full of undergraduate students who work on their core curriculum classes in areas like art history, classical history, theology, sociology, intercultural studies, Italian language, along with specialty courses in education, business and the sciences. For Duquesne students, many of these subjects literally come alive by studying art and archaeology in the places where it happened.

Our summer programs are full of both undergraduate and graduate students studying music, nursing, and physical therapy providing historical context and health care comparisons that we hope will make Duquesne students competitive in their future academic and professional careers.

Do you have Italian American students? A few months ago I started to develop a theory, that is that Italian American kids are different from American kids of other ethnicity, and obviously different from Italian kids. What do you guys think about that?

(Alana Sacriponte) There are over 1.4 million Italian American people in the State of Pennsylvania and more than 15% of people identify as Italian American in Western Pennsylvania where our home campus is located. But if you have ever actually visited Pittsburgh, you would think the number was even higher than that! Pittsburgh’s Heinz History Center has one of the largest collections and archives of Italian American material culture. We also have a Little Italy neighborhood called Bloomfield, as well as many other “unofficial” Italian areas, like the Strip District, where Italian pride reigns. There are so many Italian Festivals throughout Pittsburgh and the suburbs, like an Italian Kennywood Day (our local theme park), and a local food and coffee scene that highlights Italian food and the Italian experience.

I would say that over half of the Duquesne University students who come to study at our Rome campus are Italian-Americans, and this experience is very different for them compared to their other classmates. The overall experience is the same, in that they engage with Italy’s incredible cultural patrimony like the art, food, language and music. But Italian American students who are also coming as heritage seekers are having a reckoning experience with their past, and one that can bring such strong emotions about returning to their family’s place of origin. This is probably one of the highlights of my job, helping  Italian American students plan their travels to the small, remote villages of their great-grandparents, or ask for my help in translating a first-ever meet-up with Italian relatives during their semester abroad. Distant relatives who they have never met, most often with a big language barrier, cannot get in the way of this almost-sacred pilgrimage for these students. Students will visit incredible places like Venice, Florence and the Amalfi Coast, but nothing will ever compare to the experience of seeing the church where their great-grandfather was baptized, or meeting a cousin or great-uncle that they have heard about in stories from their families since they were born.

I know that I personally become super invested in helping these students, not only as a part of my job, but because that story is also my story. When I studied abroad in 2003 in this same program as an undergraduate student at Duquesne, I met my grandfather’s first cousin. It was the most moving experience for me to feel connected to his past, learn more about my family and feel an authentic connection to this country that has been such a big part of my life and traditions.

About our Italian American students, I think the most memorable story was an ex-student who had family in Abruzzo, in a small town near Pescara. He had never met them before, but they were so excited that he would be in Rome for three months that upon his arrival, his great aunt took a three-hour bus from Pescara to Rome, then our metro (or subway), and local bus to come meet him at campus. In her long journey, she brought along two teglie di parmigiana, or casserole dishes of eggplant parmesan, euro cash in case he didn’t have any, and continued to do this once a month while he was here. His aunt told me she felt it was her duty to make sure he was well-fed and to check in on him – almost like she had taken custody of him while on Italian soil. It was a beautiful thing to witness.

I really like the relationship you have established with a Roman high school near your campus. Based on your experience, what do Italian kids learn from this exchange, and what do American kids learn?

(Michael Wright) Duquesne in Rome’s relationship with the I.I.S. Einstein-Bachelet high school began in 2005, when we moved campus locations in 2004 to our current location in the Boccea neighborhood of Rome. The Einstein-Bachelet high school is located a half-mile (less than a kilometer) down the road from our campus. I continued to see other U.S. university programs in Rome and Florence offer reciprocity to their communities through musical performances, art installations at local schools and hospitals, and fashion shows of student creations.

I had been thinking about how to engage our students more fully with our local neighborhood, as well as giving something back to the city that graciously hosts us as U.S. Americans. One day when passing in front of the high school, I thought, “I wonder if we could create an exchange with students learning English at the high school to help them better their linguistic skills and in turn, they could help our students who were learning Italian?” After all, Italian students are 19 or 20 in their last year of high school and our students are mostly 19 and 20 years old as sophomores in college.

An enthusiastic meeting with the English language department resulted in an official gemellaggio, or sister-school agreement, that has been in effect ever since. Over the last 18 years, Duquesne’s relationship with the Einstein-Bachelet high school has resulted in nearly 1,000 Duquesne students working with nearly 1,000 of their Roman peers on projects, which has created many lasting friendships. Some of these Roman students have even visited their friends in the U.S., including on two official English Summer Camps that Duquesne University created and hosted in Pittsburgh for the Einstein-Bachelet students in 2009 and 2011.

I was recently at a wedding in Rome between one of our American alumnae and her now-Roman husband who she met during her semester abroad when a young man came up to me and said, “Are you Professor Michael?” I responded that I was. He told me that he had participated in our program and it changed his life. He was still friends with his partners from years before and he had understood the value of his city through the eyes of our American students. It helped to inspire him, as he was currently running for public office in Rome to help make his city a better place.

The main feature that differentiates your work from other study abroad programs are the project by which you bring American and Italian students to the Sicily Rome American Cemetery and Memorial in Nettuno, south of Rome...

(Alana Sacriponte) Our academic offerings have always been, and remain to be the keystone of our program, including on-site art history and classical history courses that are taken in the city center, with Rome as their open-air classroom. However, something that we thought was lacking was the academic opportunity to describe, analyze, and evaluate the cultural experiences students were having in Italy and with local, Italian people.

Many tourists and visitors learn the cultural nuances of Italy, like how Italians don’t order a cappuccino after meals and not cutting spaghetti with a knife, but we wanted to provide a means to deepen intercultural exploration. By clarifying cultural confusions, learning about oneself and one’s own culture, as well as gaining a depth of the new Italian culture, we can help students reflect on their experiences and observations from different intercultural perspectives.

In 2013, we developed a 3-part Intercultural Engagement course series that students would take prior, during, and after the study abroad experience. The course that the Duquesne in Rome students take while abroad is called “Intercultural Awareness and Exploration” and is co-taught by Michael Wright and myself. We use these class hours to reflect on the students’ experiences with their Italian partners at the Einstein-Bachelet high school and meet with diverse underrepresented communities in Rome with visits and lectures by historian and guide Micaela Pavoncello from the Roman-Jewish community and Ahmad Ejaz from the Islamic Cultural Centre of Italy. But I think that the most fulfilling experience for all students is their work on the “Be the Difference - Never Again” project, which we implemented in 2016 as a part of the course.

(Michael Wright) Early in 2016, I received a phone call from a friend and fellow U.S. study abroad program director in Florence who told me of an American friend of his, Elizabeth Bettina, who had written a book on her family’s village near Salerno that had been the site of a Jewish internment camp during World War II. He had been using her book in his curriculum and she was coming to Italy, interested in visiting the two American war cemeteries in Italy, including the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery in Nettuno, just south of Rome near Anzio.

Elizabeth arrived in Rome and I accompanied her down the Tyhrannean coast on a beautiful spring morning. I had read her book and embarrassingly admitted to her that I had been to Nettuno many times to eat seafood and go to the beach with Roman friends, but I had never visited the cemetery where 11,000 U.S. American service members were entombed or memorialized.

Melanie Resto, Superintendent of the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery welcomed and created special tours for us. As we entered this sacred, giant site that was studded with gleaming marble crosses and Stars of David tombs, sheltered by the towering umbrella pines of Rome, we moved with our guide through the 77-acre property hearing the harrowing stories of the young men and women who laid at rest. We saw an elderly man in his 90s laying roses at different tombs. Our guide told us that he was a local man who had been friends with the soldiers, played baseball with them, and even was able to go on fighting missions with them, until his soldier friends were ambushed and killed. Since then, he has come once a week to lay flowers at his friends’ graves.

We learned the personal story of the group of soldiers who had been killed and were missing that Sophia Loren speaks of in her memoire, and how one of them was a soldier who helped care for a scar on her face that she had received during the war. She owed her beauty to him. We then heard the heart-wrenching stories of those who had sacrificed their lives, learning that many of these soldiers have never received visits from their loved ones after the war.

Elizabeth and I were moved beyond words. As we drove back to the city, Elizabeth spoke of her vision for U.S. American students to visit these cemeteries during their semester abroad and to learn the stories of those who had given their lives for freedom. She called this the “Be the Difference – Never Again Project”. A light bulb went off in my mind, thinking that this might be the perfect project for our Intercultural Awareness course and to create a more meaningful collaboration for our Duquesne/Einstein-Bachelet relationship.

Alana and I talked about how it would be perfect for them to work together in small groups, each assigned a soldier at the cemetery to research. The Duquesne students could take the lead with military records and online searches to reconstruct the stories of these young soldiers, including collecting historic pictures and newspaper articles. The Einstein-Bachelet students in each group would work with the research to create a homage to their soldier, through poetry and song. The project would culminate at the end of the semester with a visit to the cemetery. The students would help to create a memorial service that we all participate in, take tours of the cemetery, and ultimately go to find the tomb of their U.S. American soldier to present their homage at their grave. Ultimately, students would turn in their group projects of research and homage, which we would donate to the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery.

Seven years have passed since the inception of the “Be the Difference-Never Again” project at Duquesne in Rome. Students learn intercultural values from working together and creating friendships, while coming into contact with important historical material. At the beginning of the semester, we reiterate that this is not a political project to show that America “saved” Italy, but rather an experiential collaboration to highlight the important relationship and friendship that our two countries have had over the past 80 years. It reminds us that because of combined efforts by the Allied forces and the Italian partisans, that Rome is the free and beautiful city where we make our homes, even if only for a semester for our Duquesne students. Einstein-Bachelet student, Enrico Mottola, reflected, “This experience has touched me deeply and made me think of the value of sacrifice, something these soldiers did for Italy and Europe.”

If it is possible, I would ask you to tell some anecdotes or the details of some stories that particularly struck you and your students, studying someone of the nearly 11,000 American heroes buried or celebrated in Nettuno, who gave their lives to free our country.

(Michael Wright) An experience that connected the Duquesne and Einstein-Bachelet students even beyond the borders of Italy with this project was a group of students that had been assigned First Lieutenant Chester Angell as their soldier. Since students only receive the soldier’s military record, including their name, place of enlistment, and their serial number, it is up to the students to find out who the “real” Chester was. On a genealogy website, the students found the email address of someone who looked to be a possible living relative. They vulnerably reached out to Chester’s living niece, Barbara Chiarella who lives in Colorado.

The group of students received an emotional and joyous response, helping the students know Chester more fully. They learned that he had been adopted by the Angell family as a child and had learned to be a pilot after enlisting with the Army Air Corp in November 1941. Before being sent to war, he had been a flight instructor on Beechcraft AT-11 planes and Martin B-26 bombers in the southern United States. He married his sweetheart Elaine Brown in June 1942 and they had their beloved daughter Janice in July 1943. In early 1944, he was assigned to the 37th Bomb Squad, 17th Bombardment Group, which had been credited through strategic bombings to have saved much of the art and architecture in Florence. Chester was stationed in Sardinia. Just days before dying in battle, he wrote an optimistic letter to his father, “It’s a mite rough in spots but I’ll get along all right...I’ve got a darn good crew.”

Chester died on March 16, 1944. Chester’s niece told the students that he is remembered in their family as “a young, handsome, and intelligent hero in so many ways.” Chester’s niece Barbara wrote me an emotional email saying, “May I just say that the program you created is not only a testament to humanity, history, and our fallen soldiers, it has personally given me a whole heart. Chester was a special brother to my father [Donald], which prompted my visit to Nettuno in 2009 to pay homage to both Chester and Donald, as brothers whose relationship was ended too soon.” The “Be the Difference-Never Again” project not only connects the living to the heroic dead, but connects the living with the living, creating hope for a more peaceful future.

(Alana Sacriponte) This April 2023 will be the first time that one of our students has a family member buried at the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery and whom we will honor during our ceremony. Physician Assistant student from the Rangos School of Health Sciences, Megan Stevens and her group will be paying homage to her great-uncle Alfred W. Graham, who was a pilot in the 30th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division in the U.S. Army. He was killed on January 31st, 1944 and was awarded a Purple Heart for his bravery.

You educate kids who are developing their personalities and have their whole lives ahead of them, and you rightly confront them with a history that concerns events that happened almost 80 years ago now. I think that what you do is very useful, because this experience teaches them more than many hours of theory… am I wrong?

(Michael Wright) Theory is obviously an important part of the Intercultural Awareness course that Alana and I teach, but we are blessed to have Rome and Italy be a living laboratory where our students can see theory put into practice. The “Be the Difference-Never Again” project helps us do this. Both Duquesne and the Einstein-Bachelet students have the opportunity to dive deeper into cultural and historical exploration. They understand each other better by developing linguistic and cultural understanding to create lasting friendships.

They also learn the consequences of war, what freedom means, the plight of the solider, and how to bring this 80-year history forward to our contemporary, broken world. They learn that even though Italian statehood may be younger than that of the United States, it is a peninsula full of ancient, rich, and complex history. These complexities not only change their lives in the “now” as study abroad students, but changed many of their lives long ago when their great-grandparents or grandparents decided to emigrate to the United States. Through our semester-long program, Duquesne students are able to shed their initial romantic notion of Italy through authentic experiences. They take away a mature understanding and love for Italy in its successes, its challenges, and its always hopeful future.

Most likely among our readers are descendants of a family of some of the 11,000 American heroes buried or celebrated at the Sicily Rome American Cemetery and Memorial, among whom are many names ending in a vowel. What would you feel like telling them?

(Michael Wright) We want those who have family who are buried at the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery to know that we continue to work through the list of 11,000 names. Young Italian and U.S. American students are taking the time to learn the stories of those who sacrificed to help free Italy. Your loved ones are not just a name on a tomb or a serial number on the west coast of Italy, but we know that they were living young people, who had families, were loved and missed terribly when they did not come home. We honor them with the “Be the Difference-Never Again” project, allowing their stories and sacrifice to bring perspective and change to our students. We hope the bringing-to-life of their stories will create an urgency for peace in these young people at a time when there is war again on the continent of Europe.

You may be interested