Currently a PhD student in research on inclusive education, Sara Jo Soldovieri ’18, G’19 was in her second year when she took Literacy, Inclusion and Diversity in Italy, a short course abroad offered by the School of education and Syracuse abroad.
Soldovieri enrolled at Syracuse University because of her interest in inclusive education and the university’s deep expertise in the subject. Studying abroad in Italy showed her the possibilities of fully integrating students with disabilities into the classroom. This helped set Soldovieri on his academic path.
A reinvented program
“A beneficial part of the trip was seeing inclusion in action in a way that we don’t see in the United States,” Soldovieri says. “Although Italy is not perfect, for students with disabilities, being fully included in the classrooms and seeing the work was really important to me. It wasn’t just a utopia, inclusion really does exist.
Literacy, Inclusion and Diversity in Italy was originally developed over 20 years ago by Professor Carol Berrigan, one of the many pioneers of inclusive education who have partnered with Syracuse over the years. In 2014, the program was revamped by professors Christine Ashby, Beth Ferri and Kathleen Hinchman. Now vice-rector for strategic initiatives, Marcelle Haddix also joined the team in 2016.
“We turned it into a co-taught program, led by literacy and disability studies teachers, with teachers swapping assignments from year to year,” says Ashby. The last trip before the coronavirus pandemic was in 2018, when 16 students traveled abroad. The program returns between May 16 and June 1, 2022, with 12 students enrolled.
As in the past, students will stay part of the time in Florence, home to Villa Rossa, the center of Syracuse, visit schools and cultural sites, and spend a day in Venice. They will also travel to Rome for a week to continue their study of Italian history and policies on disability and inclusion.
air of joy
Before Florence and Rome, students begin the short course in the Italian Marche region and the picturesque village of Coldigioco. This hilltop community already has a connection to central New York. It is known worldwide for its Geological Observatory, an interdisciplinary research center bringing together geology, art and cuisine, co-founded by Syracuse artist Paula Metallo.
While the Education School students stay in the village, they carry out literacy projects and observe fully inclusive schooling in the nearby town of Apiro. This is the part of the trip that deeply marked Soldovieri.
“I remember watching a student with a noticeable physical disability and complex support structures (augmented communication and wheelchair) being fully included in a science lesson,” Soldovieri recalls. “From the way the other students were interacting, I could tell it wasn’t just a show for Americans. There was an air of joy among these students. I thought, this is the energy I want in my classroom.
“Italy has some of the most progressive policies in the world for inclusive practices,” says Ashby. This fact, together with the country’s current engagement in profound societal changes, such as immigration, which directly affect education policy, make Italy an excellent study site for US-based education students. United.
Italy chose a strong inclusive education policy as part of its reconstruction and renewal after the fascist government of the 1930s and 1940s and the devastation of World War II. “Italy’s ‘Savage Inclusion Period’ began in 1971,” says Ashby. “Part of the country’s reconstruction was inclusive, with all children with disabilities going to mainstream schools. The idea was that the school is a family and we should all be in a community and take care of each other.
When introduced in the 1970s, Italy’s policy of integrating students with disabilities went much further than US policy on special education. Although the policy changes have brought Italy closer to the American model, the Italian education system has nonetheless inspired Soldovieri, who calls for sweeping changes to special education in his home country.
“Thinking about my time in Syracuse – and then my return to Italy – everything I do is centered on the idea that there will be no progress in fixing our unjust education system unless we get rid of our current special education system and that we introduce disability supports into general education,” says Soldovieri, explaining his current research.
“We don’t need a separate system for students with disabilities,” Soldovieri continues. “In Italy, these students received exactly what they needed without any ‘special’ education. I framed my scholarship around this idea, and I might not have had this idea without my experience abroad.
A mixed cohort
Graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 2018, Soldovieri went on to obtain a master’s degree in inclusive special education (grades 7-12) before moving on to a doctorate. program. She says she would consider returning to Italy as a doctoral student, taking advantage of a unique aspect of short training.
“We bring students ranging from the first year of the undergraduate – often from the inclusive primary and special education program – to the doctorate. students prepared to defend their theses,” observes Ashby.
Having a mixed cohort benefits younger students who have just been introduced to the wide range of topics covered in the course – literacy, diversity, inclusion and disability studies. “Graduate students are encouraged to mentor undergraduates, but often the mentoring happens naturally,” adds Ashby.
“Graduate students were very willing to support and push undergraduates and help with difficult readings,” Soldovieri recalls. “I thought graduate students didn’t have to do that, but it’s part of the culture at the School of Education.”
Learn more about the School of Education Study Abroad Programsas well as Himan Brown scholarships to support study abroad experiences.