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Katia Passerini: An Italian Woman at the Top of a University Career in the US

The Dean of the College of Professional Studies at St. John's University talks about the differences between the US and the Italian academic systems.

Katia Passerini, PhD, Dean The College of Professional Studies, St. John's University, New York.

How a student from Rome arrived in the United States to finish a thesis and in her forties  found herself at the top of her university career in America: in this interview Katia Passerini explains the organization of the American academic system based on the connection with the job market, while "the difficulty of the Italian system lies in transferring the important amount of knowledge into a practical and professional outlet ".

She didn’t plan on staying in the United States, but it is precisely there, overseas, that Katia Passerini built her professional career, which started from a thesis. Originally from Rome, Katia Passerini is the Dean of the College of Professional Studies at the renowned St. John’s University in New York. A goal achieved through a series of opportunities that brought her to the top of the Queens County academic institution from which Governor Mario Cuomo also graduated.

Katia holds a degree in Political Science from the LUISS University of Rome, and an MBA and Ph.D. from George Washington University. In this interview, Katia tells us about the differences between the American and Italian academic systems, and what has changed for a European who comes to study in the US, from the time that she arrived as a young student in the nineties.

“In Italy, surely it would have been difficult to grow so quickly and achieve some goals that I have achieved here. It is certainly harder because there are more difficulties related to entry visas and work visas once the studies are completed. However, one must not be discouraged or give up for this reason.”

You have been Dean of the College of Professional Studies at St. John’s University in New York for three years and previously held the same position at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, one of the Honor Colleges. These are unimaginable goals for a not yet fifty-year-old Italian professional in the “Belpaese”. However, your journey starts from Rome, your city.

“After graduating in Political Science at LUISS in Rome, I wasn’t thinking of moving to the United States and my career is the result of a series of events linked to each other. My connection with the US began with my final thesis, in which I discussed the differences between the Italian and the US healthcare systems. Once in the United States, it was in the nineties, I heard about the MBA and decided to continue in that direction; I got a Fulbright Scholarship. After the Master in Business Administration, I stayed for the doctorate. Every time I finished walking a path, another one opened up with new opportunities.

The academic career in the United States follows a series of completely different procedures compared to Italy. In Italy, the system is centralized and is based on national competitions, while here in the US the candidates are chosen based on their resumes. In Italy, surely it would have been difficult to grow so quickly and reach some goals that I have achieved here, not only because of the different ways of accessing a university career but above all because, leaving Italy, I entered the American system.

In Italy, it is important to be part of the group from the outset and you have to start following the supervising professor in your area of ​​specialization.”

St. John’s University, the Queens Campus  (www.stjohns.edu)

The differences between the Italian and American systems can be seen in both teaching and research. How far apart are the two countries in academic life?

“Let’s start with the teaching. The Italian method, and even more before the reform started by the Bologna Process in 1999, is based on a more formative methodology, more theoretical and less practical. The difficulty of the Italian system lies in transferring the important amount of knowledge into a practical and professional outlet.

For example, as a project management teacher at St. John’s University, I alternate the hours of oral lectures with laboratory lessons and examples of practical experience that gives the students an immediate idea of what they will encounter in their professional lives.

Then, in terms of access to research funds, we are talking about two different systems.

In the United States, students are enabled to access public and private funds in order to finance their research projects. There are thus significant structural differences. Here, we have a series of facilities and services that guide the student, tutor him, both in the academic and post-graduate paths, whether it is to search for funds or a job. There is undoubtedly more money available in American universities, especially from private individuals, although today with the European Union, Italian students have better chances of accessing research funds to finance their projects than they did in the past.

The strengths of the Italian system are there, chiefly in the  excellent educational preparation offered to the students, but the weakness lies in the poor access to, and connection with, the professional path– and therefore with the employment world– both at the level of contacts and at the level of practical skills.”

In the United States, the tuition cost to study in college increases more and more, creating a gap between those who cannot afford a good education and those who have access to very expensive facilities which then help you in the process of entering the employment market. The issue has fully entered the political debate and many of the presidential candidates talk about free access to education. Will the United States ever be able to implement public education on the model of some European structures?

“Access to education must be guaranteed to everyone as a right, and for me, this is an important principle. But the question is more complex than it seems. In Italy, we guarantee public access to schools but the percentage of those who graduate is lower than those enrolled because we do not guide the students in their educational and training paths, as well as in their transition to the employment world. It is true that the costs of an American college are very high, that the students work to pay off the loans for their studies, but it is also true that we offer them a variety of services: from the gym and the theater to counseling and guidance offices which help them fill out a resume; to experts who carry out consultancy work to identify research funds; to offices that support the students in the post-graduate phase to enter the employment world.

Not to mention a whole series of facilities and equipment made available to students.

In Italy, there are no such services and the students are left somewhat at the mercy of their own destiny. I repeat, the right to education must be universal in my opinion, but getting to graduate for free often means starting with disadvantaged conditions and not achieving success. The costs are high in America because the services are many and of high level. Studying here is an investment for a future job. In Italy studying is, first of all, to gain knowledge and to learn. It must also be said that in the US there are many scholarships for students. In our university, we allocate 250 million each year in scholarships and a good 60% of our students receive financial aid. And let’s not forget that in the state of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo launched a few years ago the “Excelsior Plan,” which gives those who declare an income up to $ 125,000 access to free education in some public institutions such as SUNY and CUNY. Studying in the United States in a private system also means sacrificing oneself and committing oneself to graduate in time and avoid further expenses.”

The College of Professional Studies of which you are the Dean represents a path that prepares students for access to the labor market with high percentages of employment rates after graduation. Could you give us a picture of the graduate courses and students?

“St John’s University is a private institution, founded in 1870 by the Vincentian community. It is a Catholic school with offices in the New York area: Queens, Staten Island, Manhattan, and Hauppauge. Campuses abroad are located in Rome, Paris, and Limerick. We have more than one hundred programs in Medical Sciences, Economics, Art, Mathematics and Engineering, both at the level of three-year degrees as well as Masters and PhDs.

Our points of excellence are the School of Law (Faculty of Law) and the Pharmacy program. The College of which I am Dean offers degree courses in journalism, communication, computer science, along with new courses, which are enjoying some success, in cybersecurity and homeland security. The strength of my college lies in this connection with the employment world.

Today, 70 percent of our students come from the NY area and the remaining 30 percent from the rest of the United States, Europe, Asia, Africa. Thanks to the connections with the professional world and to a series of services made available to the student during the post-graduation professional entry phase, 74 percent of our graduates quickly and easily enter the labor market (94 percent if you include 20 percent admissions to Master’s degrees). Like other American university institutions, we offer our students and doctorate candidates the opportunity to work during their course of study.”

Compared to when you arrived in 1993, is it more difficult today to enter as a student and stay in the United States? What would you suggest to those who want to tackle an academic path and a possible entry into the employment world in the United States?

“Surely it is more complicated because there are more difficulties related to entry visas and work visas once the studies are completed. This does not mean, however, that one must become discouraged or give up. Those who choose a course of study linked to the so-called STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) have a good chance of remaining in the United States after their studies and finding a professional position; this country is increasingly in need of technicians and engineers. The visa difficulties are there but there is always a solution.”

The so-called “brain drain” today is made up of those young people who flee their country and those who are merely “traveling” and plan to return. Is your career in the United States more in the path of one or the other?

“I definitely felt like a traveling brain because, as I said before, I never felt like I was fleeing from Italy, and I chose to come to the United States for a course of study, but I didn’t plan on staying here. Then opportunities presented themselves to me, one after the other, and at that point, it was difficult to return”.

Katia Passerini at the United Nations

To what kind of conditions would you return?

“The professional conditions in which I operate are difficult to find in Italy at this time. We are talking about a whole series of methodologies, structures, services, funds, that allow us to do the job with great results, and make available a path of academic and professional excellence to the students.

Of course, I miss Italy and its lifestyle. I can’t deny that the quality of life is better in Italy. I miss all the cultural offerings as part of everyday life. The reality is that here in New York, even though there are numerous events, you never have the free time to enjoy them. However, I’m not ruling out the possibility of a return. We often talk about it with my husband, a New Yorker who loves Italy, where he lived with me for a few years.

Meanwhile, the cultural and professional connection with Italy must always be cultivated. This summer I will be at the Rome 3 University to study the Italian diaspora with my colleagues.”

And now that you’ve lived in this country for years, what do you think of your final thesis that compared the US and the Italian healthcare systems? 

“Coming from a political science background, in the beginning, I was very resistant to certain ideas prevalent in this country that contrasted with those pertaining to the common good and universal rights which are the foundation of some study paths. I remain convinced that the right to health is inalienable and universal, and that it cannot be treated as an economic issue.

Living in the American system, I must say that excellence in healthcare is limited to those who are part of this system and have the possibility of accessing its facilities and services. This means that only those who have an employer covering their medical insurance or who can cover the costs at their own expense have access to a certain level of care.

I see the American healthcare system as excellent if I think of research, technology, equipment, and services, but in terms of access to care, it is based on great inequity and inequality. The healthcare reform, begun in the nineties with Clinton– of which I spoke in my thesis–and which was not successful at the time, is a very difficult subject in this country. The Affordable Care Act has changed a few things, such as removing retroactive conditions, but much remains to be done. I believe that at least at the level of conscience, Americans are beginning to accept the concept of free healthcare, while previously, this was inconceivable.”

Translated by Yulia Lapina

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