Beyond the Classroom: Immersion in Florence

“We played a lot of Pictionary, which was a great way to communicate with people who don’t speak English,” says Gonzaga-in-Florence alumnus Brian Muegge (’16). “And my classmate Nick Lacey (’16) was a big hit with the kids of our Italian host family. As a result of a childhood accident, he has only four toes on his left foot. That was a great ice breaker every time we came over.”

Muegge and Lacey were part of Professor Henry Batterman’s English for Pasta program. GIF students enjoyed a weekly dinner and Italian conversation with a local family, and in exchange, helped the kids practice their English. It also included soccer in the backyard and singing the fi ght song of the kids’ favorite Italian soccer team on the way to and from the train station.

For Professor Batterman, who has spent 26 of his 33 Gonzaga years at the Florence program, learning about the language and culture of Italy is all about immersing students into its streets and its people, the vineyards, marketplaces, galleries and cathedrals. He’s a true believer in experiential learning, and the primary architect of Gonzaga’s immersion efforts in Florence.


“Over the past 13 years, Henry and his colleagues have developed home stays with Italian families, low-cost weekend trips to destinations like Sicily, Tuscany and Venice, internships with Florentine businesses and so much more,” says Tom Tilford (’65), who was part of Gonzaga-in-Florence’s first class in 1963-64. “When we were there, the program was so much different. We lived with Italian students and relied on them to learn the culture,” Tilford recalls.

In Tilford’s day, it wasn’t unusual for students to talk with their families back home only once during their stay abroad. Batterman noticed the stark reality of changing times one day about eight years ago when he was descending a staircase while a GIF student was ascending, the student’s laptop computer wide open as he was Skyping his mom. “I realized the rules of the game had changed,” Batterman says.

With today’s students virtually connected to their families all the time, “It’s easy now to go through a semester in Florence without much thought to the people and culture of the area,” Tilford says.

That’s why he and his GIF 1963-64 classmates raised $150,000 on their 50th GIF anniversary two years ago to fund expansion of the immersion program. Tilford challenges every 50-year GIF class here forward to support this endowed fund to keep the immersion activities strong.

During his year as interim director of Gonzaga-in-Florence, Batterman encouraged faculty to incorporate more fi eld trips into their lessons. Now, newly appointed director Jason Houston is broadening the program through business and cultural connections that are far removed from Italy’s reputation as a cultural museum. Batterman and others have developed opportunities for students to volunteer in churches, schools, a soup kitchen and retirement home. He stocks two soccer teams with GIF students every semester to participate in a local league and created a basketball tournament for a rich cultural exchange.

“Henry is so understated,” Tilford concludes. “He wants to make sure our students are exposed to Italian language and culture authentically, not just in the classroom.”

“He has such a strong relationship with the Italian community,” Muegge says. “Whether he’s walking his dog downtown or biking into the countryside, I see him stopping along the way to talk with the locals and truly immersing himself into their culture.”