Rome semester retains its value to students despite COVID-19

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Photo by Patrick Vitale

The Rome Program, a cherished experience for the vast majority of University of Dallas students, is the main draw for many prospective students; upon becoming a freshman, this semester is eagerly awaited. 

Yet what happens when the traditional Rome experience is disrupted by something entirely out of the university’s control? 

My Rome class, spring 2021, is the third semester affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of us knew that our experience would be different than the traditional Rome semester, but we trusted Dr. Hatlie, the faculty, and the staff of the Due Santi campus to make the semester as normal and memorable as possible. 

On the night of convocation, April 9, Hatlie named our class: The Archaic Smile Class. I was caught off guard and very confused by this name, as most of us were, but as Hatlie explained the meaning of it, I saw how it perfectly summed up our chaotic semester. 

In ancient Greek history, the Archaic Age took place from the 9th to 7th centuries BC, between the Dark Ages and the Classical Age. The Dark Ages were a time of stagnation. Greece was stuck: there were few cities, no artistic growth and a great decrease in population. 

However, around 900 BC, the standard of living began to improve, artists began to emerge and colonization spread; the Greeks dragged themselves out of the darkness. They took advantage of the opportunities given to them to improve society and expand. 

As Hatlie explained these developments, our epithet made more sense to me. The spring ‘21 class landed in Rome just as the coronavirus restrictions tightened. We spent the first two weeks on campus with little exposure to the Eternal City, grinding on school work. When the restrictions were loosened, we grasped onto the freedom like it was our life jacket. 

One of the brightest silver-linings of this semester has been experiencing a tourist-free Rome.  I distinctly remember visiting the Colosseum with my friends and noticing that we were the only group there. I know that many of us will distinctly remember standing in an empty Colosseum, walking through the deserted Vatican Museums, and taking pictures of the Trevi fountain without tourists.   

Little moments like this happened many times throughout our semester and they added a magical element to my Rome experience. 

When the restrictions tightened again, our spring break was moved forward and a majority of the class went on a cruise around the Mediterranean. We visited Palermo and Sicily; Malta and Genoa – we also got to see Naples from a distance. 

The spring break cruise was a special experience, not only because we are the only class who has been able to do something like that, but also because we got to see parts of these cities that we would not have seen as normal tourists. For example, some of my classmates got to tour Genoa on segway. 

On our travels, it became a common occurrence to encounter natives who happily questioned our presence. In bars, shops and restaurants, we were constantly asked where we were from and how we were able to be in Italy. One of the waitresses in Abbey Theater told my friends and me how happy they were to have American students back. 

In Malta, a woman stopped us and asked us if we were students and why we were there. We briefly explained the Rome Program and she applauded the education that we are receiving, praising the liberal arts. 

Shortly after our return to campus, we entered a two-week lockdown because of a small outbreak of the coronavirus. During this time, I was in quarantine because of exposure to the coronavirus, and, out of my window in the Annex, I watched my classmates dig a trench that will eventually be turned into a road. 

While my 10-day quarantine was not a highlight of the semester, it did give me a new perspective on the Rome experience. I constantly reminded myself that being able to just be in Italy was a blessing during the pandemic.

In our final weeks abroad, some of us are taking advantage of a UD-sponsored trip to Cyprus, while others are choosing to travel independently, hoping that Italy will reopen its national travel. 

This semester has truly been a strange one. The calendar has changed at least seven times, all of us have taken at least 13 COVID-19 tests, and we’ve patiently followed the Italian government’s ever-changing requirements for us, all with smiles on our faces. 

What I’ve come to realize is that the Rome semester is entirely what you make of it. My classmates and I did not have the typical semester, but I don’t think we had a subpar semester. The uncertainty did take a toll on many of us, but I am still beyond thankful for the experiences we did have and the work that Hatlie and OSA put into making the semester special. 

While we weren’t able to country-hop or get to every Italian city that we hoped we would, we were given opportunities that previous Rome classes didn’t have and we have been bonded to each other through the weeks we have spent in quarantine. 

This semester is one we all will remember, faculty and staff of Due Santi included, because of how unconventional it was and how we never gave up hope. We took the constant change in stride and made the semester our own.

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