“La famiglia è tutto”: what it means to be an Italian language student at PLNU

By: Sofia Lo Piano

Disclaimer: The author of this article is a member of the Italian 1002 class in the spring 2024 academic term.

Venice, or Venezia: the elusive city of islands, canals and free-flowing water; a home to mystery, pride and honor. 

Venetians have told themselves stories about themselves for hundreds of years — stories of their stable government, autonomous republic and prosperous existence. This is the myth of Venice. Born out of a republic – “La Serenissima” – that lasted for over one thousand years, this myth has characterized the history and culture of Venice, and it is revealed in its art, theater and opera.

 Even after the republic’s eventual end, Venetians continue to celebrate the history of their “improbable city.” The symbol of Venice, a winged lion, is displayed on flags throughout the city.

History Professor Franca Barricelli of the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh took her enthralled audience back in time to “La Serenissima” in a lecture about Goldoni, Verdi and the Myth of Venice on the evening of Friday, March 22. Students, professors and community members gathered in the makeshift classroom of the House of Pacific Relations at Balboa Park for the Italian Cultural Center of San Diego’s monthly event. 

The Italian Cultural Center of San Diego (ICC) is a nonprofit organization that has been “la casa” (the home) for anyone interested in the Italian language and culture. Since 1981, they have offered language classes, Italian citizenship test preparation and cultural and educational events. 

Friday night was one of many of these events that Point Loma Nazarene University Italian language students have attended for the cultural engagement component of their curriculum. 

Carpooling together and attending alongside their professor, Patrizia Lissoni, these students are developing their cultural awareness of Italian history and culture while also deepening their understanding of the Italian language.

The ICC members and event attendees, typically professors and retirees, warmly welcomed the students, visibly excited to see younger faces and eager to engage with them as they practiced their speaking skills. 

Although maybe not quite a myth comparable to “La Serenissima”, the PLNU Italian language classroom is a community created to last. And just like the Venetians, the students and professor alike have stories to tell about themselves.

The class itself has become a community, “a community that speaks that language,” said Lissoni. A feeling of mutual support is always present in the classroom, as she sees her students helping each other all the time. This feeling extends beyond the classroom to the cultural events.

When the majority of her students show up together, she is always ecstatic. Chris Broze, a third-year media communications student, said that he loves seeing the expression on Lissoni’s face when the group walks in.

“She’s just like ‘Oh my goodness, you guys all made it!’” Broze said smiling.

Lissoni said that “going together is something that cements the relationship.” 

Broze agreed, saying that carpooling has allowed everyone to learn more about each other so that when it is class time, everyone has a deeper relationship. 

“At first we were going to these experiences as strangers but now we’re going to them as friends, which is the best part about it,” Broze said.

Having a strong bond with peers is not only fun, but it also builds a classroom environment where everyone can help each other thrive. The more comfortable everyone is with each other, the safer they feel to challenge themselves and learn from their mistakes, said third-year media communications major Daniel Alkana. 

Carolina Ruiz Rivera, a third-year biology-chemistry major, said that she enjoys the camaraderie of being with her peers at the events. Learning a new language is challenging, and it helps to be with those who are in the same position, who “also don’t entirely understand what is being said” at times. 

“You’re not alone,” Ruiz Rivera added. Going together ensures the opportunity to debrief and to exchange what everyone learned and thought.

The ICC events are not just a space for students to grow in their understanding of language and culture, but also a way for them to honor the passion of their professor. 

“She’s putting so much work into her lesson plans and the way that she teaches, so I’ve always felt like this has been like a thank you to her,” Broze said. “We’re showing up to immerse ourselves but also because ‘thank you for being so passionate about this.’ ‘Thank you for putting so much effort into your teaching and into us as students individually.’” 

Lissoni’s passion and love inspire her students to share in her appreciation and respect for the Italian language and culture. 

Alkana, Broze and Ruiz Rivera all said they are planning on attending ICC events even after their one-year Italian course is finished.

Alkana said that he enjoys the welcoming environment of the ICC community. Although it is a place where he must step out of his comfort zone, it still feels like home.

This comfortability “allows you to open up and practice your Italian with people,” Alkana said. “Not only are you learning about history, but then you’re also practicing present-day Italian cultural customs.”

Broze added that he always does his best to communicate in Italian at these events to practice his speaking skills. ICC members make it easy to do so, as they often approach students, wanting to know how they are performing and progressing in the language.

“They offer advice on how you can speak more fluently, which helps because then you just add on to those experiences of how to talk in the right manner and lessen your mistakes,” Broze said.

 The three students also said they want to remain immersed in the language. 

Some students in the class are interested in formally continuing their Italian studies, and they hope that the next level of the class will eventually be offered at PLNU.

“The way she’s teaching it, it just clicks. It’s so much fun to do it with this group of people because we’ve been able to grow together, so I’d love it if we were able to keep on going and expand our knowledge with each other,” Broze said.

At the end of it all, the students agree with Broze that “It’s felt like a family; it’s literally felt like a family has been formed.” 

In addition to facilitating “la famiglia” (the family), Lissoni strives to give students opportunities to apply what they are studying in class to real-world settings. She said she wants her students to use their language skills to expand their overall knowledge and to participate in a broader cultural community. 

Her ultimate goal is to teach “something that you can apply to your life.” 

And she is doing just that. 

Broze utilized his Italian language skills during his recent spring break trip to Italy. He said that everyone, from baristas to “gelateria” (gelato shop) employees to museum attendants, was thrilled and impressed to hear him speaking to them in their language.

“It meant a lot to people that I was talking to them more formally. They could tell I had a lot of respect for their culture,” Broze said. 

One of Broze’s favorite memories of his time in Italy was at a cooking class with his parents. When his dad asked him if he could tell their instructor that “This was a memory for life,” he thought for a moment and then said to her: “Ricordi per tutta la vita.”

He says the same thing during his time at the ICC and in Lissoni’s class.