By Christopher Penello

When I accepted my position as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) to Italy in June of 2019, being evacuated during a global pandemic was not part of the plan. Yet here we are in the midst of a global health emergency: I have been forced to leave Campobasso, a town that I have come to love deeply, without the chance to say a proper goodbye. Despite my disappointment at having to leave early, however, I cannot help but be filled with a deep gratitude for the chance to teach so many intelligent and driven students, immerse myself so fully into another country’s culture and school system, and to make friends who will never cease to be part of my life.

When I first told my friends and family that I would be spending a year teaching English in Italy, the first question they usually asked was, “Where in Italy? Rome? Milan? Naples?,” to which I enthusiastically responded, “No, Campobasso!” If you’ve never heard of the city of Campobasso or the Molise region of Italy, don’t worry, you’re not alone. In fact, Molise, the second smallest region in Italy, is little known even by Italians. There is actually a running national joke that, Molise non esiste (Molise doesn’t exist). This joke originates both from the small size of the region and the fact that it used to be part of the neighboring region of Abruzzo and thus has had to put some effort into reclaiming its identity. After spending the past six months there, however, I can confidently report that Molise not only exists but is a region very much alive with culture, history, and, of course, fantastic local cuisine.

While there are many sights worth seeing and dishes worth tasting, my favorite part of Molisan and broader Italian culture is pranzo (the traditional Sunday lunch). With just a few exceptions, nearly all stores and businesses in traditional Italian towns close on Sundays while families and friends get together to share a long afternoon meal, usually consisting of some appetizers, a pasta dish, a meat dish, and then followed by fruit, dessert, and finally espresso. While the food was always fresh and delicious, I was most touched by the hospitality and warmth with which I was welcomed into people’s homes. During my time in Italy, not one Sunday went by without an invitation to pranzo. My collogues, most whom are around my parents age, treated me like their figlio americano (American son) immediately upon my arrival. From being invited to eat amazing food until I was beyond full, to exchanging recipes and stories at the dinner table, to being included on post-pranzo walks and excursions, I was always made to feel like part of the family. For the time I spent with these gracious people, I will be forever grateful.

When I first arrived in Italy, however, I wasn’t sure that I would be able to make friends so quickly, or how I would relate to my students. To tell the truth, when I began my role as an ETA at Campobasso’s Istituto Tecnico per il Settore Tecnologico “G. Marconi,” a public high school specializing in science and technology, I was very nervous. As a liberal arts student who almost failed his Computer Science class, I was a bit worried when I learned that I had been assigned to a technical school. How was I going to connect with students who studied electronics, chemistry, and biology, topics I knew almost nothing about? However, after a few months of conversations, field trips, presentations, and even a television interview of myself and a few students with a local news station during our school’s Open House, I cannot imagine a school that would have been a better fit. I have met some truly extraordinary students, some of whom have a level of English that rivals many Americans. Not only have I been able to watch students develop their language and communication skills, but they have also given me demonstrations in their labs, taught me some Molisano dialect, and brought me fresh products from their farms and villages.

In addition to English grammar and culture, students at our school also study something called “mirco-language,” or technical terms and texts that are specific to their specializations such as chemistry or biology. In these courses, teachers of the techinical subject usually partner with one of the English teachers to design a technical lesson entirely in English. On my last day at Istituto Marconi, the students from the fourth-year chemistry class were kind enough to include me in their lesson. Knowing very little about chemistry, I mostly helped with pronunciation until the students decided that they were going to teach me some chemistry. I sat and listened to their explanations (entirely in English) and by the end of the lesson, I had managed to name a carbon chain! While this example is just one of many, I think it illustrates how my relationship with my students was not a strict teacher-student dynamic, but really consisted more of conversation, listening, and participating together in all that the school had to offer.

Though my job description was to teach English language and American culture, I have done much more learning than teaching this year. I have learned from my colleagues and friends, many of whom I now refer to as my “Italian family,” and most of all from my students, who so graciously and generously shared with me their culture and lives. Spending these last six months in Italy as a Fulbrighter and teacher has been the privilege of lifetime and is an experience that I will absolutely never forget.

Now that I have returned to New York City, I feel lucky that modern technology is allowing me to stay in touch with my students and friends. Italy remains one of the hardest hit countries by COVID-19, and I know that this is a difficult time for the Italian people. As I reflect upon my time in Italy and look forward to beginning my Master’s degree program next year, I realize that I will not be the same student or person I would have been if I had not spent this time in Italy and, for that matter, if I had not experienced the abrupt departure caused by the pandemic. In addition to all of the cultural and linguistic lessons I’ve learned, my experience has reminded me of the importance of being open and listening to what others have to say. This is perhaps both the simplest and yet most vital takeaway from my Fulbright experience. I plan to carry this lesson with me through graduate school and beyond.

Edited by Alex Finn-Atkins