UTM-Italy Partnership Focuses on Underserved

When 15 students and professors from the University of Tennessee at Martin traveled to Italy in 2017, they spent 11 days in Siena, a city in the heart of Tuscany with a population of around 15,000. When told their next stop would be Rome, the students surprised Associate Professor of Psychology Joseph Ostenson, Ph.D., with their reaction.

“The students didn’t want to leave Siena,” he explained to a gathering of UTM leadership and special guests present to witness the signing of an agreement that is a direct result of the seeds planted on that 2017 excursion.

On Thursday at The Lindell in Martin, Luca Bonomi, president of Dante Alighievi Society (DAS) of Siena, traveling with a member of his board of directors Vicenzo Morano formalized the relationship that establishes a long-term, faculty-led program between UTM, the DAS and the University of Siena. Chancellor Keith Carver joined Bonomi in signing the document as former University of Tennessee President Joe DiPietro looked on.

The 2017 trip provided the introduction to Bonomi and was followed by a fall 2018 trip with Ostenson and 20 students completing the first full semester abroad. The next group will travel in 2019 to conduct a fall semester of English, music, art history and sociology courses. A series of workshops presented by artists local to the Tuscan region are planned. Excursions to Rome, Venice, Florence, and the Tuscan countryside, as well as cooking lessons at DAS’s culinary school are also on the agenda.

Ag business and animal science students will travel, along with the university’s scholar students, in the fall of 2020. Six agriculture professors will rotate a month at a time.

“We’re creating this partnership to target the underserved study abroad population. The way we are going to do it is to make the cost equivalent to a semester on campus including airfare, housing and tuition,” Ostenson explained to the crowd as he acknowledged the cost savings was due in part to the generosity of host DAS.

In a brief interview prior to the presentation, Ostenson pointed out the underserved are the Pell Grant-eligible population and that those less likely to travel are usually men, student athletes and minority students.

“We are really working to get as many students abroad as possible. We’ve done a good job in the past. This offers new opportunities,” he stated, adding that UTM will be the school of record for the coursework, which means that students from other U.S. schools could also attend and receive UTM credit for study abroad.

Timothy Graham, one of the students who had already participated in the program, admitted that initially he compared America to Italy. A Memphis resident, he joked he initially felt Italy fell short — especially in the small food portions. But soon he witnessed how the faculty took their time and how such an experience “teaches us something about ourselves.” One of his takeaways was a newfound bravery, he said. “I came out of my shell. I will continue to go back and hope that other students will have the opportunity.”

In his remarks, Bonomi shared a message from Francesco Frati of the University of Siena and noted that the University includes 1,500 international students with 25 percent of the programs taught in English. He expressed gratitude to UTM and said of his third visit to Martin, “I can really understand why Southern hospitality is so well known.”

Symbols of the upcoming agricultural partnership were served as part of the evening meal as gifts of wine and pecorino cheese from the Tuscany region were placed by honey farmed at UTM.

Chancellor Keith Carver shared that when he assumed his role 2 ½ years ago, he asked graduating high school students from the area why they had not chosen to attend their local university.

“’People from my high school are going there’ was the reply,” he recounted and then countered the false assumption regarding the student population by noting UTM has students from more than 43 states and 21 countries.

“It is hard to make a big place small but at Martin we can make it as big as you want it to be,” he stated. “A program like this takes students from a small intimate learning environment and gives them the world.”

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