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Graziadio Center Supports Students’ Trip to Italy

Published: November 17, 2008

Portovenere, Italy

Photo courtesy of Carlo Chiarenza
Portovenere, Italy

A little bit of Long Beach found a home in Italy this summer when 62 CSULB students visited the medieval city of Portovenere in June and July for the George L. Graziadio Center for Italian Studies Summer Program.

The beautiful resort town on the Italian Riviera was the site of a visit organized by the George L. Graziadio Center for Italian Studies and the Center for International Education at CSULB, in cooperation with the Center for Cultural Studies and Research of La Spezia. The program offered three courses, explained Carlo Chiarenza, the George L. Graziadio Endowed Chair of Italian Studies who joined the university in 1999. The capstone courses were Introduction to Contemporary Europe taught by Chiarenza; European Cinema and Theater taught by Theater Arts’ Maria Viera, a member of the university since 1984; and the Comic Spirit taught by Comparative Literature and Classics’ Teri Yamada, who joined the university in 1988. “In addition to these courses, many students were also able to take first- and second-year language courses taught by instructors from the University of Pisa,” said Chiarenza.

The trip worked out perfectly. “It exceeded my expectations,” he explained. “I was especially pleased by how many students signed up to go. I was a little nervous about how much American university students would enjoy themselves in Italy, but we had no problems whatsoever. The town of Portovenere was very responsive.”

One of the reasons the program selected Portovenere for the summer program was the many benefits available for students. “Being unaccustomed to this kind of exchange, many local institutions received the idea with enthusiasm,” he said. “As a result, every student and faculty member received a free transportation card for the area, free access to art shows, wine-tasting visits and admission to a local festival. Local restaurants had a convention that allowed students to pay 50 percent of the prices listed on the menu and the Bank of La Spezia awarded every single student with a scholarship of 200 Euros ($300).”

But the choice of Portovenere was also a social success. “First, contrary to the most traditional locations usually chosen for summer programs such as Florence, Siena and Rome, where it is more and more difficult to offer the students a non-English-speaking environment, Portovenere provided students with a real full immersion into the language and culture of Italy,” he said. “Second, not being used to a long-term presence by American students, the residents of this small Ligurian town ended up adopting them. It was not unusual to see an old lady strolling in the town square calling out, ‘Ciao Justin, come stai? Ci vediamo a cena!’ (`Hi, Justin. How are you doing? I’ll see you later at dinner!’).”

Of course, the program was an academic success, too. “Studying Europe while being there was certainly much more interesting for students than just reading books,” he said. “Furthermore, we were lucky; the day we arrived, Ireland had just voted down the referendum to accept the Treaty of Lisbon, a document that had been approved by most of the European governments. It just happened that a group of students had planned, as the first of their `weekend trips,’ a visit to Dublin. Since the focus of the course was on the dichotomy between local nationalisms and European identity, I therefore asked them to make the most of their trip and to come back with some answers to the question of why Ireland, which was one of the states’ most advantaged by joining the union, had decided to reject the treaty. They interviewed students, restaurants’ owners, taxi drivers, and came back the next Monday with many exciting answers. This generated a very lively class discussion and made the students feel they were part of an event, not just interested bystanders.”

Chiarenza foresees a return to Italy. “There already is a one-year exchange program with Florence and international education always has been a big part of CSULB,” he said. “In addition to the Summer Program in Portovenere in 2009, I hope someday to organize a semester-long course to be held in Venice.”

The trip represents a commitment to outreach by the Department of Romance, German, Russian Languages and Literatures.

“This department understood that even a month spent in a different environment would be life-changing, not only academically but personally,” he said. “I’ve seen the student evaluations and there were comments about how this trip was one of the best experiences of their lives.”

The Center for Italian Studies and endowed chair are supported by a generous donation from the late banking executive George L. Graziadio.