Lauren-Claire Kelley at the Museo Civico di Bologna
Alumni Focus Essay
Italian Program, George Mason University, November 1, 2015
By the time I signed up for the advanced Italian course at Mason, I was a veteran of foreign language classes. After taking French from middle school through college, and Italian for one year, I thought that I knew the format for language classes. We went through endless fill-in-the-blank exercises; we practiced reading and aural comprehension; and at higher levels, we struggled through interactive activities that always seemed several steps beyond our vocabulary. Learning grammar always came easily enough to me, but my classes rarely inspired me with confidence or a sense of possibility. With few exceptions, language classes were about measuring myself against the target language, and always finding my accent, my customs, and my phrasing, short of the mark.
Professor Olson’s course was different. In her class, learning Italian was not about trying to be Italian; it was about using another language to gain a new vantage point on the world, to experiment with new sounds and ideas. Learning Italian was about learning to delight in my ability to learn. In all my years of foreign language classes, Professor Olson was one of only two teachers to communicate to her students that their ideas and personal experience with the language were just as important as their ability to conjugate verbs or to pronounce Italian’s singing vowels. Within a very short time, our class became a close-knit community, as we laughed and made discoveries together. And within a few months, I decided that I wanted to be a teacher of Italian, so that I could give the same experience to other students.
Without the support of Professor Olson and the Italian program, I would probably not have applied for a Fulbright Teaching Assistantship, and I would probably not have spent a year in Southern Italy, learning about the region’s rich history and gaining valuable insights about education in European cultures. Without Professor Olson and my mentor from the English department, Professor Lockwood, I would probably not have applied to graduate school.
I am now into my fourth year in the Department of Italian Studies at UC Berkeley, and about to embark on a doctoral project that examines textual embodiment in nineteenth and early twentieth-century novels through dance studies and theories of kinesthesia. In these four years, I have met remarkable scholars and made great friends. I have made intellectual discoveries that pushed my thinking in new directions. Through it all, teaching language has remained a source of inspiration and encouragement. As a teacher of beginning-level Italian, I feel honored to be the first point of contact, for many of my students, with the language, and I strive to nurture the same enthusiasm and self-confidence that was once given to me.
Every day that I teach, I relive a part of my experience at George Mason. Every time that a timid student gains courage; every time that my students offer each other support; and every time that my students use Italian to share their creativity and insights, I am grateful that I signed up for a second year of the Italian program at Mason.