For the first time in PHS history, students taking Italian were able to participate in an exchange program, a different experience from the summer tour-based program offered in the past. The trip began on October 24, and students stayed with host families in Princeton’s sister city of Pettoranello, Italy, explored Rome, and returned after ten days of experiencing Italian culture. Students this year gained a different perspective of the country through the homestay—an aspect of the trip that was not included in last year’s program. To complete the exchange, Italian students will be coming to Princeton on April 9 and staying with the Princeton students they hosted in Italy.
The link between many of the Italian families in Princeton and their hometown in Pettoranello, Italy inspired Italian teacher Joe Mazzarella to start organizing the exchange last December. “We thought as appropriately to have a sisterhood, gemellaggio, with the schools, since the two communities already have that connection,” said Mazzarella.
In order to organize the international aspect of the trip, Mazzarella had to establish contact with the linguistic school in Italy that Princeton students would attend. “We began communicating back and forth as well as Skyping to plan out all of the necessities for organizing a cultural exchange program,” he said.
Once the students knew the trip was available, they were able to sign up, fill out the necessary paperwork, and be placed with their host family based on a questionnaire. Once students knew their host families, they contacted each other and started a relationship that will continue throughout the year, as the Italian students come to Princeton in April. “I’d been emailing the girl, and then we started Facebook messaging. Most of the kids had Facebooks; some of them Skyped. We still talk a lot on Facebook,” said Mary Ashley Stough ’15, who stayed with a host family in the nearby town of Isernia. “My favorite part was being able to make new friends with them … They loved us.”
When students arrived in Pettoranello, they were greeted warmly not only by their host families, but also by the whole town and the mayor. “All the host families for the individual Princeton students shot off confetti streamers like New Year’s Eve to welcome the Americans. It was a very big event,” said Mazzarella. “The TV broadcasters interviewed some of our students, and then it aired on TV in Italy a couple of days later.”
The welcome surprised some who were not expecting so much attention from the crowd. “They were all excited to see us, and it was really interesting to see how they reacted to people from other countries coming to their town,” said Gus Binnie ’17.
Because of the homestay aspect of the trip, the students were able to get an in-depth perspective of Italian culture and what it is really like to live there. Mazzarella said, “Ninety to 95 percent of the time of the exchange, they were housed. They were in individual families … living the lifestyle of an Italian as opposed to being a tourist in a hotel … [Students were] able to utilize their Italian skills … and to experience as much firsthand about the culture as possible.”
Students had a chance to improve their language skills while staying with the families. “It [was] an immersion experience, so I learned a lot of vocabulary, and my speaking got a lot more fluid, so it was definitely very educational,” Binnie said.
Students also learned a lot about the day-to-day life of an Italian, such as using public transportation. “We took the metro and the bus often. Public transportation was pretty scary, and [there were] a lot of pickpockets,” said Frankie Cuomo ’15, a student on the trip.
Through attending classes at an Italian school and experiencing the culture, students observed the differences in the education styles and ways of living between the two countries. “It has a much more casual structure … The class I visited was more discussion-oriented … [At the house], I spent a lot of time watching soccer and just really hanging out,” Binnie said.
Princeton students also noted differences in the Italian school schedule. “They go six days a week. They start school around 8:30 and [stay until] around 1:30 three days a week, and 12:30 three days a week,” Stough said.
Additionally, many agreed that the traditional Italian food was a highlight of the trip, whether it was homemade, in a small café on the side of the street, or in a pre-designated restaurant on the itinerary. “I thought it was better when the kids were allowed to find their own places to eat rather than the group because then you [could] find things that you wanted to try. One time I went to a restaurant and had some really, really fantastic bruschetta and penne alla carbonara, which I wouldn’t have had otherwise because that wasn’t on the [itinerary],” Binnie said.
On the last three days of the trip, the students stayed in a hotel in Rome. “We visited the stereotypical touristy spots; we took a bunch of tours around there,” said Hannah Ash ’15.
The trip was unique to every student. Cuomo, for example, had the opportunity to connect with relatives in Italy. “I got to meet my family, [whom] I had never met before,” he said.
The students’ departure was just as special as their welcome. “We were only there for a few days, but they were all crying and very upset when we were leaving,” Cuomo said.
“They were all more emotional than the Americans. They were really upset when we were leaving … and they treated us so well,” Stough said.
The language department has already started its planning for the Italian students’ arrival in April. Russel said, “The Pettoranello Foundation and Dorothea’s House have been really generous with a financial gift and [offered] to give us even more support in the spring when the Italians come.”
Students both here and in Italy are already thinking ahead. “Isernia is this fairly small town in the mountains, and so it’s their dream to come to America and they are really excited to come in April,” Stough said.
Students’ fluency impressed those they met. “I heard from adults we met with that not only were they impressed with the proficiency in Italian of our students, but with their willingness to speak,” Russel said. “This is … very dear to our department’s hearts. We work to develop communicative competence and confidence in speaking the languages.”