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An American Girl in Italy: Erin and Her Semester of Study Abroad in Siena

Born in Beaverdam, Virginia, Erin Kitchens is 21 years old. She is studying Italian language and culture in Siena

Erin Kitchens and the beautiful landscape of Siena.

Last January, Erin Kitchens began a semester of study abroad with the Siena Italian studies. Now, she is studying Italian, art, immigration, cooking and do volunteer work. She first came to Italy when she was 13 years old, and fell in love with this beautiful Country and its culture

Name: Erin
Surname: Kitchens
Born in: Beaverdam (Virginia)
Age: 21 years
Attendance: study abroad semester at Siena Italian Studies

Erin, you are spending a period of study abroad in Siena. Can you explain to us better what your experience consists of?
“Of course! Last January I began a semester of study abroad with the Siena Italian studies, in which Italian and American professors teach. I study Italian, immigration, cooking, and art, and I also do volunteer work. As for the art, in recent months I painted the handkerchief of the Contrada del Drago on a silk fabric, thanks to the advice of a very good Sienese painter, who belongs to the Contrada dell’Onda. The city of Siena is divided into seventeen historic districts, each of which has its own symbol. In the field of immigration, I’ve been delving into stories of Italians who emigrated to Argentina and the United States. Since I study anthropology, these lessons have been very interesting and will ultimately help me write the thesis for my degree.  Overall my experience in Italy has been very impactful, because I had the chance to get to know a new world, considering that in the US I practically live in a forest in Beaverdam (Virginia). I attend one of the oldest American universities—the second oldest to be exact—a public research university called William and Mary. I am in my third year there.  After this semester abroad, I’ll go back and continue my studies. I am enrolled in a “major” in Anthropology and a “minor” in Italian Studies, in which I study the history of Italy, and post-colonial literature. Next semester I will begin studying the avant-garde and experimentalism”.

What is your relationship with Italy and with the Italian language?
“I first came to Italy when I was 13 years old. I studied in Florence for a month and a half with a group of Americans. My current venture is my second time studying here. I chose to study Italian because I was curious about the language. I’d studied Latin in high school but only for three years; it was not an intensive study so I decided to pursue another language at University, one that could serve me more. Studying Italian, at least at the beginning, was very difficult for me, even though I love the language and languages ​​in general. But I persevered because I like the idea of ​​talking, of thinking in another language and seeing the world differently. For example, in the United States we say something is “over our head” which means that the thing we are talking about is too difficult to understand. I often use this phrase and the accompanying gesture here in Italy, but people look at me in bewilderment because they do not understand what I mean! All of this connects with anthropology and the way other people see the world. Today more than ever, in such an intercultural landscape, it is crucial to be aware of this diversity. Today I can say I have a good relationship with the Italian language. Last year I read my first books in Italian, and was very proud of my results. I read “Black Sheep”, “The Elephant Seller” and the “Novecento” monologue. Italian grammar is particularly difficult for me because I never studied a romance language in high school. It’s like an inner conflict because I like the language but sometimes it seems like I do not like the tongue! I do however have a great passion for Italian expressions. For example, in English if we feel pain we say “auh,” but here you say “aiah.” Yesterday a cat scratched me and I said “aiah,” and my host family rejoiced and said “now you’re one of us.”

You are a very socially engaged girl, particularly in the field of multicultural integration. Can you tell us about the projects you’re working on?
“In Siena I volunteer as part of a project for the integration of asylum applications and the Italian people, with the government’s OXFAM organization. They manage houses where some foreigners live waiting for the approval or rejection of their request to live in Italy. These are migrants who have arrived in Italy on the so-called “boats.”  They have no documents and will be considered illegal immigrants until they get permission to live here.  Currently there are 32 people in Siena who have requested to stay in Italy, and their future depends on the situation in their country of origin: if the problems are of an economic nature, the asylum request is not accepted, unless a civil war is under way. These people live in limbo for about two years, during which time they try to learn Italian. As a volunteer I try to teach them the basics of the language. For my second activity, I work specifically with Ghanaians. They all have very complex life experiences that have brought them to Italy, where they are evaluating the possibility of a new life. Much of the US is comprised of immigrants, especially from South America – Mexico, Guatemala, Venezuela, Colombia, Argentina – and sadly many Americans are prejudiced toward them. Some of them go to Canada even if it is easier to enter the United States in terms of distance. I would like to understand how this process works in other countries, and one day work in this field in the US. Because we always talk about comparison and integration between different people, with different cultures, who come from different countries. In Ghanaians, for example, I have found very kind people as I have in Italians, yet I feel the tension between the them. I am studying these issues, which will be the object of my thesis. Soon I will go to Ghana where I will work with another NGO, called Hstp Ghana. I will conduct research in Ghanaian communities using a method called “Community based participatory research,” with the intent to understand the real needs of these people. Understanding this is fundamental, because it is very complicated to provide international help if you do not know the true needs of a people. Mistakes are always around the corner, so you have to start from what the community needs and make them aware of the fact that this is “their” project and not yours. A very positive aspect of the US is that a community’s needs can be analyzed through scholarships and money collections. The needs of a community can vary widely: anything from the need to have public baths to that of a need for education on the dangers of disease, and what exactly are the normal characteristics of the human being.  Education on the menstrual cycle is often needed, as the existing taboos around this topic are extremely problematic. We analyze and address these issues with groups of women, using a simple, expert-written book about health in the field of sex. The interviews that we usually do are conducted in English or with the help of translators, who are people in that area. It takes a lot of sensitivity and tact in the approach to cultures that do not know each other. We take note of everything and the group of students, who come from the fields of anthropology, international relations, sociology and statistics, reports the research in a final summary. When I return to Siena, I will continue to do research in Italy through volunteering with OXFAM”.

How did the Italian language aid you in carrying out these varied and intensive activities?
“It was a great help for my thesis on OXFAM and Ghana because the common language for many of us is Italian, and Siena is perfect for putting the language into practice. The language has also taught me to have more discipline, to understand that things do not always go the way we want, and that not everything is easy, like getting good grades in high school.  In learning Italian, I quickly understood that this is not always the case and that we need to aim for improvement, by trying and trying again. At this point, I cannot imagine my life without the knowledge of Italian and the study that has strengthened my character and my personality. To those who want to come and study Italian in Italy, I urge you not to get discouraged if it’s tough at the beginning, because the fact that it’s not easy means that it’s important–and because knowing another language and culture enriches our being. And I really thank my family for the precious opportunity for growth that they have helped me to attain, giving me the chance to study abroad”.

Thanks to Chloe Donnelly for editing version of the interview

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