ECU program gives study abroad students a home away from home

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Linda Darty, front, right, instructs ECU students during an enameling class in Certaldo Alto, Italy.


The (Greenville) Daily Reflector

Monday, March 19, 2018

On an Italian hillside, with an expansive overlook of the landscape of Tuscany, is Certaldo Alto. In this medieval town, walls built in the 13th century seem to have held back time. Even today, there are no more than 200 people who call this picturesque place home.

But in the past decade, the charming community has come to serve as a small campus for East Carolina University. Through the years, more than 800 students have traveled some 4,500 miles for a classroom with this view.

Thousands of American students study abroad in Italy each year, touring the country, taking classes and then transferring their credits back to their universities in the U.S. ECU’s Italy Intensives program takes a different approach, one that sends its courses and instructors along for the journey.

“What’s unique to this is we’re ECU’s only campus away from Greenville,” Linda Darty, program director, said. “We have our own home in another country.”

Each semester, about 30 students live and study in Certaldo Alto, earning course credits in art, literature, world history, geology, yoga and Italian language. Classes are conducted in Palazzo Stiozzi Ridolfi on the town’s main street, and field trips take students throughout an area that is regarded as the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance.

“We don’t have art history in a classroom where you’re looking at slides on a wall, which is what you have to do in America to study these things,” Darty said. “We’re walking in medieval Renaissance art.”

Geology students see evidence of erosion along the country’s coastline and have a chance to look into a volcano. Italian language students put their vocabulary to use at the local market. Art students stand beside Michelangelo’s sculptures and view frescoes on the walls where they were painted.

“It doesn’t become something abstract that you’ve read in a book,” said ECU sophomore Maggie Richardson, a photography student who was part of the Italy Intensive program in the fall of 2017. “The learning becomes a part of your life.”

Italy became part of Darty’s life in 1973, when she spent six months in Florence as a student at Florida State University. Like many of the students who participate in Italy Intensives today, Darty had never been on a plane.

“I had never left home, never been been in a museum,” she said. “It really changed my life.

“I left a confused psychology major and I came home a dedicated and passionate art major.”

That enthusiasm extended to Italy, and Darty vowed to return. But it would take more than three decades for her to fulfill her promise.

In between, she graduated, started her career and got married. Afterward, car payments and kids meant she could not travel the world as she had done when she was a college student.

But in 2007, while serving as a visiting professor at Tennessee’s Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts, she met Pietro Maddalena during a slide presentation about La Meridiana, a ceramics school he founded in Tuscany.

“All these memories flooded back,” Darty said. “Suddenly you go, ‘Wow, 38 years has gone by, and I hadn’t really imagined that I could do this again.’”

Then the area coordinator of the metals program in ECU’s School of Art and Design, Darty got permission to take a small group of art students to Italy the following summer.

For three years, she took students for three weeks of study in Italy, teaching essentially all their courses herself. Darty loved the work but wanted a place where students could stay longer in order to immerse themselves in the culture.

Her search took her to Certaldo Alto, known as the home of Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio. The town’s mayor agreed to renovate a space for classes, equipped with WiFi, if ECU would commit to a year-round program.

The expansion made room for additional instructors, some native Italians and others ECU professors who are spending a semester abroad during sabbatical or after retirement. It also opened Italy Intensives to other majors.

“It started out as an art program,” Darty said. “(But) it’s for all students, all majors. This semester, I’ve got two art students, four pre-med, four political science, two in communication, journalism, nursing. They come from all over campus.”

Finance major Jeb Crissman was part of the Italy Intensives program last fall. His trip to Italy was Crissman’s first time to leave the country.

“It was, by far, the best decision that I’ve ever made in my college career,” Crissman said.

“It’s a different atmosphere when you’re in a different country and you live down the street from your professor,” he said. “No teacher on the trip was called by their last name. Everything was on a first-name basis.”

Professors and students not only see each other in class, where instruction may last up to 12 hours a day to make up for time lost due to travel. They have dinner together most nights. They travel together.

Forming close relationships with the students is also one of James Abbott’s favorite aspects of the Italy Intensives program. A Philadelphia-based photographer, he has taught ECU students in Italy for eight semesters.

“I went there as a teacher and I came back as a student,” Abbott said. “It was as enriching and challenging for me.

“It’s so different than showing up at class three times a week for two hours,” he said. “We’re part of their lives and they’re part of our lives.”

Both students and professors also become part of the life of the Certaldo Alto community. They drink coffee in the cafes and take part in local festivals. Their presence means that restaurants that might otherwise close at the end of the tourists’ season are able to stay open.

Italy Intensives participants, who study Italian language as part of the curriculum, form friendships with Certaldo Alto residents. Students sometimes communicate with their Italian friends through social media, after the students return to Greenville. They also keep in touch with Darty, who spends about eight months of the year living and working in Italy.

“They email me and tell me that not a day goes by that they don’t think about it,” she said of students who complete the program. “They’re better students now. It’s an intimate, intense experience and it broadens them globally. They understand more about the real world.”

Darty is grateful for the support from ECU which includes scholarship funds to enable some students to participate in the program. In March 2017, Chancellor Cecil Staton and his wife, Catherine, made a $100,000 commitment to endow a study-abroad fund to support international travel and educational opportunities for ECU students.

Darty hopes support for study abroad will open doors for more students to have the kind of experience that she did.

“It opened up my eyes to another world,” she said. “I realized that people were all the same, even though the cultures were different. Their architecture was different and the landscape was different and the language was different, but there were so many things that we all had in common.

“I hope that more students on the ECU campus will take advantage of studying abroad anywhere, anywhere in the world,” she said, “ just to get out of their comfort zone and learn about how expansive their life can be.”

For more information, visit ecu.edu/cs-acad/italy/.