Sicily Study-Trip Lets Students Learn In Situ

The study group in Catania, Sicily

“It is one thing to read about historical places, but to physically see all of these beautiful places with your own eyes is absolutely incredible. It almost feels as if I am dreaming. How can there be so much beauty in one place?”

That’s Yasameen “Jazzy” Salehi ’16 writing in a blog that nine MHC students contributed to during a study trip that they took to Sicily earlier this spring. It complemented a spring-semester course on Sicily taught by Associate Professor of Italian Ombretta Frau and Professor of Classics Paula Debnar. Both course and trip covered 3,000 years of history, culture, and literature.

“Seeing the places made the classroom experience more significant,” says Salehi, an Italian studies major.

That’s just what Frau and Debnar had hoped when they planned the trip, which was a 2-credit academic course titled In Sicily. In addition to Frau, Debnar, and the students, participants included two other faculty members, three alumnae, and five friends traveling throughout Sicily for ten days in May.

Students completed reading assignments before the trip, kept a journal, contributed photos and observations to the blog, and delivered an oral presentation after visiting each location and researching the history, patron saints, mythology, literature, and architecture of the area.

“Students responded well to the places we visited and raised interesting considerations in their oral presentations,” says Frau.

“For instance, in Palermo's cathedral, we all had a 'moment' when we saw the tombs of the Norman kings of Sicily. These men—Emperor Frederick II and his family—were such an important part of our course that being there, with them, was special.”

“Today we visited the town of Cefalù. Before we entered, the bus stopped on a cliff with a beautiful view of the town. I could see the church rising above the other buildings, its towers tall above the town, the whole building gigantic compared to everything else,” Briana Chace ’17 wrote on the blog. “The cathedral is large and imposing. I really enjoyed how simple the inside was, with bare, flat walls, the main focus being the ornate sanctuary at the head of the church.”

Chace did her presentation on Taormina, known for its Byzantine gold mosaics. “It was cool to see that what we had talked about in class was there before our eyes in all its golden splendor,” she says.

Michaella Coughlin ‘16, an English major minoring in Italian, researched the story of a monster buried beneath the volcanic Mount Etna. Tradition says he was one of the giants who revolted against the gods.

“As punishment for his wrongdoings, Zeus (or according to some, Athena) captured him and crushed him under the weight of the mountain,” Coughlin wrote. “Yesterday, we visited this terrible creature—or at least the mountain on top of him—and walked around one of the volcano's dormant small craters.” She added that famous historical figures such as Roman Emperor Hadrian, Virgil, Pindar, and Homer all visited and wrote about Mount Etna, just as the students were doing.

Debnar says it is exactly such connections that made this trip invaluable. “Visiting the location of a story by [novelist Giovanni] Verga and the home of [dramatist, poet, and novelist Luigi] Pirandello helped us appreciate more fully the role of the physical environment in their works,” she says.

—By Ronni Gordon