Benvenuto a Roma

The Bernardi Campus continues to serve as a fulcrum of academic, spiritual and cultural education for St. Thomas students

“Semper Eadmer” – Always The Same
Despite Romans’ reverence for history, the city motto is a contradiction in practice. Past and present commingle effortlessly like the generations of Italians who stroll the city’s streets together each Sunday afternoon.  With great passion and pride, Romans –  like all Italians – embrace their deep history and yet very much remain citizens of our modern world.

This same juxtaposition is evident on a much smaller scale at the St. Thomas Bernardi Campus. Five years and more than 200 students after the residence opened, its architectural façade is relatively unchanged, while the city’s impact on Rome study-abroad students continues long after they have returned to St. Paul.

Neal Katorosz, one of the first St. Thomas Rome Liberal Arts Semester participants, finds that two years after his semester ended Rome is still very much top-of-mind. “There is always something that triggers my memory: a familiar scent, pasta, a car alarm, riding light rail or even a rainy day.”

St. Thomas’ welcome to Rome did not come without a significant learning curve. The 20,000-square-foot building was purchased in 1999 with the intent to provide St. Thomas academic programs with a home base in one of the most dynamic cities in the world.

The acquisition – made possible by a generous gift from Antonio and Cecilia Bernardi – became a work in progress.  “Imagine having an empty building with 22 bathrooms and sleeping space for 50 guests, but no toolbox, ladder, shower curtains, telephones, carpets, lamps or exit plans,” recalled Marlene Levine, the campus’ first director.  “We had nothing. Niente.”

From these sparse beginnings, the residence was modernized with more than $1 million in renovations, including suitable living space for students and other guests, a chapel, a dining room and a computer lab. Overseeing the renovations was a monumental undertaking under any circumstance, but particularly daunting when you consider that Levine had never before visited Italy, much less spoke the language. To complicate matters, the work had to be done using Italy’s inherently temperamental construction laborers and adhering to the country’s strict renovation codes. “For seven months I had to work daily with our Italian architect and engineer while supervising the work orders of our general contractor,” Levine said.

In fall 2000, 11 Catholic Studies students arrived at the Bernardi Campus with great anticipation, prepared for an educational experience of a lifetime.

Collaborative curriculum
From these humble beginnings, the Bernardi Campus now hosts students from two St. Thomas programs – Catholic Studies and Rome Liberal Arts Semester – and has become a top destination for study abroad. While classes are not held at the residence, each program partners with another university to satisfy academic requirements.

Catholic Studies, which had established a program in Rome two years prior to the purchase of Bernardi, has sent 223 students to study within walking distance of the Vatican. Students attend classes at the Dominican Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, known as “the Angelicum.” It is an affiliation that Catholic Studies Director Dr. Don Briel calls critical to the overall experience and long-term success of the program. “I did not want to create another American program in Rome with American instructors, an American curriculum and American students,” Briel said.

The Angelicum draws students from around the world, and provides St. Thomas students like Kara Koczur with a broader view of Catholicism. “Attending classes at the Angelicum gives me an opportunity to experience the universality of the Church. Students come from all over the world – Denmark, Ireland, Africa – to study here. It’s important for me to see all the different people who share my faith.”

Students also have great respect for the academic pedigree at the Angelicum. John Sandy, one of seven St. John Vianney Seminary students in the program, shifts forward in his chair when he begins to talk about what it means to be a student at the Angelicum. “Some of the greatest Aquinas scholars in the world have taught here. Father Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange taught here for 50 years. John Paul II received a degree from the Angelicum. It’s incredible to realize that I’m studying in some of the same classrooms that he did.”

Sandy’s experience is not an isolated one. Being a student in Rome means having the opportunity to place yourself in the footprints of history. In a single week, Catholic Studies students visited Palatine Hill and peered into Augustus’ “studiolo” from 10 A.D. They attended Mass at St. Peter’s with more than 250 Catholic bishops from around the world as Pope Benedict XVI named five new saints.  And they traveled north to Assisi to witness the final resting place of St. Francis.

The Rome Liberal Arts Semester offers unique learning opportunities each fall. What started as a three-student program in 2003 has grown to 12. Like Catholic Studies, Rome Liberal Arts Semester students live at Bernardi and attend classes elsewhere. A formal relationship with the Rome campus of St. Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Ind., allows students to take courses in archeology, art history, philosophy and theology, among others.

Brodie Mueller had traveled much of Italy with his high school choir after graduation, and knew that he wanted to return to Rome. Mueller is in awe of the history that surrounds him. After a recent field trip to explore Etruscan tombs, he marveled at the significance of the opportunity: “We have so little history in the United States. Then you see these tombs from 6 B.C. and it’s so humbling. We have nothing in our country that can compare.”

Rome and its surrounding countryside provide an unparalleled opportunity for liberal arts students to study archeology and art history from the Pantheon to postmodern, often in the same neighborhood.

Wide-angle education
Opting to study abroad tells a great deal about students. Not only are they willing to suspend many of the daily comforts and friendships they’ve established in St. Paul, but they also must possess an intellectual curiosity about the world around them.

Where students once could effectively learn a trade or prepare for a career in a classroom, they now must put their education in the context of a greater marketplace. World events, such as Sept. 11, the Iraq War and ongoing political and economic changes in former communist countries like Russia and China, have made citizens from all countries acutely aware of our global interdependence. Students realize that to deny this connectivity is to risk losing a thorough understanding of our complex world.

Ann Hubbard, associate director of international education, believes this awareness contributes to the upward trend in study abroad programs at St. Thomas. “Events of the past four years have made students more interested in the world in general,” Hubbard said. “By the time undergraduates receive their diplomas from St. Thomas, nearly 54 percent have studied abroad.” (The national participation rate is 14 percent.) And if a recent survey of first-year students is accurate, the number will likely increase dramatically. Nearly three out of four new students said that they intend to study abroad while at St. Thomas.

So how will traditional academic programs adapt to this new learning environment? “One thing we’re seeing is departments trying to better integrate study abroad into their course offerings,” Hubbard reported. “For example, they might offer a short-term course on a fairly regular basis and/or identify foreign universities where students can complete courses with equivalents here at St. Thomas.” Other examples include diversifying the length of study-abroad options to include January Term and other short-term programs.

Joanie Fischer, who like Mueller is a junior in the Rome Liberal Arts program, believes that it’s important for students to remove themselves from the insular world of a typical four-year degree. “When you study abroad you learn that it’s OK to be scared when you try something new, and that being out of your comfort zone won’t hurt you. You might even learn something new about yourself.”

Thanos Zyngas has been one constant at Bernardi for the last three years. As residence director, he has welcomed many new students through Bernardi’s wrought-iron gates. And while those faces change each semester, Zyngas feels that the purpose for what the students are doing has not. “It is so important to learn about new cultures today,” Zyngas said. “Many students will leave here not only more aware of themselves, but also more aware of how they treat those who are different in their own communities.”

Zyngas held that belief long before he left his previous job at St. Thomas as associate director of residence life. Zyngas, who had worked on St. Thomas’ St. Paul campus since 1996, is a native of Cyprus. “Taking part in a study-abroad program is just one of the many ways that students can become informed about racial and cultural diversity,” Zyngas added.

Non capisco
Buon giorno. Prego. Grazie. Ciao. Three weeks into classes, most students in Rome have picked up at least some rudimentary Italian phrases. Although courses for both programs are taught in English, Catholic Studies students arrive in Rome two weeks before the start of classes to undergo a rigorous three-hours-a-day Italian immersion class. During the semester, a required course in Italian at both St. Mary’s and the Angelicum forces students to make at least a formal effort to understand the local vernacular, although practical application of that newfound vocabulary is left to the students.

While taking the No. 19 tram to classes at St. Mary’s, Mueller, Fischer and their Liberal Arts peers awkwardly exchange new Italian phrases with each other. It is a first step for many toward learning a second language. As the students gain confidence in their language skills, they begin to cobble together multiword sentences to communicate first with their Italian (but English-speaking) professors, and later with local merchants.

Like many Europeans who rely on English-speaking tourists to support the local economy, Italians are far better at communicating in our language than we are in theirs. Perhaps it is another example of Americans expecting others to accommodate their needs. Or it could be that Italians can’t bear to hear another halfhearted effort by an American trying to stumble through the most elementary of phrases.

Whatever the case, language can be a great equalizer. For the first time, many students begin to feel what it’s like to be the “other.” Sometimes that can be uncomfortable. And sometimes you’ll find an Italian who can’t wait to carry on a conversation in English.

“Young Italians, in particular, are interested in conversing in English,” Mueller found. “But sometimes I’ll struggle through ordering a meal in Italian, only to have the waiter respond in English, ‘And what would you like to drink?’” But Romans are often patient and kind to those who at least make an effort to speak their language.

Tactile learning
Great confidence can come in figuring out even the most mundane of tasks in a foreign country: buying the right soap for laundry, figuring out the public transportation system or even how to flush the toilet or turn on lights.

Too often a student’s only formal learning experience is found in the classroom. On a study abroad, students have the opportunity to touch history, to have direct contact with the subjects they are studying.

Dr. Paul Gavrilyuk, St. Thomas assistant professor of theology and faculty director of the Catholic Studies Rome program, finds that teaching within reach of the subject matter can have an impact far beyond the classroom. “Here in Rome, history can be touched and felt, not simply read,” Gavrilyuk said. “It is one thing to describe St. Peter’s ministry and martyrdom. It is altogether different if, along with reading the texts, students can visit Peter’s tomb in the Vatican Necropolis or visualize the probable place of the apostle’s martyrdom in the Circus of Nero while standing on St. Peter’s Square. All such moments add a crucial existential dimension to the students’ learning experience.”

The same experience occurs at the liberal arts field trip to the Etruscan Tombs. When visiting the tombs of the Banditaccia Necropolis (literally “city of the dead”) near Cerveteri, students learn things in a new dimension. Instead of viewing a nondescript slide show of the enormous burial tombs, they are allowed to climb into dozens of the hollowed-stone pods to witness firsthand the subtle differences between sixth- and seventh-century tombs, and understand why specific design features signal changes in beliefs and cultural differences.

Of course, it helps that Italy has taken such a proactive approach to both preserving and providing access to historical sites. Visitors take modern staircases to the tombs. Below, the walls are sealed off and climate-controlled; they can see original wall paintings and get a sense of their importance. “I can talk about these tombs all day, right, but when the students see them and touch them they connect with history,” said one of the tour guides. “They will remember this.”

And for Catholic Studies students, seeing the relics of St. Peter and other saints can have a lasting impact. The reality is that these sacred artifacts often have the most unlikely neighbors. “Where else are you going to find the heart of a saint right across from a McDonald’s?” John Sandy said in near disbelief. “The heart of St. Charles Borromeo – his literal heart – is there in the ambulatory behind the sanctuary at San Carlo al Corso.”

These resonant moments of experiential learning not only change how students expect to learn but also the way teachers teach. “Ancient art bridges the interpretative gap between the past and the present in a way that surpasses the power of the written word,” Gavrilyuk added. “After this trip to Rome, I will never teach my Early Christian Theology course in the same way again.”

At one with history
One of the unique aspects of a study-abroad trip to Rome is the opportunity to experience some of the most memorable events in our time. Consider that Bernardi opened in 2000, a Holy Year of Jubilee. In 2005, St. Thomas students joined hundreds of thousands in St. Peter’s Square to mourn the death of Pope John Paul II, a bittersweet moment that brought to a close the reign of the only pope many of them have ever known. And then, days later, they returned with anticipation of the College of Cardinals’ announcement of a new pope.

These are experiences that most of us witnessed only from afar, filtered through the media. But Bernardi students were there. They had a deep physical and spiritual experience that could happen only in Rome. That is where the impact of study abroad is realized. “Clearly, the students felt not only privileged to be a part of this important history,” Briel said, “but also to become immediately engaged with its implication for their own lives.”

“Bernardi is our home”
Rome has the ability to energize and exhaust, to soothe and to surprise.

On any given afternoon, you can stand on the fourth-floor terrace at Bernardi and take in the ever-present rhythm of daily Roman life. Boats navigate the algae-laden waters of the Tiber, while small groups of locals slowly walk along the sidewalks with their young children in tow. The streets race with Smart cars, graffiti-tagged transit buses and scooters as they engage in an intricate game of bob-and-weave – some speeding to pass only to be caught by the peloton at the next traffic light.

There is a synchronicity here that easily can lull you into a sense of routine, so it’s no wonder that students consider the St. Thomas residence to be much more than a place to study. “Bernardi is our home,” Nathan LaLiberte offered fondly.

The Bernardi Campus provides all students with opportunities for solitude and community. Many take time in the morning for quiet reflection in the Luisa and Dante Seghiere Chapel, a small and simple space that serves as the nexus for spiritual development at the residence. Mass is celebrated every Saturday at  8:30 a.m., and on Sunday evenings there is a candlelit prayer service.

Perhaps one of the most meaningful community traditions established at Bernardi is what has become known as Wednesday Dinner. Each Wednesday, the resident chaplain comes to Bernardi for evening prayer, a Mass, a topical discussion and dinner. All students are invited to this gathering. A recent topic offered by Father Joseph Carola was on debunking The Da Vinci Code. Bernardi’s first chaplain, Father Peter Laird, began the weekly dinners and discussions to encourage student conversations outside of their academic work.

But building a community is not limited to the confines of the residence. LaLiberte finds that the most meaningful time he spends with his Catholic Studies peers happens rather practically. “The 11 of us walk together to the Angelicum each morning. For 45 minutes we have time to talk about school and other experiences we are having. … And then, at the end of the day, we all walk back to Bernardi again.”

Do something worthwhile
When a student inquires about whether or not to participate in a study-abroad program, Ann Hubbard responds without hesitation, “Go! Now is your chance. While studying abroad is about academics, it’s also about learning at every minute of every day.”

At the dedication for the Bernardi Campus, the late Monsignor Terrence Murphy said, “We’re in the city of St. Peter, the first pope … so that our students will get a sense of the whole of Christian culture. Our students will go home with an experience they will keep. We hope you have a sense you’ve done something worthwhile.”

Indeed, the Bernardi Campus has provided a home for hundreds of St. Thomas students over the last five years, and the impact of that experience continues to resonate long after their brief stays.

Meanwhile, our world will continue to evolve and challenge each of us in unpredictable ways. St. Thomas students will keep going to fascinating places in search of themselves and a greater understanding of humanity. And Rome will be here – unchanged and moving forward all at once.

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