Standing in front of the Duomo in Florence with a group of your best friends makes a perfect photo for Facebook or your cell phone. But more importantly, you will remember the experience for the rest of your life. Travelling to Italy, living in residence, studying for credit, and visiting historic sites creates an indelible impression on eager young minds. Since 1986, thousands of students from the Greater Toronto Area have taken part in summer credit courses in Italy offered by Centro Scuola e Cultura Italiana in partnership with the local school boards. Five years ago a new program was begun which sees students spend the fall semester in Italy. This year, even with the challenge of the economic slowdown, registration for the Centro Scuola programs was completed within days of the announcement. This is a program families clearly support.
Alberto Di Giovanni, Director of Centro Scuola, envisioned the first summer credit courses in the 1980s based on the popularity of Italian heritage language classes in elementary schools. Secondary school students, mainly from Italian Canadian families, could expand their language learning by taking courses for credit while immersed in the vibrant life of Italian towns, and their families back home could be certain that the students would be in a safe environment.
The teachers are employed by the partnering school boards, with the study hours carefully monitored. Both the Toronto Catholic District School Board and the York Catholic District School Board provide the academic support required for earning credits towards the Ontario Secondary School Diploma. Centro Scuola is responsible for making the hotel arrangements, ground transportation, planned excursions to museums and historic sites, and generally providing an enriching experience for the participants.
Because of his strong ties with the region of Abruzzo, the tireless Di Giovanni located the core program in residential hotels in Atri and Roseto degli Abruzzi, along the Adriatic coast. Over the years, as the summertime enrollment increased, other locations were added, namely in Friuli, Tuscany, Umbria, le Marche, and Calabria. Italian Canadian families often contact their relatives in Italy when a son or daughter is taking the course. Visits are arranged with uncles, aunts, and cousins, thus extending the total experience of finding roots in Italian soil and making the experience for the adolescents even more vivid and unforgettable.
In the summer of 2009 the hotels in Abruzzo were not available because the Italian government booked them to house the victims of the earthquake that struck the city of l’Aquila and the surrounding towns. The students who had stayed in Atri and Roseto, were among those who had been to l’Aquila to visit the famous castle and the seat of the local government. Many came forward to assist in the fundraising efforts when they saw the appalling images of the earthquake damage. The stories on the news were real to these young people. They had ties with the mountain towns, the gentle people, and the historic buildings, and they were touched emotionally.
The fall semester offers a more intense exposure to life in Italy. The students attend classes daily for the full curriculum of courses, just as they would in their high schools in Canada. This year, due to the relocation from Atri and Roseto, the YCDSB students were housed in Spoleto, in Umbria, and the TCDSB students stayed in Porto San Giorgio, le Marche. In Spoleto classes take place in conference rooms at the hotel. In Porto San Giorgio the hotel is close to the local school for the arts. Arrangements were made to use classrooms in the school building.
A special feature of the fall semester program is the opportunity for parents of the students to join the school group for excursions planned in the month of October. When the parents arrive, there is a rush of hugs and kisses. Even the most self-reliant teenagers are happy to see their parents after so many weeks away. Then the buses fill up with luggage, teachers, students, parents, and Centro Scuola staff. Off they go to see Rome and Florence, Siena and Venice, with stops in Ferrara and Assisi. The students are given assignments based on the locations they visit. The chance to enjoy travelling outside of their school setting, and viewing the gorgeous countryside, breaks their routine. This is their time to explore new places, see famous sights, and shop for Made in Italy shoes, clothes, and gifts.
Alberto Di Giovanni has been recognized by the Italian government with the title of Grand Ufficiale for promoting the Italian language and culture for more than three decades. “I love my work,” he says with engaging enthusiasm. “It means a lot to watch the students as they enter St. Peter’s Basilica or gaze upon Florence from the Piazza Michelangelo. Just knowing that they will remember this experience for years gives me great satisfaction.”
For the thousands of young people who have joined the Centro Scuola trip over the years, the memories will live on. For many, their cultural heritage has been firmly implanted. What they see may result in further choices, such as the student who took art history at university because she had been to Florence. Perhaps of equal value are the friendships that develop on these trips. La vita è bella! For more information visit www.centroscuola.ca.
Caroline Morgan Di Giovanni lives in Toronto, where she volunteers for a number of arts organizations, and babysits her grandson, David Alberto. She edited two anthologies of Italian Canadian writers, in 1984 and in 2006. Her first book of poems appeared in 2008.
First published in Accenti Magazine, Issue 17.