Mistaken for a Native … abroad
Emily Monaco QC ’12 and Jim Stellar
Emily is a major in History with an interest in the ancient world and a Macaulay Honors student at Queens College who just returned from a study abroad trip to Italy. What makes this trip different is that at some point it became personal when Emily was mistaken for someone from southern Italy or Sicily, which is actually her family’s origin point when they moved to America a few generations ago. Since Emily and I have long talked about excellence and her desire to attend graduate school someday, I thought this was an opportunity to explore the additional component of emotional logic processing connected to learning in motivated undergraduate. Emily also wrote a blog about her experiences as requested by the honors program.
So my first question is could you tell us about a few experiences where you felt the citizens there did not know you were from here?
The most memorable experience of this for me was when I was in Siracusa, Sicily. We had been at a site in Ancient Syracuse to explore these incredible mosaics from about the 4th century CE. We had a short lecture, and then went to look at these on our own. We had to be back at the bus by a certain time, but of course, some people were not. After about 20 minutes of waiting on the bus, I had devoured an apple I had stolen from the last hotel’s breakfast buffet, and left to throw out the core. One my way back, this man, about middle-aged called out to me (in Italian, unlike many other people I met, he seemed to have no knowledge of English). He asked where I was from, and I said I was American, because I can’t really say that I’m Italian when I, who grew up in America, was actually in Italy. The minute I said this, he retaliated, saying he didn’t understand what I was talking about, because I didn’t look like an American, I looked like another Sicilian, I looked like him, to which I replied “Oooh, hahaha. Sono italiana-americana” (I’m italian-american). The conversation continued on with me explaining my family’s immigration history, how long they were in America and where they originally came from, all busting out the best of my Italian in the process (forgetting verbs like, “to move” is very inconvenient at times like these), explaining my ancestry from my Sicilian half to my Neopolitan and (possible) Calabria quarters (I say possible because my family isn’t sure, but this is another story entirely). At the end, he said his name was Angelo, and asked for mine, which I told him. I then said I had to leave, because the bus was waiting, and departed. We were there for another ten minutes, and this does make me regret me not having stayed longer to talk with him.
Now go deeper and tell us what it felt like to pass for an Italian, even a Sicilian, on your first time to the country.
It was actually quite hysterical, and refreshing, to pass for an Italian. As a New Yorker, a goal when I’m travelling is to avoid looking like a tourist at any cost. Because of my choice of clothing, and genetics, if I was walking alone, and not chattering on in English while walking with my friends, I could actually fool the natives into thinking I was one of them. It was nice, because, above all else, no one bothered me. Many of my friends, also females, were annoyed, hit on, and even harassed by Italian men around our age (and some younger ones), and, in a couple of rare cases, gypsies (not our age). My friends, from afar, think it happened one time, but the guy was really nice, and I just got a cool and free post card out of it.
It was also interesting just to talk to people who soon realized I was American (after a few sentences, you could tell from my language skills that I wasn’t Italian). Like Angelo above, they were all amazed about how I looked like them but was from a completely different place. What was interesting about this, for me, was the idea of ethnicity in it. There are people who say that I’m Italian because my ancestors are from Italy, and at home there are remnants of Italian culture. There are people who say I’m American because I was born in America, and brought up as an American. People all the time make assumptions about people by the way they look but how much does that really tell you about a person? Because I have long, curly, and rough hair, with an olive skin tone, and brown eyes, and a curvy figure, I must be Sicilian… or Italian… mixed?… Jewish!…. maybe Spanish….Greek?…. could be a Arabic girl who doesn’t wear the Hijab…
I pass for so much, including Italian, which is the reason I passed in Italy. There are many Italians who don’t “look” Italian, and vice versa. It’s all very interesting to me.
Now let’s tie this back to your scholarship. You are an honors history student studying the ancient world and thinking about going on to get a PhD degree.
This trip was able to narrow my interests a bit in what I might want to do my senior thesis on (if I choose to stay with history for my area of study). This study abroad really opened up my eyes to the diverse history brought to Sicily throughout its history, especially in ancient times. Thus, one of the two main ideas that I would like to use for my senior thesis would have to do with the diverse peoples that populated the island of Sicily throughout the ancient world, and possibly into the modern era. Another idea that this one sparked would be to research the effects on Sicily’s history and its political system through the ancient world. I would need to do more research to refine this idea if I go through with it, but it is a possibility. I have not, however, forgotten one of my previous thesis ideas in this area – the fall of the Republic and the start of the Empire. This would be a good fit for me as far as my expanded interests go, because I do have a heavy interest developing in political science. Unfortunately, furthering this idea was the one thing this study abroad did not do.
The more I think about this study abroad, the more I think about the aspects of history I enjoy. This was actually a classics study abroad, meaning we were analyzed more the evolution of culture rather then of events. This would definitely affect the approach to my possible thesis. For example, if I were to talk about the increasing diversification of Sicily’s populations, I would mention culture, but I would also talk about the rise of different states on the island and their interaction. As much as I am interested in the culture, I want the whole perspective, which includes interactions between states. This study abroad made me realize that, as an academic, I really have to study the rise and fall of regimes, wars, immigration of groups and more, and their effects, not just culture changes and evolution in literature and the arts. .
We are both struck by the way content knowledge developed in classes and developing as an undergraduate thesis project was impacted by the experience of EM in Italy. We find it no accident that Italy had a way into EM’s thinking through her own personal heritage. As JS often says in this blog, and as Damasio and many others essentially say, this is where value is computed – in the instincts, in the gut. Look at the emotional circuitry involved in field of neuroeconomics. Except here the “value” is about one or another intellectual path in an undergraduate thesis topic. True … one could make a spreadsheet of the factors in choosing a thesis or a major or anything else, assign values to each choice (perhaps according to certain formula, like computer trading of stocks in the stock market). But who among us really makes such decisions this way? We need the content knowledge to grind on but somehow we do not choose just by “adding it up.” Somehow we integrate gut-level choice about what is best with the facts and theories we know. We think that runs through this story.
So what is a university to do to promote this integration between experience and content knowledge for the better education of its students? Nothing – at least not directly. The integration happens in the head of the student. What the University or College can do is set up the circumstances. We could have the history thesis advisor discuss with the history major why she/he wants to go to Italy and look for deeper reasons than “good food.” We could put up a variety of abroad programs, wait for one to strike a chord with a student, and have that student talk to other students when they return. Peer-to-peer advising can be powerful. We can have the student do reflection, naturally and effortlessly (rather than a contrived journal) by blogging for their friends (Emilyl did that) or sending a cohort who will naturally mull things over at night. Colleges and Universities just do not do enough of this reflection, pre or post experience. We can do all of this planning with students and not as administrators sitting in our nice safe offices.
However, offering these experiences is only part of the battle. While the student is capable of coming up with ideas, they sometimes need a mentor to help inspire it along. We need professors to inspire students into wanting to take action, because, while the skill might be there, the motivation may not be.
Once the student has motivation, even if the circumstances and opportunities are there, we need to make it completely possible. This means either making financial aid more available, whether that means scholarships, some form of work-study, an office to help with applying for outside aid, etc. Through these steps, more students can have a similar experience to EM.
So what do you readers think we can do?