Even now, tears well in Dr. Dana Bush’s eyes when she recalls the moment that she led 26 EKU students into the room housing Michelangelo’s iconic 17-foot-tall statue of biblical hero David.
“I’ll turn around to watch them, and I cry every time,” she acknowledged. “Just the look on their faces when they see that beautiful marble work of art. One by one, their mouths drop, our eyes get misty, and we cry together.”
Such is the life-changing impact of an annual tour of Italy organized by the EKU Department of Family and Consumer Sciences, which Bush, ’95, chairs. For the first time this year, nine Eastern alumni joined the students and faculty for a portion of the tour, which encompassed Florence, Siena, nearby wine country and Rome, and carried the name of the credit class from which it sprung, Food, Fashion and Family.
For most of the students, it was their first time to fly, let alone visit another country. But they soon came to think of Florence, their base, as sort of a second home, even making friends with the shopkeepers who forgave their butchered attempts at the Italian language.
“Seeing more of the world crushed the bubble I clung so closely to,” declared Kimberly Mosher, a junior interdisciplinary early childhood education major from Richmond. “Being in a different culture not only opened my eyes to the world, but to the perspective of others I would soon travel home with. It broadens our perspectives on the world and makes us feel less alone, that we have something more to live for than just the degree we walk away with.”
Brent Brashear, a senior apparel design and merchandising major from Jackson, Kentucky, still “cannot believe I had the opportunity to go. Just thinking about the things I was able to do and see makes me tear up.”
While in Italy, the students took language/culture and cooking classes; visited museums, churches and historic sites; toured a Gucci factory; watched artisans at work; enjoyed a runway fashion show; and spent a “very cold” January morning beautifying a Florence park, repaying a debt of gratitude to the city that so warmly welcomed them.
But it wasn’t necessarily the organized activities that left the most vivid impressions. Brashear was surprised to see the streets still filled with Christmas decorations through Jan. 6, Epiphany on the Catholic church calendar. The occasion was marked by a “huge parade that people from all over the world come to watch,” and the students also learned about Befana, an Italian equivalent of Santa Claus.
Whether it was learning to enjoy foods they never would have tried back home, tearing up at the beauty of a Gregorian chant sung by monks in a 14th-century chapel, or appreciating the beauty and serenity of the famous Boboli Gardens in Florence, the students were changed in immeasurable ways.
But first they had to open their minds and hearts to such new experiences. And that process began before they ever left Richmond. The students and faculty – Bush was joined by colleagues Dr. Susan Kipp and Dr. Rachel Harrington on the most recent trip – became a “family” at a pre-trip party at Bush’s home. “We really have a personal relationship with the students so they will feel comfortable,” Bush said. “They come to trust us. It’s a huge responsibility, but it’s one we really enjoy.”
Bush also enjoyed seeing the students and alumni bond over the two weeks they were together. It was impossible to tell who gained more, or who learned more from whom.
Donna Caldwell, ’92 ’95, said she “really enjoyed the opportunity to be with and get to know the EKU students. It was so encouraging to … talk with them about their goals for the future and to hear them reflecting on all they were learning, and how the knowledge they gained was so much more than they could have imagined.
“The entire experience was just wonderful,” added Caldwell, who is employed by Madison County Schools. “So many things to see and do. It is hard to say that I enjoyed any one thing more. However, spending those days in Florence opened my eyes and broadened my mind in ways that nothing else ever has.”
The trip also re-engaged Caldwell with the University. “Most definitely I feel more connected with the EKU community and now will be more interested in things that are going on at Eastern.”
The same goes for Renee Kaspner, ’87, who came all the way from California to join the journey.
“I enjoyed the ‘school’ schedule, which gave us all a flavor of the culture, including the cooking classes, wine tasting and the opera,” said Kaspner, a community nutrition graduate now employed by the Riverside County (California) Office of Education. “The schedule included time for exploring on your own and being immersed in the Italian way of life.”
Like Caldwell, Kaspner came away impressed by the students, who she said “are so smart and learn so quickly. The students arrived a week before alumni, so they knew all the ins and outs, where to go for great coffee, gelato, shopping and all things important in new surroundings.”
Kaspner has already made a trip back to campus to see her newfound friends.
“Being able to get connected again to a community that I have such fond memories of has been wonderful,” she said. “We all have memories to last a lifetime … or until another trip.”
Not surprisingly, interest in the Italy tour has grown rapidly from just four students who joined the first trip two years ago. But the experience never gets old, either for the students who return or for the faculty.
“Every year I come away with something new,” Bush said. “It has really fired me up for wanting to get more students to travel and study abroad. I wish I could just plop every one of our EKU students over there for just three weeks. What a more loving place we would be.”
— This article also appears in the Fall 2017 EKU Magazine.