In 2009, Scott Schlimgen and Claudia Cremasco co-founded Academic Initiatives Abroad (AIA), an organization dedicated to developing high-quality study abroad programs for universities. Today, Scott and Claudia double as program coordinators and professors, maintaining a hands-on presence with AIA. Each year, the Gibbs College of Architecture (GCA) has the opportunity to send 3rd-year architecture and interior design students to spend a semester at the AIA Rome Center, where they are immersed in art, history, and culture and challenged to expand their design capabilities.

GCA communications intern Kathryn (K) sat down with Scott (S) and Claudia (C) to find out more about their role as program coordinators and instructors, what they hope students learn from their experiences abroad, and their wishes for AIA’s future. Read on for highlights from their conversation.

K: Why did you decide to start Academic Initiatives Abroad? 

S: Claudia and I are both academics, and we’ve been teaching and running programs in Rome for about 30 years with a lot of different schools, programs, and students. About 10 years ago, we decided if we wanted to keep doing programs the way we wanted to, with a focus on academics and quality, the best way to do that was to create our own organization where we could reach out to high caliber schools, programs, and students to offer these programs to. Oklahoma was absolutely one of those programs. We were lucky that Oklahoma approached us, and we immediately saw a connection there. OU was interested in a very high-quality program, had a long history of running these kinds of programs, and have people on the faculty here, like Tony Cricchio and Stephanie Pilat, who are very supportive of the program, so it seemed like a very good fit for us. 

Image: Digital renderings contributed by Ashley Rodarte from her time in Rome last spring.

K: Rome has a ton of history, especially when it comes to architecture, so could you tell me why you decided to pinpoint Rome for this program? 

C: I think Rome is the mecca for people studying architecture, art history, or anything related to beauty. The city offers a lot in terms of museums and culture in general, especially with art and music. Rome is an old city, but we also try to point out that Rome is a modern city. You’re going to have the old and the new at the same time, and it’s a good experience for students to see them together. 

S: In addition to art and history, Rome is a crossroads of culture and has been for thousands of years. The Romans went out into the world and then brought it back with them, and ever since then, different people and cultures have been coming to Rome. It hosts the 3 major monotheistic Western religions, which all have a strong presence in the city, so you get a mixture of culture that way. Then there is an influx of immigrants who come through Rome from all around the world, which is starting to add a vibrant diversity to the city and helping it transform itself into the 21st century.

Rome is a crossroads of culture and has been for thousands of years.

Scott Schlimgen

However, it’s always been that way. People have been coming to Rome for centuries, especially in more recent centuries, because of the Vatican. The Vatican is a center of power, and people want to be close to power, so many important people and populaces have been coming to Rome and leaving their mark on the city. That’s also fascinating, so we host programs in sociology, anthropology, art history, and more, where students are studying the people and not just the beauty Claudia mentioned. 

We walk the students through the city and stop at some of those important places, like where Julius Caesar was assassinated or where they cremated him on the spot and Marc Anthony gave his speech that Shakespeare immortalized. We wander through the city pointing out important places in history, right up through the 20th century certainly, because some of the major events and political movements in the 20th century revolved around Rome itself. 

Image: OU students visiting the ruins of Pompeii.

K: What does your day-to-day as academics and program coordinators look like? 

C: Well, we do a lot (laughs), so it’s kind of difficult to summarize it all. I always try to guide the students so they can understand what’s around them. The language is for sure a very important aspect of that, so we often go out and look for tangible things to help them learn.  

For example, one exercise we do involves buying bread at the market. Bread is a very important element in Italian culture. It is always fresh, and we buy it every day, so I would like the students to experience the same thing. 

We start the exercise in the classroom. Each student gets a card with the name of a specific kind of bread, but they don’t know what it means. Then, they go out to the shops by themselves and ask for what is written on their card. It’s interesting for them to see one word corresponding to a specific thing; they say something and get something in return, which is empowering because until a minute ago, they didn’t even know what that specific word meant.

After that, they buy some cold cuts and cheese using the same system and come back to our studio where we prepare paninis. It’s a lot of fun. Then, they explain to one another what they bought and how they bought it, and we label the names of different things. In the end, they end up learning how to buy bread in a very concrete way, which seems simple, but definitely isn’t when you’re in a foreign country that speaks a different language. If they didn’t do this exercise, they might end up buying what they would in their own country and miss out on experiencing different things. This is just an example of one thing we do. 

Images: Sites visited by OU students while studying in Italy and beyond.

S: On the other hand, the students have busy days and we have busy days, so we have a staff that is there from 9 until 6 to handle anything that could come up in the life of a student, from a sprained ankle, to a broken heart, to needing to deal with paperwork in the city, or just wanting to mail a package home. People are always there to work with the students. 

Then, of course, as instructors, the most important part of the day is getting together with the students to teach. I teach a lecture class that involves a lot of walking in the city, so I’ll meet with the students on Monday and give them a dense lecture preparing them for that week’s material. Then on Tuesday, we’ll take a walk around the city that might last up to 4 hours- going through the streets, into churches, underground into archaeological sites; very special places where we can look at examples of what we talked about in class and see it up close and touch it if possible- and try to understand that these are not just abstract ideas or historical events, incidents, or styles. Rather, these ideas are still living in the city amongst the people and these buildings. The buildings themselves haven’t changed, for example, a palace where a Cardinal once lived is now our study center, but their meanings have changed because times have changed, and we use them completely differently. 

The students see that over and over again in the streets, piazzas, churches, palaces, and even in the houses people live in or the stores they visit in the city. People might have been selling cheese in that shop Claudia was talking about for 400 years, but obviously things have changed over those 400 years in regard to how they do it. So, that’s a typical day for us.  

Left image: Noah Baker sketching at Palazzo Mattei in spring 2019.

Right image: The Renaissance gardens of the Villa d’Este, located in the small hill town of Tivoli just outside of Rome.

Additionally, the students come into the design studio and meet with their design instructor, who not only takes them around the city, but also sits down with them and gives them a design problem that they have to process, internalize, and turn into their own creation in the context of the city. That’s a very significant moment for the students because it makes their experience very personal, and it’s also really important that the students are producing work. They’re not just absorbing things. They’re not tourists. Whether they’re doing language exercises in Claudia’s class, shooting a video, doing drawings, or writing papers in my class, or creating an architectural or interior design for a real place in Rome for their design class, they have to interpret what they’ve been seeing.  

Images: Sketches of Ex-Centrale Museum, Villa Adriana, and structures in Milan contributed by Brittney Loper.

K: What is the biggest thing you hope your students take away from their time abroad? 

C: Hopefully they take away a better understanding of themselves, because when you are in a different country, you get to see things from a distance and a different point of view. They might reflect more on their own culture because they can contrast it with the new culture they have in front of them.  

When you are in a different country, you get to see things from a distance and a different point of view.

Claudia Cremasco

Then, they get to experience a new place, and as Scott was saying, it’s not as a tourist. It’s day by day, addressing little problems that we actually face as Italians. We recently had dinner with 3 students who did the program last year, and they were saying they really liked living in a different place with a different life. One student kept saying that every day was different from the next. They had their routine, but each day was full of different things, because everything around them was new and every day they saw something different. That can be very empowering. I hope my students walk away from their time in Rome feeling that empowerment from living a different life in a different culture. 

It’s very important to reflect upon how the ideas, values, preconceptions, and ways of looking at things are all based on the culture we grew up in.

Scott Schlimgen

S: It’s also very important to reflect upon how the ideas, values, preconceptions, and ways of looking at things are all based on the culture we grew up in. When you immerse yourself in a new culture, you confront those things and maybe even different stereotypes. We think of Italy as this pristine place with little Tuscan villages and perfect piazzas, but that’s mostly through the lens of Hollywood. When you get there, you realize it’s not quite as perfect as you thought it was, and nothing in the world is that way. It’s important that students then begin to see the reality behind the fictional narrative that’s been created for them all of their lives by the media, and realize that Rome isn’t only populated by Italians, nor is Italy. There’s lots of people that are immigrants or refugees, and they make up a diverse population, so hopefully when students come back here, they take a look around and realize that not everyone looks like them either. America is not some homogenous population.  

Left image: Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli, Italy.

Right image: Toledo Station in Naples, Italy.

On the other side of that question, I think it’s important to talk to students in the very first week not just about what they’re going to take home with them, but what they’re going to leave behind. They are representatives of their university, hometown, and country, and I like to ask them, “How are people going to remember you when you leave?” What can they leave behind? What will their actions say about who they are and who we are?

It’s important to talk to students in the very first week not just about what they’re going to take home with them, but what they’re going to leave behind.

Scott Schlimgen

We try to do a service-learning project at least once a semester, so students get engaged with the community and leave something concrete and positive behind. OU has been behind that type of project for years, and together we’ve done some really terrific work that has either improved the lives of people in the community or created a lasting impact on the culture there. But it’s not just about a big organized service-learning project. It’s the daily life of saying hello to somebody in the stairwell or getting to know the barista at the coffee shop in the morning; it’s about the people. That’s really important for all of us. 

C: I agree, and last night the students had many little stories about that. One student told us about a time they were in the coffee shop studying and after a certain point, the barista came over and gave them some gelato, because they saw them every day and saw that they were working really hard. Little things like that make you understand that you’re a part of the environment around you and that circle of culture. 

S: That’s extremely important. That’s when I think a student feels, when they come home, “I lived in Rome. I wasn’t a tourist. I actually lived there.” It’s not the time spent on the streets. It’s not the culture you absorb. It’s the people you meet; the close connections that you make. No matter how small they are, they make you feel like you lived in a place. And it goes both ways because then the people feel like the students lived there too. They didn’t just come to consume the culture; they came to be part of it. That’s very important. 

It’s not the time spent on the streets. It’s not the culture you absorb. It’s the people you meet; the close connections that you make.

Scott Schlimgen

C: Yeah and again, from my point of view, I always tell them that even one word in Italian will make a difference. Of course, 4 months is not enough to be fluent in a second language, but being able to say “grazie” instead of “thank you” when they offer you something is a little gesture that goes a long way. 

Image: Jubilee Church in Rome.

K: What would you say is your favorite part of the program you run in Rome? 

C: I really like teaching and seeing the little progress students make every day. It’s funny, if I bump into them at the coffee shop and I hear them asking for something in Italian, it makes me really proud. For me, the best part is seeing the students grow and become more integrated in the world around them. It’s very satisfying.  

The best part is seeing the students grow and become more integrated in the world around them.

Claudia Cremasco

S: There’s a couple of answers that I’d like to give. Obviously, it’s the interaction with the students that is the highlight. The most wonderful moments are when you’re teaching, especially in a place like Rome, and you hear a really audible “huh” or chuckle from a student, because you realize you’ve somehow penetrated a preconception they had. Now they’ve thought of or seen something in a different way. You’ve made that little connection, and now they can see something they’ve never seen before. 

C: That is so true. There’s always a funny little moment when we speak about the geography of Rome and how the students live in Trastevere. I ask the students the name of the river that flows through the city, and they say the Tiber, which is what it is in English. Then they try to guess what it might be in Italian, and when I tell them it’s Tevere, they realize they live on the other side of the river, in Trastevere, which literally means “beyond the Tiber.” It’s so funny because they all react like, “Oh! Trastevere! That’s what it means!” and they make that very small connection that is actually a huge realization.  

S: It’s also great because it grounds them and allows them to learn something about the language, which is very important. The other side of that is when a student will ask a question that I’ve never really thought about or thought about in the same way. They’ve made a connection that was personal and came from things they’ve seen or heard, and suddenly it makes me think about something in a new way. It goes both ways. In any class, at some number of times during a semester, a new idea is going to pop up, and that’s very exciting for me as an instructor.  

Another one of my favorite things of AIA is that we help develop very different programs for many universities. Some of them are architecture, some are sociology, some are in the sciences, and some are art history, so throughout the year, day to day, we’re thinking about a broad range of subjects, possibilities, and activities for the students, whether it’s meeting with an expert on gender studies to understand how those roles have changed in Italian society over the years, or taking the students to a particle accelerator because it’s a science program. That planning is very exciting to me because it allows me to think about the new opportunities that are going to be created, and we get to meet a lot of very interesting people in the process. We get to participate in this too, so we never stop learning because of it. 

K: Y’all are making wish I had studied abroad for a whole semester! 

S: Well, you can live abroad! I didn’t get the chance to study abroad when I was an undergraduate, and a year after I graduated, I bought a one-way ticket to Europe. I had a Eurorail pass and I packed up my backpack, and 29 years later, I’m still living there. 

K: Where did you go first? Did you start in Italy or go somewhere else? 

S: Rome was my destination, so I bought a one-way ticket to London from Boston, and they told me at the airport, “A one-way ticket? They might turn you back!” The whole flight I was terrified that I was actually going to get turned away, and they were a little nervous about me when I first arrived in England, but I told them I’d only be in England for a couple of weeks before heading down to Italy, so they said, “Come on in!” From there I backpacked about 6 weeks, all the way down the continent through Holland, Germany, France, Switzerland, and many other places, then down through Italy, where I ended up in Rome. I worked in Rome for a couple of months, then a couple of months became 4 months, then 4 months became 4 years, and then it just became the rest of my life. You can do anything you want to. 

K: Going off of that, what is your vision for Academic Initiatives Abroad? Where would you like to see this program be in 10, 20, 40, or even 50 years?  

C: Let’s hope we can still do everything in a thorough way, the same way we do it now. There’s always room for improvement, so at the end of every semester, we reflect on what could’ve been done better or what could be changed for the following semester. That’s how we make sure we progress. We go forward, looking at what we’ve done, and try to do it better by adapting to how things change around us or how students change from one generation to the next. Reflecting on what we do is the key for this kind of job. 

S: I’m going to give you 3 things. We want to continue to offer new opportunities in different locations and different subjects, whether they be in other parts of Italy, like our new program in Palermo, or other parts of Europe. That’s important to us. Also, like Claudia said, we want to maintain the quality of academics and services we hope we’re already providing.  

However, no matter what AIA grows into in the next 2, 5, 10, or 50 years, the students say something over and over that I hope they continue to say. When they go home, they say they don’t feel like they’re leaving a study abroad experience; they feel like they’re leaving a family behind. We want that to always be the case; that the students feel they have been in an atmosphere where they’ve been recognized, appreciated, not lost in a crowd, and safe. They can walk in any time of day and have a conversation with us or resolve a problem, and this goes from the management to the custodial staff. I think we’re all one big family with the students, and they tell us this again and again. So, no matter where we are, or how many students we might have, that will always be an important aspect of our mission and who we are. 

When [students] go home, they say they don’t feel like they’re leaving a study abroad experience; they feel like they’re leaving a family behind. We want that to always be the case.

Scott Schlimgen

C: Exactly, because at the end of the day, when you teach, it’s really a human experience. No matter what they learn, there is a human interaction between you and them, and we’ve seen how nice it feels when you get to see them again, like when we came to OU this week. 

S: There’s one more thing that I want to say that I think I said at the beginning. We’re sitting here at the University of Oklahoma, in the architecture offices, and this college, this department, and its faculty, like Professor Cricchio, have been tremendously supportive of this program since the beginning.  

C: That’s true and that is very important because that is not always the case. 

S: Exactly. There aren’t always individuals who pay this amount of attention and care to ensuring that the program is of the highest caliber for their students. They work so hard behind the scenes to support the program, and we don’t take that for granted. It’s a privilege to be part of this university. It’s a privilege to be able to host its students over there. We recognize the trust that the university places in us to send students over and give us the opportunity to work with them. It’s very important and we always want to recognize that, and we do, every day. We remind the students of that when they’re abroad. They’re University of Oklahoma students and this program is just an extension of what they do when they’re back home. 

C: That’s true and that’s so important, like we’ve said. We have other universities and other programs, but our relationship with the University of Oklahoma is one of a kind. 

Thank you again to Scott and Claudia for taking the time to share their experiences and wisdom with us. On behalf of GCA, we look forward to what is in store for AIA and its students in the future!

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.