FDU Historical Perspectives II: Guest Blog Contribution by Clifford J. Brooks

FDU Historical Perspectives II— “The College on Wheels”

Guest Blog by Clifford J. Brooks

Having recently written about some of the projects that were initiated by Sister Margherita Marchione, MPF, and Dr. Peter Sammartino, we came across a brief mention of an endeavor that does not appear in any of Dr. Sammartino’s publications. We know that Peter Sammartino was very interested in international education, and that one of the major emphases at Fairleigh Dickinson University (FDU) was an understanding of what went on all over the world. The Sammartinos strongly encouraged experiential learning and student trips. They themselves loved visiting Southeast Asia and often arranged for travel and study seminars for students. Of course, given Dr. Sammartino’s background, trips to Europe figured largely in his overall educational planning, and Italy was always on his mind. This should not be a surprise to any of our readers who knew him or his interests in immigration and Italian-American heritage.

It was pointed out in the first blog that Sister Margherita and Dr. Sammartino were frequent collaborators and longtime friends. Both were serious academics who believed in the value of instruction in a foreign country that could be combined with a collegial environment and a well-developed curriculum. Neither Sister nor Dr. Sammartino wanted students to waste their entire day sitting in cafes or staying in a dormitory sleeping, just to go out and party at night. The Southeast Asian seminar was organized in such a way as to allow students to pursue their own objectives while following a curriculum that would stand up to any academic scrutiny. Dr. and Mrs. Sammartino did not stop here. From the small forays abroad came a series of summer institutes at FDU and the development of a concerted effort to bring international students to the FDU Campuses. Both felt that not only would this enrich the lives of the American students on campus, but also expand the influence of FDU throughout the world.

Meanwhile, Sister Margherita was working diligently on the Mazzei project and planning ceremonies for the 250th anniversary of Mazzei’s birth, which included celebrating the release of an air mail stamp commissioned by the US Post Office honoring Philip Mazzei. In true Marchione/Sammartino style, the anniversary celebrations were on an international level, with a conference in Rome scheduled for October 15, 1980 which was also designed to celebrate the printing of another Mazzei stamp by the Republic of Italy. Peter Sammartino and Sister were treated like royalty at the Excelsior Hotel, attended gala dinners and met a number of high ranking Italian government officials.

Following the conference, Dr. and Mrs. Sammartino, Sister, and other dignitaries were invited to the home of American Ambassador Gardner for a reception. It was there that the idea of Corfinio College was conceived during a conversation that included the Sammartinos, Sister, and Henry Tessicini, a well-known Italian philanthropist, who was interested in promoting the teaching of Italian culture. His friendship with Peter Sammartino inspired him to donate funds for young American students to study in Italy. Building off the existing summer institutes, Dr. Sammartino placed the idea for expanding the existing Italian programs into the hands of Sister Margherita Marchione. Thus was born the “college on wheels.” For ten summers a new program, based in Corfinio, Italy introduced Americans and other Europeans to Italian culture and civilization. Over five hundred students graduated from Corfinio, some of whom still keep in touch with Sister Margherita.

After the closing of Walsh College in 1971, both Sister and the Sammartinos were discouraged, since the institution was financially sound and educationally successful. Sally Sammartino had donated years of experience in Admissions to Walsh, and Peter Sammartino had served as President of the Board. Both encouraged Sister to remain at Fairleigh Dickinson University and continue with her research and other activities. They were particularly interested in Sister’s working in the summer institutes, where students received six undergraduate credits from Fairleigh Dickinson University and enjoyed complete immersion in Italian culture and civilization.

Sister was never happy with the housing for her summer institute FDU students and yearned for a different venue. Plumbing problems in the pensione would take up lot of her time and never seemed to improve from year to year. After the reception where Corfinio was discussed, the establishment of the new “college” solved all of her maintenance responsibilities. The FDU Institutes held in Italy morphed easily into the Corfinio College on wheels. As in all of the Marchione/Sammartino collaborations, Corfinio was innovative and far ahead of its time. The program was designed in such a way as to take students to nearby towns and cities in their “scuolabus or pulmino,” where they would learn, through observations and interviews, about the lives of other people, their aspirations and their problems. Sister and Dr. Sammartino called it an “anthropological approach to learning.” Materials for use in the culture and language courses were developed to provide insights into the nature of Italian lifestyles and gain new perspectives in the context of the social services and international trade and business. Language proficiency was of primary importance. In later years, Corfinio College students travelled through Italy, visiting sites and cities from Calabria to Venice.

Instructors included Carmen Prezioso, Chairman of the Language Department of Princeton High School, Edward Golda of Union College, and Grace Gaetani of FDU, among others. The students always seemed to enjoy the various experiences offered to them by the Corfinio program. One could recount a number of stories that Sister tells about her travels with Corfinio, but a particular anecdote demonstrates how she and Dr. Sammartino would operate. When visiting a museum near Naples, Sister was dismayed to find a large sign posted on the gate stating that the museum was closed for repairs. Never taking no for the answer, Sister went from door to door to find someone to open the museum. She had no success and was about to leave when she noticed a large church bell in the courtyard. Ringing the bell, Sister summoned workers and a kind looking monk. Explaining to the monk that the students travelled from the United States to see the museum, the monk unlocked the door and gave them a guided tour!

Sister’s files are full of letters from former Corfinio students who attest to the richness of the program and how they were changed by their experiences at Corfinio. The FDU Summer Institutes developed into a special program that was later incorporated as Corfinio College– a nonprofit, nonsectarian co-educational program in association with Thomas Edison College of New Jersey, offering seven credits for transfer to any college in the United States. The students even formed their own alumni association and met at Sister’s Mazzei Center in Morristown ever year. Corfinio ended in 1989.

Information on the College on Wheels and Dr. Sammartino’s projects can easily be found in the Frank Giavotto Library in Teaneck.

This blog is freely adapted from interviews with and publications by Sister Margherita Marchione, MPF. Sister has given explicit permission to be quoted or copied.


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