“Withdrawing to gain strength”: A Senior's reflection of studying abroad

Studying abroad in Orvieto, Italy can be an intimidating thought for undergraduate students because of its seemingly foreign, remote nature. Likewise, traveling to a place like Italy can be challenging for some because of its diverse population and religious cultural setting. However, for Gordon students, as well as many other college students, studying abroad has become an integral part of the learning experience. Many institutions like Gordon have tried to incorporate study abroad programs, such as Orvieto based on the foundations of academic programs and directories built into their curriculums, while at the same time, students’ desires to study abroad have only continued to increase.

One might desire to study abroad because they believe it looks good on a college resume or job application. While others study abroad because they think it will help them grow in their faith and academics. Regardless of why one would want to study abroad, the act itself can be very beneficial for college students. The town of Orvieto, situated in a very small quaint place, precariously perched upon a cliff side, has served as home for the many Gordon students who have studied there. And the program has only continued to increase in popularity and enhance the lives of Gordon students over the years.

It is important to understand how study abroad programs like Orvieto have developed and evolved here at Gordon. The birth of the program simply began with a collaboration of Dr. John Skillen, and Gordon’s Art Department Director Bruce Herman’s ideas surrounding the realm of Dante and intense art devotions. Dr. Skillen, the founder of the program provided some insights on the subject saying, “I wanted something for my students to be able to engage with and read Dante, and Bruce Herman wanted the same for his art students. One example we’ve discovered is the connected themes among big epic poems, Dante comes along and completely digested while changing those earlier ethics, John Milton in the 17th century wrote a long epic about the fall of Adam and Eve, everyone who read those or Licies was still in the early 1900s was still aware of those so you could recognize illusions, and continuity and change throughout a traditional life.” For Dr. Skillen, he really valued his students to be able to read Dante with curiosity and wonder, while Bruce Herman wanted his artists to engage with artwork appropriately.

However, Dr. Skillen mentioned how difficult it is to convey these ideas to the likes of our generation, particularly college students. “The issue was that the students didn’t get it. Most of us don’t get it or are not as equipped to read and understand this material. Bruce and I think that there is a loss when that fabric gets broken down and torn apart, but neither then nor now, were we nostalgic, because you have the chance to reconfigure them in different ways. We find it unfortunate that our younger generation didn’t know how to read or respond to literary or art pieces, or weren’t in touch with their roots.”

Dr. Skillen ultimately wanted these questions to be answered. The saga continued with him saying, “We wanted to do something about that, we wanted to get our students to be able to read virgules, while understanding that Dante’s principles serve the same meaning. Myself and Bruce really wanted our students to be informed by this. So students can look at artwork and read Dante in the sense that they know it.” These two questions really led to the developing of the idea, and eventually the idea of a program moving forward.

The founder illustrated how the Orvieto program was not something that just developed overnight, that there were many different factors that played a role in creating the program. Dr. Skillen and Bruce Herman had worked closely with a group of artists in Florence for a month developing an art portfolio with prints. “The seed of the Orvieto semester occurred in the early 1990s when I led the seminar and spent a lot of time with students in Florence.”

However, one of the things Dr. Skillen found while going on this part time trip was “A month isn’t enough, we weren’t settled in a place where the students could become the life of a town. It is one thing to look at a work of art, but we came to the conclusion that when and where students get into the community, that this is a more meaningful experience.” Dr. Skillen felt that the students needed more time to experience and appreciate a place like Italy than what was provided for them before.

A simple encounter that Dr. Skillen and Bruce Herman had with a woman named Erika Bizzari at a mass in the Duomo, also contributed to the development of the program. “Bruce and I visited Orvieto for the first time together in 1993. Bruce and some other artists worked for a month in Florence making those prints for a portfolio. Erika had done her graduate studies in Art History back in the 1950s and then moved to Orvieto, she was very nice, Bruce and I expressed interest in starting a program at Gordon, and Erika said she could help us”. In light of the many curiosities that Professor Herman and Skillen had, along with Erika Bizzari, the Gordon In Orvieto program was officially brought to fruition at Gordon College.

Although it is valuable to explain how the program developed, it is also important to discuss its location. The Convento Dei Servi has not only served as home to nuns in the past, but to many Gordon students who have lived there. However, the important thing to recognize is the historical significance of the convent. And Agnes R. Howard, former History and English professor at Gordon, and previous attendee of the program, provides a nice account on the subject through her read Il Convento Dei Servi saying, “What we see when we walk out of the convent gate is not just the Italy of Christendom, a church on every corner and a nativity scene in every shop window, but European secularization in fits and starts. The monasteries welcoming Gordon students and guests were violently closed by French troops, Napoleon’s forces, then the Italian state, were forced to find a way to flourish when culture no longer deferred to scripture and prayer was counted of little public use.” She explained how they had many obstacles, including those imposed by town, politics, culture, and weather. “Our very presence in vacated monastic spaces testifies to the difficulty of this renovation.”

Howard not only expresses how difficult the history of the place was at the time, but also how beneficial it is for students to learn about art. “Art creates another significant link between Gordon College’s part of the globe and the Serviette monastery in Orvieto. In a lush eclectic gallery of the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum in Boston hangs a five-panel polyptych of the Virgin and Saints — a piece from the Church of the Servi in Orvieto.” Howard’s account, along with many others experiences, shows how the convent is not just a place of historical significance, but a peaceful and elegant place for Orvieto’s Gordon students to reside during the semesters.

The courses offered through the Orvieto program have changed from when the program first developed in 1993. Professor Herman gave insight saying, “When we first started the courses there, there weren’t choices. All students took the same classes. That changed as the program continued and the faculty members who were willing to teach, offered more options. What started as a studio program in Orvieto has gradually developed into a more liberal arts program but still keeps the studio art as the main focus. It has changed over the years to accommodate students with a wide variety of majors and the professors who were willing to teach the program as well.”

Gordon’s Art Department Director illustrated how the Orvieto semesters weren’t always constructed or organized in a certain way, so they would have to adjust accordingly. He continued saying, “ I went to San Giovenale, we also had San Lodavico which was where the program’s classes were originally located. We weren’t always able to afford certain materials so that would affect how we sculpted or painted during semesters”. The ability to access certain materials was something the Orvieto program at times struggled with. And it certainly took a while for those to improve as they continued to move forward.

Another very critical factor that Professor Herman mentioned was how the basis of the program has also been quite spiritual. “I think the program is specifically about joining together the academic enterprise with a spiritual formation. The students begin to internalize the spiritual formation. I think the program is built upon the acclamation of faith along with pursuit of spiritual knowledge. The purpose is essentially to do that, produce wisdom, by weaving knowledge learned together with our faith. It is exciting to see how going to a program like this affects students and how they can be a servant to others. How will they interpret this program long after they leave Gordon?” For Herman, these questions along with many others have continued to develop along with the contribution of Dr. Skillen.

The Gordon In Orvieto program for years has been made to fit the curriculum, and meet the spiritual and creative needs of Gordon students, particularly those students with Arts and Humanities Majors. Professor Matthew Doll, the director of the Orvieto program, provided some insight on this subject saying, “With a few occasional modifications, the program has largely maintained the same curriculum. We balance the course offering between studio art and the humanities. After the first month, students choose which courses they want to pursue. For each student these decisions are related to different factors such as required course credits for their majors or their chosen electives.” However, Professor Doll stressed the importance of how often it is that students choose to take courses here that they have not been able to take on campus, regarding the unique circumstances as the right opportunity to do so. The opportunity of taking a course in a foreign country that can count towards one’s major is something most students, if not everyone, can’t ignore.

Then arises the question of who should teach the courses during the semesters. And as Professor Doll mentioned, although can be quite difficult, it is very much a collaborative effort between himself along with Mark Stevick and the staff at Gordon. “Recruiting teachers is one of the most challenging tactical dimensions to the Orvieto program organization. There is an important, open, dialogue between the Gordon offices in Italy and at main campus in MA, particularly on matters regarding the recruiting and staffing of teachers for the semesters.”

Another important factor was Professor Doll didn’t want the professors to merely teach and inform the students, he wanted them to share in the community life with the students. “The other and very critical level is where visiting instructors play a vital role in the community life. I’m looking for somebody who can participate in translating a very forward focused vision with their subject matter, and that they have a clear and intense devotion to their subject and that they will trust that the students will enter into understanding that subject matter in the present tense.” Having a very thorough understanding of their work, while engaging with the students are two ingredients that Professor Doll really looks for in a professor to teach the courses in Orvieto.

Professor Doll’s philosophy of how he wants to teach has served a similar purpose in his recruitment of professors, and has never changed for students who participate in the program. One of the things Professor Doll deeply values is teaching students about artwork. “It is the mutual exchange of trust and dialogue. It is the student willing to take a risk for their work, but also to understand the work of others. I love when students’ vision widens to the point that it exceeds their ability to articulate it into language, and their ability to expand their vision into visions that other people have.”

For the Program Director, it is not just a student taking a risk for their work, but seeing the enjoyment of the students when their work is complete. He continued saying “I love being in communication with young people and their visions. I love seeing students exceeding their expectations and seeing themselves surprised, hearing, articulating, making and creating something. I love seeing people push themselves from their boundaries and having students exceed their expectations.” Understanding art in a much greater context, while teaching students are two principles Professor Doll has really has valued in his teaching.

One of the most challenging principles the program enforces is its limited wifi usage for students, which in a remote place like Orvieto, can be quite difficult for students to adapt to. However, for Professor Doll, this is just another vital ingredient for the program experience because it allows students to be present within the space. “They can’t be fully present when there is this distance that the technology gives to them. The limited internet access in its own way, if we didn’t have that restriction students would be constantly on it all the time, they would feel the need to be in two or three places at once, instead of just being fully present.”

The Program Director acknowledged how difficult it can be to impose this challenging policy upon students who may feel the constant need to use it. “They are misleading in that way and even can be harmful, misunderstandings of the value of the technology, making it seem like we are available to everyone. We prioritize not having wifi because of these things, we want to inhabit time and constitute everything wifi”. For Professor Doll, the use of wifi doesn’t enhance students engagement, it detracts it, and it is another very critical factor of the program.

Each semester, a unique group of individuals come to study in this place. Another one of the many principles Professor Doll values over each semester is the intentional community aspect of the program. While living with nineteen other students in a remote place can be quite difficult at times, Professor Doll finds this to be another very critical factor of the living space. One in particular, was what many program attendees would call, the introductions. “Shared narratives is essential to community. Single dominant narratives is a lot less interesting for a community. In order for us to take everyone for who they are as well to let the community flourish, as a program director I want people to introduce themselves throughout the course of the semester.”

Professor Doll deeply values the introductions because it not only gives students a chance to share things about themselves, but it brings the group closer together in a more intimate way. “Sharing life is about risk. It is never risk free, it is never that safe, you have to be willing to trust the people that you are sharing with. It should enhance the communication within the community, it should only open further the conversations that we are set to accomplish.” The essential aspect of intentional community is just another important factor the program possesses.

When asked how the community aspect of the program differs from Gordon’s main campus in MA, Professor Doll simply responded with “I think the community aspect differs dramatically primarily because students have chosen to leave very familiar and safer social environments of home country, campus, social group, and have “chosen voluntarily displacement” for the purpose of living with a group of other people who they do not know and don’t have the ability to control.”

Professor Doll stressed how essential this is in encountering a new place like Orvieto because it is very much a starting and an evolving point. “Community life is not a trend or a fad, or fashion, community is a way of sharing life. When done in the right spirit and intention, I believe it’s an amplified way of living that encourages us to live more fully for others, not for ourselves. It should propel us into the lives of others and their communities.” Like the introductions, the intentional community aspect of the program is essential to Professor Doll, and it is only magnified when people participate in a program like Orvieto.

Wheaton College student Katie Bracy shared her testimony of the intentional community aspect of the program. “I learned that you can’t shy away from conflict. It is a natural part of growing together. It has to be addressed when it happens, especially living in a convent with 19 other people where there is not really an option for escape when conflict happens. I also learned the importance of knowing your environment well in assessing needs of a community. In light of depending on the people to get around and function, I had to ask questions and learn more about our home.” Bracys account testifies how this aspect can be seen in a practical way.

Michelle Arnold Paine, another previous attendee of the program, also testified to the community aspect of the town through her story entitled Elisa Lardani Marchi. One of the things Paine emphasized was how the townspeople of Orvieto did not treat their visitors as mere spectators or tourists, they invited them in, they generally cared for new people. And this was very reflective of her worship experience in the Duomo. She says, “I had never experienced prayer in this way before singing improvisational melodies, then falling silent as one person’s prophetic song without words floats above the rest. Or the clatter of someone (or several people) speaking in tongues drowning out the music of the guitar, suddenly ending with a proclaiming of God’s Word revealed in Scripture.” Paine testified how this form of worship with others in the Duomo ultimately brought her closer among the town’s people. “I was suspicious, cautious of this new way of worship, of the emotional power in the room. But I was fascinated. I could not doubt the love in the eyes and in the lives of my new friends.” Paine’s account not only testifies to how the townspeople welcome in new visitors, but how they adopt them into their family.

Although the town of Orvieto may feel contained by the cliff, that doesn’t mean one can’t leave and travel to other places. Just an hour train ride away from Rome and Florence, students can find value in their travel experiences as well. Gordon Alumni Peter Knechtle spoke on his travel experiences saying “I definitely enjoyed the sense of freedom, we only had classes from 9 to noon Monday through Thursday, that not only gave us every afternoon free, but also every Friday off in addition to the weekend. This shifted the focus that school has on grades and academics. It really introduced a more intense and devotional type of learning. And that’s what I think the typical learning environment can’t provide.”

For the Gordon Alumni, he really valued his travel experiences because he was able to learn things outside of the classroom. “You are almost learning more outside of the classroom then you are inside of the classroom. Due to having the Fridays off I had a lot of free time with my three day weekend, whether it was in Italy or in other countries.” Knechtle’s account, like many others at Gordon testifies to how the Orvieto program can benefit one in their travels throughout the region just as much as their academics.

The Orvieto program is undeniably a spiritual experience. Not only because it has some of the oldest cathedrals in the world, but it allows students to experience the Catholic faith in a place of such rich history and tradition. Professor Doll has always valued students who articulate and engage with the Catholic religion. “For me, it starts with the church. If you have only been in a mono culture situation, you need to find ways to see the word through the eyes of other people. Encountering other religious traditions is fundamental. The world and religion is too fragile to not see how people have cultivated, expressed and experienced belief.”

Professor Doll explains how essential this is to experience the Catholic faith because it is very much a unity between the Protestant and Catholic faiths. “The Protestant and Catholic faiths, for me, mean the same thing. There is entirely too much that we share as faith traditions within the history of the church. It is essential that someone who is Protestant understands the Catholic mass in the same way that a Catholic should understand a Protestant tradition. It is a shared tradition, they should take time to appreciate each others form of worship and traditions.”

Emma Wagner, a senior Studio Art student at Gordon spoke on her religious encounters in the classroom and in the church saying “It was interesting when we talked about the role of the Virgin Mary a lot when we were working on the “Mary” piece of our group art project, what is her place in scripture but also in the church versus Christ. It was interesting for me because I had a background in Catholicism but am now practicing as a non-denominational Christian. It was interesting to see that difference of whether or not one viewed Mary as sinless and a divine being to pray to which is the Catholic but not the Protestant viewpoint.”

Similarly, encountering several works of art, specifically different depictions of Christ, allows students to explore and renew their faith in God and Christianity. Knechtle testifies to this idea as well saying, “One of the things that really stood out to me in Italy was the representation of the crucifixion in Italian art and European art. It’s easy to notice that much of the depictions if not all of the depictions of Christ in Renaissance art, are the depictions of Christ’s suffering on the cross. It shows the emphasis that Catholicism places on the crucifixion. The Catholic focus compared to the Protestant focus of the Resurrection tells the viewer a lot about what Catholics were focusing on prior to the Reformation, focusing more on the suffering, than on the Resurrection. The Reformation movement of emerging Protestants were focused more on the Resurrection, than on the crucifixion or suffering. That’s why certain pieces don’t have Christ on the cross.” Similar to his experiences in the Duomo, Knechtle also explained how one can encounter God and articulate religious themes in the same manner through artwork.

Wheaton College Alumni Karen Bergman spoke on her experiences in Orvieto as an undergrad and the importance of learning the native language. “I most enjoyed being able to go anywhere in town and be able to listen to the language being genuinely spoken all around me. It’s the best way to learn! I went to the 6pm Vespers service at the Buon Gesu cloistered monastery almost every evening as a student, and the repetition was so helpful for learning and being able to sing along.”

For the Wheaton College Alumni, learning other languages was helpful in learning Italian because it allowed her to recognize similarities between them. “Through high school I had basic courses in French and Spanish, so I knew the basics of verb conjugation and those helpful bits of learning a language. The language that I did my competency in at Wheaton was American Sign Language, and while initially I didn’t see connections to it helping me with the Italian language, I realize now that it made me much more away of nonverbal cues in communication and, ultimately, it taught me to hone my listening skills.” Bergman’s account illustrates how learning the native language in Orvieto can benefit one in their interactions with others.

For others, they really appreciated the change in food preparation from a typical meal in the Lane Student Center. Dan Simonds, a senior Communication Arts student at Gordon spoke on the food saying “ It is definitely fresher. Orvieto is close to wine country namely but there is just a number of farms in the surrounding Orvieto community, so the food is always fresh. We volunteered on a farm and there is a fine market with fresh ingredients and that shows what is prepared on the food. It is not something you see here, it is not common on a college campus especially at Gordon, and you’ll also find pretty unique foods.” Simonds also explained how certain foods in America can be rather comical in how it is perceived by Italians. “the Orvietan kids laughed when we mentioned chicken parmesan because it wasn’t something they were familiar with there.”

Jenna Good, a previous attendee and Gordon alumni spoke on her experiences in Orvieto as an undergraduate saying, “I traveled throughout Italy during my time here and was grateful for the experiences that I had with those that I spent time with from my program.” The Gordon alumni also explained how studying in Orvieto as an undergrad, eventually motivated her in becoming an RA for the program. “I love being able to be present for the students, crossing paths in these few months, but knowing that there is a reason that our lives are merging at this time. I find great joy in being able to assist and advocate for the students here, from small practical tasks to the greater existential questions of purpose and vocation.” Goods account, along with several other members of the staff just testify to many of these things they hope to achieve during each semester for the sake of the students.

The Gordon In Orvieto program has also allowed students to articulate certain preconceptions they have had about the place of Orvieto, and evaluate those upon their return to the US. Houghton College student Will Bruno said, “One of the values I think most Americans have is to work fast and efficiently, whereas Italians work at more of a slow, relational pace. Also, I would say my values of the Protestant belief came in conflict with the Catholicism culture. I think respect for women was something I valued and I think that Italian men didn’t respect women as much as I hoped they would. Attending church services on a regular basis I think is typical for many Americans, whereas Italians seem to only attend church services during special events.”

Wheaton College student Tiffany Gong added to the discussion of cultural differences saying, “It was refreshing to see people taking their time to drink coffee with friends, whereas Americans take coffee on the run to start their day, which one of our main chains has as their coffee logo. Normally I don’t have meals for an hour or two at a time with everyone at the dinner table, and normally we don’t share a communal space. I really liked “Riposo” because it felt like it was such a part of their day in Italy. However, when I came back to America it was weird to see that because it was such a unique thing. I feel like this is very representative of Americans being time oriented and Orvietan natives being more person oriented. The pace of the town was really slow, and people truly cared for one another, whereas Americans seem to always be on the go, and spending time with others isn’t as essential as the Orvietan natives.” Gong’s account illustrates how personable the townspeople can be.

Nathan Tarr, a Studio Art major at Westmont College said “ I think I have become a better artist and student. I also feel I have become better at living in a community with other people and slowing down while being observant and intentional. I definitely see the US as more of a growing country now, building a history and trying to figure things out, since it is a relatively young country.”

Although the program has been an amazing and riveting experience for Professor Doll, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t continue to face challenges. “One of the most challenging aspects is to facilitate encouragement and community, while living in the local community. It is challenging because living intensely for four months with students, but they leave every time. You never fully adapt to that, but you recognize the time that you have together, because there will always be a conclusion.”

Professor Doll has explained how although the program has continued to flourish over the years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t other factors that play into this cross cultural experience. “ The program has demanded a lot of effort which has also included relocating the program. The program has been in four locations in its entire history, and as a family they have been in three of the four. It has been tough to manage those transitions, and all of those overlapping features. The multiple moves of the program has also been a challenging part of the job. Its the balance of all of these aspects of life and work, expectations and the reality that we face as a family.” For Professor Doll, family is key and that has played a vital role in what they set out to do each semester.

In light of the many difficulties the program has and will continue to face, Dr. Skillen, Bruce Herman and Professor Doll have reason to believe that the program will continue to flourish. Dr. Skillen said “What Matthew Doll has done and what I have also tried to do is similar. It is teaching everything with an eye towards its history. I hope that the program never loses its monastery or a balance between community and solitude. I hope that we always stay located in that community. We have always got to be responding to the changing cultures that our students come from.”

He continued saying “When the program first began there were no cell phones. We wanted the students to cut the strings and be in contact with being back home while being in Orvieto. This was one of those challenges we had to face over the years. Be here. That hasn’t changed but the society has changed and we have to be continually in touch with what the students encounter and what they have learned when they leave Orvieto. We have to keep reinventing the program while holding onto these first principles.” With this in mind, the Orvieto program shows no signs of slowing down, and it has and always will continue to teach and prosper its students.

Professor Doll adds to the discussion regarding the future of the program saying, “If I have ambitions for the program five or ten years from now, it is not in terms of scale and ambitions and numbers. I want the program to be stable and consistent. What I’m interested in is substance, depth and presence. I hope that we continue to integrate the curriculum with relationships with one another, but also our place in Orvieto, whereas other colleges may strive to prove themselves through larger structures, more ambitious programing.”

For the Program Director, it is very much quality over quantity, and this mindset has never changed for him. “I do feel like we were tasked with that challenge. A rule of life needs to take shape and take a true form of life, Franciscan. I do see that our mission is not just to serve ourselves, but it is to live vitally and substantially to where we live. It is to spend time so that you will live well wherever you are.” It was not just the vital community aspect that was important to Professor Doll, but the commitments to intense dialogue and devotional learning, while keeping an eye towards the program’s rich history and what it sets out to accomplish every semester.

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