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This fall, 17 students in Auburn University's Joseph S. Bruno Auburn Abroad in Italy program experienced a different side of the country when they volunteered at a homeless shelter run by the Diocesan Caritas of Rome. Caritas includes multiple hostels; four food kitchens throughout Rome which feed 1,300 people a day; and the Emporium, a shop where people can use special tokens to purchase essential items.
Students completing the 12-week study abroad program earn a minor in international studies and are deeply immersed in Italian history and culture while studying quality of life issues affecting individuals and families from a global perspective. The semester-long program is based in the small town of Ariccia, Italy, located in the Alban Hills near Rome and offers more than a dozen excursions to a variety of cities and regions throughout Italy.
The fall semester's activities provided students with a tour of the Gucci factory in Florence and the Fendi flagship store in Rome, where they were allowed to try on fur coats costing $32,000 or more; they explored Eataly, a four-story gourmet food emporium that celebrates Italian cuisine and features more than 14,000 Italian food products and 23 restaurants; and they toured a boutique hotel where rooms can cost more than $1,000 per night.
"The stark contrast between studying Italian haute couture, high-end design and the magnificence of Italian cuisine alongside exposure to the worldwide issues of poverty, homelessness and hunger gives students a reality check. It provides them with a well-rounded and more global perspective they wouldn't receive if only one end of the quality of life continuum was experienced," said Linda Ruth, Joseph S. Bruno Chair and executive director of the 10-year-old program. "The activity was a way for us to give back to Italy and say ‘thank you,' as well as a way for the students to see that, wherever in the world they are, there are people in need."
Students worked in the hostel and helped serve dinner to the men and women at the shelter. Ruth said almost every student has told her or written to her that they were so glad to have had the experience. Many of them had never been exposed to anything like it in their lives in the United States.
"I have never volunteered before, so this was a first for me," said Missy Hazeldine, a student in apparel merchandising. "I had no idea what to expect, especially being in a foreign country. As I was serving the food, I came across a man and his wife from Somalia. I noticed they had matching bracelets on. I complimented the man on his bracelet, saying I liked the Rastafarian colors. He smiled and shook my hand. As he shook my hand he slid the bracelet off his wrist and onto mine. ‘Ciao, grazie,' he said, and walked off to meet his wife. I am so touched by that man and his kindness. Giving truly is receiving, and every time I look down at this bracelet I'll remember that."
Kakki Stark, another apparel merchandising student, said she is thankful for the opportunity to serve those at Caritas.
"I was assigned with a few of the girls to the laundry room where we had the task of unpacking boxes of donated clothes and organizing them throughout the shelves in categories of gender, size, etc. As an apparel merchandising major with a love for clothing, it was a unique opportunity to apply the things I'm passionate about in a different venue than I would have expected. I found the experience extremely meaningful."
In the past, only the students majoring in human development and family studies spent an evening working at Caritas, but Ruth said that last semester one of them pointed out that homelessness and poverty are worldwide cultural issues of which people from all walks of life and academic majors should be aware. So this semester, all of the students in the program participated.
"Some students experienced the irony that typically surfaces when helping others – that it is often the one volunteering who comes away from the experience feeling as good as those who were served," said Ruth.
"The experience teaches students that global issues are real human needs – people with real faces, families and stories. They come away with firsthand experience and an appreciation for the need and work of volunteers and for those who make service to others their life's calling."
Students also visited the World Food Programme in Rome to learn about global hunger, an issue with which Auburn University and the College of Human Sciences are familiar. Auburn is recognized as a leader among U.S. universities in their response efforts through programs like the Committee of 19, the student organization which focuses on creating awareness about hunger and hunger-related issues. In addition, College of Human Sciences Dean June Henton spearheaded the formation of Universities Fighting World Hunger, a global alliance of more than 300 higher education institutions that began in partnership with the World Food Programme in 2004 as the Auburn University War on Hunger.
Many of the students said they intend to become more involved in service to the community and to take advantage of the opportunities in their college when they return to the states.
"When we visited the homeless shelter, it was an eye-opening experience," said Emily Hines, a hotel and restaurant management student. "Back home, I've never been to a homeless shelter, so I wasn't really sure what to expect. When I get back to Auburn, I would like to be more involved with the Committee of 19 and volunteer at the local food bank. It was good to go to the shelter in Rome to put the problem of hunger into a more realistic perspective."
Last Updated: Dec. 18, 2012