Fourteen students traveled to four cities in Italy during a J-Term study abroad trip. The three-credit course was titled “Violence and Women's Rights in Italy” and was heavily geared towards students majoring in Women’s studies, but the group included majors from disciplines like psychology and American Indian Studies. The Statesman interviewed three of the 14 participants about their trip, which cost around $6,200 and lasted two weeks. The students learned about the domestic violence situation in Italy and discovered that it is just as much of a problem there as it is in the U.S. However, they also saw ways that Italy was helping survivors in ways that the U.S. doesn’t.
Like any study abroad trip, the students not only have to pay for room, board and travel, they also have to pay tuition. This can be a serious financial burden — one that many students are never able to make, even with financial aid. For students who are able to afford it, the experience can be a cornerstone of their undergraduate education. But some students find that the costs don’t reflect the experience and education they were hoping to receive.
1) What is your year and major(s)/minor(s)?
Taylor Zare: Junior. Double major in communication and women’s studies.
Shawna Suomi: Junior. Women's studies major, undecided minor
Katie Moret: Junior. Psychology major and art minor
2) Have you ever traveled abroad before?
Zare: I have never traveled abroad before Italy, though I have always made it a goal to do
Suomi: I have not. I have traveled a lot in the States and went on day trips to both Mexico and Canada, but never anything this big.
Moret: I studied abroad in Salamanca, Spain through UMD’s Language and Culture in Spain trip the June after my freshman year, and I traveled to Puerto Rico with my family when I was in junior high.
3) Why did you decide to go on this trip?
Zare: This trip in particular intrigued me because I wanted to look further into the
differences with violence against women in other countries.
Suomi: I went specifically for the educational aspect — I wanted to learn about violence against women in Italy. I have never been one of those people that fantasized about traveling to Italy. To be honest, the trip could have been to Iowa and I still would have gone just to learn. I was so interested in the course for that reason. I don't want it to seem like I wasn’t excited to go to Italy— the location just wasn't my top priority.
Moret: I decided to go on this trip because it sounded absolutely perfect for me. I’m interested in pursuing a career in art therapy following my undergrad, and I’m particularly interested in working with women. A trip that combined both of those interests and passions, as well as my love of traveling, was something I couldn’t pass up.
4) You stayed in an international house for women: what was that like?
Zare: The International House for Women was a very humbling experience. Women from
all over come to this specific hostel to stay comfortably while exploring Rome. It was
interesting sharing a room with eight other women, two of which were women from other parts
of the world. It was a very inclusive environment and a place I would definitely go back to.
Suomi: I really loved the art on the walls and the shelves of feminist books. I didn't necessarily like staying there as long as we did, but I loved the concept of the hostel. The location of the hostel was pretty awesome, too.
Moret: Staying in the women-only hostel was an interesting experience. There were posters and artworks inside that represented empowering women, and it felt like an atmosphere where women were made to feel comfortable, safe and at home. I’ve never stayed in any other place like it.
5) What was your favorite city to visit and why?
Zare: My favorite city was Venice, primarily because of its beauty — it is literally a city on
water, how cool is that? Venetian people are very inviting and friendly as well. Our
gondolier Sebastian was awesome.
Suomi: This one is hard for me. I liked each city for different reasons. If I were to live in Italy, I would choose Florence. It was pretty calm, and I liked the experience I had there. Rome was too huge and touristy for me — but it was beautiful. Venice was so fun. Though, I don't know that I would go back. I guess I'd say my favorite city was Florence ... I just liked the environment better. It seemed more clean and a bit more put-together. I don't know. Next I would say Verona.
Moret: My favorite city was definitely Florence. It was so beautiful and there is so much history there. I loved walking along the river, especially at night, and I loved the Florence Cathedral. The city felt welcoming and like a place I could live in.
6) How did the culture in Italy differ from the U.S.?
Zare: Italians are not nearly as rushed as Americans; they definitely live day-to-day and
make time for their midday cappuccinos. It was rare to see women working in Italy, even
as servers at restaurants/cafes.
Suomi: Everyone is much more aggressive there. The driving is a good example of this. People seem to get very irritated with drivers or walkers that take their time. Everyone seems to be in a hurry. Also, in restaurants, you must ask for the check. They feel it’s rude to bring you the check, because it's like they are forcing you out. I noticed that in a lot of places the waiters and waitresses would stand around and stare at you while you ate. I hated that. It was weird not tipping. I often wanted to tip and almost felt guilty not tipping, but it’s just because I wasn't used to it. Also, the Italian breakfast was a lot different for me. They eat a lot of croissants and dry biscotti-like bread. And, of course, cappuccino. And I can't forget to mention the fashion and style ... Everyone looks put-together at all times. I never once saw people walking around in gym clothes. It stressed me out to think that people take time to get ready just to leave the house for 5 minutes.
Moret: The Italian culture is much more laidback. No one in Italy feels the need to rush everywhere and get everything done as quickly as possible. When they go out to eat, they take the time to enjoy the company of their family or friends rather than eat, pay the bill and leave. The people there are also incredibly friendly and welcoming. They will chat and laugh with you, even if you’re a complete stranger.
7) In what ways (if any) was the culture similar?
Zare: Italy is culturally similar to the United States in a sense that it is still very much
patriarchal. Men are certainly still dominant, as it appeared, while the women are
submissive in heterosexual relationships.
Suomi: Honestly, I feel like there were just as many similarities as there were differences. It didn't feel too ... foreign? It was a culture shock, but nothing unbearable.
Moret: The Italian and American cultures are similar in that they both, unfortunately, do not provide equality for women. Both cultures are trying to improve on that, but there are several ways in which women struggle in both Italy and America.
8) Were there any particular challenges you faced during the trip?
Zare: Other than the language barrier, a challenge I faced during the trip was adjusting to
the aggressive driving. There were many times I held my breath crossing the street, even
while the crosswalk sign was on. Roads are definitely less patrolled by police.
Suomi: Yes. Absolutely, yes. At first I did not like the trip ... I was very homesick. I hated being seven hours ahead of the ones I loved back home. I had a panic attack one night. Also, I'm a very picky eater, which was hard to deal with when I had a server that didn't speak any English. I often got frustrated when there was a language barrier — though it didn't happen too often. Also, I didn't like dealing with all of the people on the street trying to either A) sell you stuff or B) ask for money. I have a hard time saying no.
Moret: The language barrier was slightly frustrating at times. When I’ve been outside the country before, I’ve been to Spanish-speaking countries. I’ve studied Spanish before, so I never had to worry too much about not being able to communicate with people or understand menus or signs or anything. While Italian and Spanish are closely related, they’re still not the same and not having much knowledge of the country’s native language was a little frustrating. For the most part though, many Italians do speak English to some degree.
9) Did you have any prior experiences or classes that prepared you for this trip?
Zare: Being a women’s studies major has certainly prepared me for this trip, as my
knowledge and all-around understanding of a patriarchal society definitely came in handy.
Suomi: Yeah, volunteering at CASDA allowed me to make many comparisons while we visited the shelters. And, of course my women's studies classes.
10) What did you learn about domestic assault issues in Italy? Are there any differences or similarities with the U.S.?
Zare: Most of the shelters we visited, women suffering from domestic abuse stayed up to
6 months recovering and undergoing therapy, while in the United States most only stay
about 6 weeks. I definitely feel as though 6 weeks is not enough time to be spent receiving
therapy, especially considering many women go back to their abusers shortly after.
Suomi: I literally learned 4 things about domestic violence in Italy. I'm quite pissed about it, to be honest. But, here's what I did learn: 1. Women rarely go back to their abusers after leaving the shelters. 2. Shelters house women (and children) for months longer than we do in America. It allows them to fully heal and recover and get back on their feet. 3. Men are not allowed to work in or stay at the shelters. They believe in a completely all-women team, I guess you could say. Whereas, at CASDA, men are allowed to both work at and stay in shelter. 4. Italian shelters tend to have very few rooms in them. It seems like the shelters here are bigger.
Moret: The thing that stuck out for me about the way Italy deals with domestic assault in its shelters is that the women who get away from their abuser and to a shelter are allowed to stay there for much longer than in the U.S. I think the U.S. could learn something from this system where women are given more time to really pick themselves up and build new lives away from their abusers.
11) What are you planning to do with what you learned?
Zare: I plan to further my experience and what I have learned from this course by
becoming a PAVSA — Program for Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault — advocate.
Suomi: Do my own research, because I'll probably learn more that way.
Moret: I’m planning to use the information I learned while in Italy in my life here. My trip made me even more interested in working with women in the future and in helping others like I saw the women working in the shelters in Italy do.
12) What role did art therapy play in supporting survivors of domestic or sexual assault?
Zare: Art therapy served as a release and a means of gaining strength for women who
were dealing with or dealt with domestic and/or sexual assault.
Suomi: The only time we talked about art therapy was at a hospital for mentally ill patients.
Moret: Art therapy was used to give survivors a means of expression that allowed them the freedom and independence that they were denied by their abusers. Art therapy was a form of catharsis that helped the survivors heal.
13) Do you have any advice for students considering a study abroad trip?
Zare: Expect your life to change and your mentality to expand.
Suomi: Make sure your course leader is actually prepared and organized and knows what they are doing. I'm angry I spent over $5000 to learn a tiny amount about what I hoped to gain a lot of knowledge about.
Moret: Do it. No one regrets studying abroad, but plenty of people regret not doing it. It’s an incredible experience that will teach you things you can’t learn in any classroom.
BY APRILL EMIG
Senior Staff Reporter