DuBois honors students take in history, culture in Italy

The honors group in front of the Fontana del Tritone

The honors group in front of the Fontana del Tritone (Triton Fountain), a 17th-century fountain in Rome created by sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini. From left to right are group leaders Garrett Roen and Keely Roen, with students Julia Test, Abbie Smith, Tyler Garthwaite, and Julie Shimmel.

Credit: Penn State

DUBOIS, Pa. — A group of four Penn State DuBois honors students had the opportunity of a lifetime at the end of this academic year, as they traveled to Italy to learn about the country's history and culture. The campus honors program offers an international trip each year, affording students the chance to expand their education on a global level.

Students Abbie Smith, Julia Test, Tyler Garthwaite, and Julie Shimmel were led by husband-and-wife team Garrett and Keely Roen on this trip. Garrett is the campus registrar, and Keely a senior instructor in the Wildlife Technology program.  With both employed at the campus, they had a unique opportunity to travel and connect with students as they explored a new country.

"It was a great way for me to connect to our students," Garrett said. "In my job, I deal with students, but only for a few minutes at a time. Here, I got to take students from rural Pennsylvania to another country to see things they've never experienced."

Keely added, "I got to know students from other majors outside of the one I teach in, which was great. And I'm so glad we could give them this experience. I went to France when I was 19, and it was life-changing for me. I hope this experience is the same for these students."

Seizing every opportunity to learn about Italy's traditions and history, the group took in daily tours of famous landmarks, as well as lesser-known locales that were off the beaten path. They saw the Vatican, the Roman catacombs, Pompeii and Mount Vesuvius, Tuscany, the Colosseum, and much more.

"It was a really immersive trip," Keely said. "We ate at local restaurants, interacted with local people, used public transportation, and did a lot of walking in cities, getting really close to the culture." 

"This trip to Italy was an incredible experience," said student Abbie Smith. "Getting to see and experience the cultural differences was great. Seeing the archeological sights on the television and the internet does not do them justice. Seeing them was an experience I don't think I'll ever forget."

Other highlights of the trip included food tours, where the group got to experience the literal taste of Italian culture. They found that food in Italy is rooted strongly in the traditions of various cultures, with different ethnic groups bringing their own traditions and influences to the country's cuisine.

"Italy as we know it has only existed for just over 100 years," Keely said. "The indigenous cultures that had been absorbed by the Roman Empire are still very apparent and they still have their individual traditions."

"But," she continued, "eating at a modern restaurant while sitting next to a building that's 700 years old is pretty amazing."

Walking tours of cities and various sights gave the students an opportunity to plunge deeply into their surroundings, too.

"Going to Italy was an amazing experience that I will never forget. I loved being immersed in the Italian culture and walking the same cobblestone streets that millions have done before me," student Tyler Garthwaite said. "Everything from the Roman cuisine, ancient buildings, and historic artwork in the Vatican museums amazed me. On this trip, we met people from all over the world and shared our experiences with them regarding college life, working, and our everyday life in general. It was interesting to hear the differences between our lifestyles. This was my first international trip and I am so thankful that Penn State DuBois gave me this incredible opportunity to travel internationally. This trip gave me the inspiration that I needed to leave my comfort zone and experience life outside of what I was used to. I can’t wait to visit other countries in the future. I am so excited to share my experiences and inspire others to travel internationally."

Digging more deeply into the culture, the group learned from tour guides and locals about the history of Italy, the basis of religions, and the dark past of some of Rome's inhabitants.

"We learned about the oppression of Jews for three centuries, and the oppression of Christians from 200 A.D. on," Keely noted. 

She explained that Jewish citizens in Rome in the early A.D. period were confined to an area still known as the Jewish Ghetto.

"It was a walled off area of just a few city blocks, and they weren't allowed to leave that area," Garrett added.

Keely recalled, "We also learned how early Christians worshiped. They would visit each other's homes and just talk with each other about how to be a better person and how to be more like Jesus."

Throughout the trip, students toured the Capuchin Crypt, constructed by monks centuries ago from bones of 3,700 friars. They hiked the countryside, visited ruins and once lost cities, and learned firsthand life lessons. While visiting the Vatican and viewing countless artifacts from throughout history, the group also attended the papal blessing.

"Italy was the trip of the lifetime, getting to see a wonder of the world, buildings from B.C. times and early A.D., the artwork of artists we learned about from young ages, the home of my religion," student Julia Test said. "Getting to see the pope was the highlight of my trip! Every aspect of this trip was phenomenal. We were able to hike a volcano then visit an entire town it covered centuries ago, still in incredible shape. Penn State DuBois gave us a trip of a lifetime and crossed off my bucket list trip. I can't wait to go back, I fell in love with Italy and am already planning a trip to return."

This trip was funded, in part, by the Penn State DuBois Honors Program, the participating students' and chaperones' contributions, and the student activity fee.

"The campus administration and the chancellor were incredibly generous and truly helped the students," Garrett said. "We wouldn't have been able to do all the historic and cultural activities we did without the support of the campus."

Keely added, "That support is what enabled us to have such an enriching experience."