Italy 2014Worlds Away

Basho, the great 17th century Haiku master said, “If you want to know about a tree, go to the tree.”

Students at Rocky Mountain College who wanted to learn about Italian art, language, and culture took that saying to heart and spent eight weeks in Italy this past fall.

But what they experienced went far beyond their expectations of a simple tree.

Becca Severson, an exercise science major from Plymouth, Minnesota, decided to join the trip to complete her art minor. 

And she was not disappointed. 

“Being in Italy while learning about Italy is night-and-day different than being in Montana and learning about Italy,” Severson says. “Growing up, you see pictures of places like the Colosseum and the Sistine Chapel but you can’t realize what it really is until you see it in person.”

 Mark Moak, RMC art professor who has lead 10 student trips abroad, including the past three to Italy, notes that this trip is for any major, not just art students.

“We strongly believe in the liberal arts tradition,” he says and cites having students from the biology, aviation, and equestrian programs in addition to theatre, music, and art majors and minors. The mix of students from varying disciplines actually adds to the dynamics.

“This is really a journey in self-discovery,” Moak adds.

To that end, students are required to record their experiences in a blog throughout their trip. This promotes critical thinking and enhances their newly-learned photography skills in addition to preserving their personal memories.

Severson posted this, in addition to photos, about her time in Italy:

Art is so different to see in person; to see the scale of the work is something you cannot tell from a book and so it is very special to see it right there, in front of you! 

“I see the students change throughout the trip,” Moak notes. “The ultimate goal, my hope is that they will be transformed, that they will grow and mature and open their eyes to a greater world.”

The trip starts with the students gathering in Rome and traveling to their home base, the Villa Pieve near Perugia in the heart of Italy. They are immersed in the Italian culture and language at the villa – its own campus of sorts. Classes included Italian music, art, art history, and travel photography. In addition, they dedicated another class to learning the Italian language, taught by native speaker, Catia Melani. 

Severson notes in her blog that six hours of classes daily were a departure from the 60-minute classes back at RMC but that most did not even seem like work. She adds that learning the Italian language was challenging but that Melani made the entire experience less stressful and fun.

Yet, a great deal of the learning happened outside of the traditional classroom walls.

“This is not all about academics,” notes Moak. He details that life at the villa included cooking, conversing, playing games – everyday aspects of life in Italy. And that is where the lifelong lessons take root. 

“I have some students that I really worry about and I end up being pleasantly surprised with how they open up and embrace a new culture rather than fearing it,” he says.

Severson blogged about learning to make homemade pasta and tiramisu, which she notes is surprisingly easy, along with playing the Italian card game, scoba.

In the middle of the session the group traveled to Rome and Florence for even more hands-on learning.

“By traveling to the historic sites, we remove one obstacle – space – with only the obstacle of time remaining,” says Moak. “You can just see the students realizing that they are seeing what Michelangelo created or where Julius Caesar was assassinated. It’s so great to turn them on to something they have only read about or seen pictures of.”

For students like Severson the entire package was life-changing.

“I gained so much on this trip, it’s worth so much,” Severson says. “To live and travel in a place so completely different, you are forced to grow. By traveling afterward on my own I learned to budget and gained confidence by getting around in a foreign country and meeting new people. That’s good for leadership and a greater understanding of cultural differences. Understanding others is applicable to any job in the future.”

In a nutshell, that is Moak’s dream for his students being realized.

“It’s so rewarding to watch a student transform,” he says. “They learn to maintain their own identity while getting out of their comfort zone and embracing something new. And they grow as a result. I feel that these students can become great citizens of the world and understand that while America is a great place, there are other great places, too.”