Educating in Paradise: JCU Hosts Talk on American Higher Education in Italy

John Cabot University hosted the event “Educating in Paradise, l’educazione superiore americana in Italia (American Higher Education in Italy),” on November 30, 2023. The event was part of the Festival della Cultura Americana 2023, which focuses on Americans in Italy, organized by Rome’s Centro Studi Americani (Center for American Studies) and the city’s main Italian and American cultural institutions. The speakers were Franco Pavoncello (President of John Cabot University), Portia Prebys (Vice Chair of the JCU Board of Trustees and Secretary-Treasurer of the Association of American College and University Programs in Italy), Fabrizio Ricciardelli (President of the Association of American College and University Programs in Italy), and Scott Sprenger (President of the American University of Rome).

From left: Fabrizio Ricciardelli, Portia Prebys, and Scott Sprenger
From left: Fabrizio Ricciardelli, Portia Prebys, and Scott Sprenger

Introduction by JCU President Pavoncello
JCU President Franco Pavoncello started by saying that according to the American ambassador to Italy Jack Markell, Italy has recently become the most popular study abroad destination for American students. Pavoncello added that each year, 5,000 Italian students go to the U.S., and over 30,000 American students come to study abroad in Italy.

Vice Chair of the JCU Board of Trustees Portia Prebys
Dr. Portia Prebys gave an overview of the history of study abroad in Italy and of the Association of American College and University Programs in Italy (AACUPI). Prebys began by saying that throughout history, young people have been traveling to Italy to see the art and monuments. After World War I, Americans started visiting Italy in a more organized way. The first study abroad program was founded in 1931 in Florence by Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. The program focused on art history, and it’s still active today. Gradually, more study abroad programs were established, and by 1978, there were 23 programs in Italy, mostly in Florence and Rome.

In February 1978, the Association of American College and University Programs in Italy (AACUPI) was founded, so as to allow the programs, which at the time were still quite small, to share the benefits of being joined in an association. As of today, AACUPI has over 150 programs in 32 cities. About 60 of these programs are in Rome, almost 50 are in Tuscany, and the others are in other parts of Italy. Prebys added that 80% of study abroad students choose to go to Rome or Florence. In the 2018-2019 academic year, the last complete one before the Covid pandemic hit, over 33,000 students studied abroad in Italy. For the 2023-2024 academic year, AACUPI anticipates welcoming a record number of about 40,000 students, possibly even more. According to a report by IRPET, the Istituto Regionale per la Programmazione Economica della Toscana (the Regional Institute for Tuscany’s Economic Programming), the study abroad industry brings a financial gain of over 650 million euros to Italy and creates around 10,000 jobs.

President of the Association of American College and University Programs in Italy Fabrizio Ricciardelli
Fabrizio Ricciardelli noted that studying abroad is a culturally enriching experience that makes students better global citizens. He explained that ten years ago, he started directing a study abroad program that only had about 100 students and that the number has now grown tenfold. He added that the existing programs are growing as well and that new programs are also being established.

One of the things that AACUPI has worked on is to facilitate the immigration process for study abroad students who participate in programs longer than 90 days, extending the visa so that they can stay for up to 150 days. Ricciardelli also talked about the things that AACUPI managed to achieve during the Covid pandemic, such as including study abroad students in the national vaccine system. Another thing that AACUPI would like to achieve is to simplify the cumbersome immigration and hiring process for American faculty.

President of the American University of Rome Scott Sprenger
President Scott Sprenger explained that AUR was founded in 1969 by David Cohen, a former official of the U.S. Department of State, to provide a higher education institution for Americans living in Rome. When it was founded, AUR was a very small institution, with about 100 students, which then grew to be about 300/400, a size it maintained for two decades. In the last three years, the university has grown to about 700 students, who come from 60 countries. AUR’s current strategic plan includes the goal of reaching 1000 students.

Sprenger then briefly talked about the advantages of the liberal arts system, of studying in American universities in Rome, and of the impact that the diverse student body has on the educational experience. The main advantage of liberal arts is that it aims to promote life-long learning and that it uses the Socratic method, in which the professor encourages conversations among a small group of students. Regarding studying at an American university in Rome, Sprenger emphasized the importance of “academic travel.” He believes that students who come to Italy and learn more about its culture and literature grow and become open-minded individuals. As for the advantages of the diverse student body on the educational experience, he explained that students learn to respect and interact with different people and cultures.

President Pavoncello then wrapped up the discussion by touching on the importance of the faculty, which is the heart of every university. “I think that having American universities in Italy is very important not only for this country but also for the United States,” he concluded.