| Payton North
HAMPDEN – Student at Western New England University (WNEU) and Hampden resident Nathan Smith Epaul has recently traveled to Sorrento, Italy with the University on a three–week study abroad program. Now that he’s back, Epaul, his professors and classmates are sharing the experience with others.
WNEU began their study abroad program when the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Saeed Ghahramani, initiated a partnership with WNEU and the Sant’Anna Institute in Sorrento, according to Communication Professor Brenda Garton–Sjoberg. In 2015, Ghahramani asked Garton–Sjoberg if she would be willing to teach the program in the summer of 2016 with Adjunct Professor Rocco Mesiti, who teaches the schools Italian Cultures courses.
Since the programs first trip in 2016, Garton–Sjoberg and Mesiti have brought 76 students across the Atlantic to Italy.
“Teaching in this study abroad program and watching students immerse themselves into the beautiful Italian culture is certainly one of the most rewarding experiences of my teaching career. Professor Mesiti and I hear students say over and over again that this study abroad program is “life–changing.” It's a pleasure to teach in a program you know students will be thinking about for the rest of their lives,” Garton–Sjoberg reflected. “They embrace a new culture, discover new surroundings and form new friendships, all while living and studying in Sorrento. It's not a bad spot to teach.”
While on their trip, students have the opportunity to take classes at the Sant'Anna Institute while immersing themselves in the local culture. According to WNEU's website, students take guided tours of the Amalfi Coast and the Pompeii Ruins, take lessons on the Italian food and wine industry and can visit other historical and cultural sites. Though the trip is only three weeks long, students receive six credits, which converts to two courses.
Epaul calls his time in Italy an “amazing experience” and used it as an opportunity to venture out of his comfort zone.
“I cannot fathom how much fun I had, how many new friends I gained and how much the experience really means to me. I feel that in time I'll gain even more appreciation for the trip and how it actually changed me as a person,” he said.
Epaul continued, “If you had asked me last year at this time if I would have been on a three-week trip to Italy after seeing all of the posts from the previous group, I probably would have said no. In the past few years I have not been as adventurous as I used to be but I feel this is a start to something new. After experiencing a different country for three weeks, I have gained the want to travel and explore. This trip was truly the experience of a lifetime, there's no other way to describe it.”
For three weeks, Epaul traveled around Italy with his classmates–turned–friends and professors. Though it was hard to pinpoint one experience from the trip he enjoyed most, Epaul notes their trip to Pompeii as a favorite since he'd learned much about the ruins growing up.
“One of the coolest parts about going there was that we got to see how the ancient Romans lived, and caught a glimpse of the architecture. We also learned how advanced they actually were, how they had plumbing in their city, and had drainage in the streets as well as a crosswalk for people to walk across,” he shared. “It was cool to see their way of living and knowing that there was life way before our time.”
As a professor, Garton–Sjoberg had a similar struggle to Epaul's: pin–pointing a favorite experience simply can't be broken down to “just one.”
“Trying to select a favorite experience is a tough one to narrow down, because there are so many amazing site visits during our three–week program. We visit Pompeii Ruins, Capri Island, Positano and Ravello. We tour the Amalfi Coast by bus and by boat. In Rome, we walk through the Colosseum and the Vatican. In fact, this year, students had the opportunity to hear the Pope speak and then he drove right past us with our enthusiastic students waving back to him just a few feet away,” she shared.
Professor Rocco Mesiti shared that he believes every day is an opportunity to learn about Italian culture, no matter where they are going.
“A simple walk through an outdoor Italian market is a learning moment. These unique lessons become life-changing experiences for the students. As an educator, being a part of that process is very rewarding,” Mesiti said.
WNEU student Rachel Bauer, of Palmer, traveled to Sorrento with Garton–Sjoberg in 2017. Bauer calls the experience “eye–opening,” and shared that her favorite experience was the trip to Capri due to its breathtaking views.
“I got to venture outside of my comfort zone and learn more about myself all while enjoying delicious and authentic pasta dishes and admiring the gorgeous views from the classroom,” Bauer said. “In my opinion, studying abroad is one of the best experiences a college student can have because you get to immerse yourself into a new culture and learn beyond the classroom.”
Bauer offered words of advice to students who are thinking of studying abroad.
“Do not be afraid to take risks, take hundreds of pictures, but also live in the moment and ask the natives questions. You will learn more from them than you think,” Bauer advised.
Epaul noted that he learned the Italians live a much simpler life than we do in the United States, and he believes that the experience of traveling is worth much more than material items.
Mesiti noted that many of his students are traveling abroad for the first time and are immediately immersed in a different culture. This, he said, increases their cultural awareness and gives them a global perspective, making them a more valuable future employee.
"Globalization is changing the way the world works, and employers are increasingly looking for employees who have cross–cultural competency skills," he explained. Garton–Sjoberg shared an excerpt from Epaul’s final blog post prior to leaving Sorrento, where Epaul shared his mixed feelings toward leaving the country and traveling home.
“I am excited to go home, but I am not excited to leave…Sorrento has taken my heart and made me realize how much I love my Italian roots. Italy is the place to be and I cannot wait to come back…I have made so many new friends and strengthened old friendships. The group that came to Sorrento was full of diversity and we all connected on this trip and had the time of a lifetime together,” Epaul wrote.
To learn more about Western New England's study abroad opportunities, go to https://www1.wne.edu/academics/study-abroad/index.cfm. The University is currently offering full–semester study abroad programs as well as shorter sessions.