Mistaken for a Native … abroad

November 11, 2010 at 9:22 PM

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?

ADHD – brain structure and function – a focus on emotions and the amygdala

8 Responses to “Mistaken for a Native … abroad”

  1. Tina P. says:

    I think attracting alumni donations would be helpful for travel-abroad scholarships. Donations don’t have to be big and glamorous. Every cent counts. Also what about creating a program for shorter trips, for example, a quick winter or spring break excursion? A lot of times I think students feel as if “going abroad” means leaving campus for the full semester and we know this is not the case.

  2. Tina P. says:

    Also, social media is so big now. I mean, videos can be uploaded to Youtube within seconds and people can see and talk to each other simultaneously via Facetime and Skype. I think by having these video and real-time experiences available, it makes the studying abroad itself that much more special to the student and to those in the student’s life.

  3. Jim Stellar says:

    Thanks. Do you think that having such connections some how diminishe the student experience abroad by bringing them into contact with home or do you think it might increase the reflection on and therfore the learning from abroad experiences as the student communicates there ideas with friends at home and all over the world?

  4. Emily Monaco says:

    I actually have to disagree with you on the video-chatting part of your comments, Tina. I couldn’t access the internet for two entire weeks, plus the first week I could only do so in a computer lab. That last week my laptop had full reign of the internet, and I shouldn’t have been on it as much as I was. For a full semester study abroad, you have a lot of time to study the area around you, but when you’re in a place for only a couple of days or weeks, like I was, its easy for that type of thing to distract you from the environment around you.

    Not to say that a student shouldn’t use these things at all, because its nice to let your family know you’re alive and whatnot, but I will say that those two weeks of no internet were some of the best of my life.

    I do like the idea of video-blogging though. I would have love to record videos in real time while I was climbing on a temple in Agrigento. But I think it would be best that I didn’t post it on Youtube/Facebook/etc until I had gotten home.

  5. Emily Monaco says:

    I do like your fundraising idea though. The only problem I could see is that the college already asks for money from its alumni (my mother graduated from QC so we get mail from them about that). We would have to come up with a more creative way of asking for donations or promoting an alumni fundraiser.

    As for the shorter trips, that’s exactly what I did. (I actually would have loved a semester abroad, but my athletic schedule didn’t allow it.) A lot of my friends did the same because of athletics, academics, or just not wanting to be away from home. Its not so much a matter of creating them, as a matter of getting the word out, which we should be doing more of.

  6. Tina P. says:

    And that is exactly what the video blogging, Facetime, Facebook, twitter, YouTube, etc. should be used for- free PR. It’s a great way to target students, alumni, families, friends, peers, faculty, staff, your blog followers, etc. for either funds or just to spread the word in general.

    I don’t want to say the student experience would be diminished. I think the amount of time required would be the equivalent of a normal phone conversation. Rather than talking to mom or dad while visiting the Eiffel Tower, a student could use Facetime (provided he or she as well as the recipient of the Facetime call had an Apple Facetime product) and speak to mom or dad, face-to-face, in front of the Eiffel Tower, LIVE. That is one of the best things about Facetime- it is global. If anything, I think this sparks interest- it conveys the fact that study abroads are a REAL experience and *NOT* an out-of-sight, out-of-mind experience for those who are not fortunate enough to travel. For donations, a quick Facetime experience turns the would-be-donor into a definite donor.

  7. Jim Stellar says:

    Many campuses are wondering about teaching with technology. This is a discussion of experiential educating with technology. Notice it is also between peers where some of the best reflection operates…and obviously I think reflection on the experience is key to integrating it with one’s academic program. So, the question is what program (you mention video blogging, Facetime, Facebook, twitter, YouTube) and how do we manage it so that real reflection occurs? Or do we manage it at all? Maybe we just set the students up (e.g. with iPads) and encourage it to happen. What structure do you think would work?

    I would love to hear what you guys think and anyone else who wants to jump in.

  8. Tina P. says:

    Interesting you use the term “real” reflection. I think reflection is… in the mind of the beholder. For the student overseas, it’s not necessarily a reflection, but a sharing of the experience. I think it’s not until after the experience that reflection occurs.

    Skydiving has been an amazing experience. I had my first skydive videotaped. I watched that clip over and over and over again throughout the next month and that made the experience even more meaningful. I was able to notice aspects of the skydive I wasn’t aware of, for example, the fact we were falling so fast that my hands looked as wrinkled as a 90 year old. Having that technology available helps aid the reflection component and sharing component, but in different ways.

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