My Italian Odyssey

Jalal H. is a junior at SYA Italy. He comes to SYA from The Hill School in Pennsylvania.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” I guess I can use Dickens to sum up my SYA Italy experience.  The situation was getting worse and worse each day with new coronavirus cases and deaths devastating the northern part of the country. We feared for the SYA Italy program, unaware of the seriousness of the virus that was sweeping through Italy taking many lives. Then we got the dreaded message which affected us personally. SYA Italy was over. We were going home. 

Thus ended rather abruptly my School Year Abroad experience. It had begun as an uncertain journey. I didn’t know where it would lead and what I would get from it. In fact, I thought of it more as a one-year long summer camp. It turned out that it was much, much more than that. Unlike a summer camp, I gained a completely new perspective on Italy and I formed bonds that will last a lifetime. Viterbo, a one-hour drive from Rome, was the base of SYA Italy and was where we would live and study for the next nine months. 

Although my Italian Odyssey now lives within me only in the form of memories, it reflects the best of times. My friend Samuel and I, well, we were "The Explorers." We were so obsessed with exploring that for our scholastic trips to Rome we would take the 5:00 a.m. train, finish the assignment quickly, and then have time to go off on our own and explore fresh pastures. We were willing to go anywhere if we thought it would be interesting. Using a bicycle to explore Rome, we were able to go to various parts of the ‘Eternal City’ and discover things that not many people know about. Did you know there is a small hole with a 2-cm diameter in a door of a nearby building that if you look through it you can get the best view of the Vatican? We had the lust for adventure, and we lived our lives to the full.

However, dark clouds were on the horizon. We knew there was a virus somewhere in China that was causing problems. We thought we were safe, that it would never come to us. It did come, and it came hard. In the time between January to early March, there was a lot of uncertainty and confusion amongst the students and teachers. There were rumors of the school closing down and that we would all have to be sent home. Yet we lived in hope. Maybe this is just temporary. Maybe the virus will die off soon. But the virus did not die off. A few students decided to leave the program citing health issues, but we persisted. And it just seemed for a moment that we might just power through this and SYA Italy would remain alive and well. But it was not to be

The day after the announcement that we were to leave, I woke up at 4:00 a.m. to go meet Samuel and another friend in Valle Faul, the main park of Viterbo. The three of us sat watching the last sunrise of Viterbo, a place we now viewed as a second home. It was one of the most beautiful sunrises that I’ve ever seen. No one said a thing. We all just wanted to enjoy the moment. Afterwards, we decided to walk around the town for one last time. We walked past familiar sites and buildings. Every now and then one of us would reminisce about a particular place. Sometimes I could see my past self, walking with my other classmates and teachers during one of our Wednesday fieldwork assignments. They were now just shadows of a time when there was no virus, no danger.

We finally stopped at Caffeina, our favourite café, to have our last Italian coffee. I took the time to reflect on my memories of the program and all the fun times I had. My Italian Odyssey had come to a surprising end. Like Odysseus, I had learned a lot on this journey. Unlike Odysseus, I was coming home too soon. Considering the fact that SYA comprises of China, Italy, France, and Spain, and that all four of these countries were the hardest hit, I can’t help but wonder if something was coming after me! But joking aside, I felt as if my destiny was unfulfilled. This couldn’t be the end, I thought to myself. 

Now, almost two months later, I am reconciling the worst of times with memories of the best of times. I look back at the time when I sat looking at the Viterbo sunrise for one last time. I now have come to realize that the sunrise did not signal the end of an era, but rather the beginning of a new epoch. This would be a time of discovery, new opportunities, and of hope. The promise of maturity. I looked at the rising sun with a feeling of hope and a new drive that I built up during my time with SYA. I knew my destiny was not yet realized. My destiny was waiting for me. It would not be in Viterbo, but in the stars, forever alive in our night sky. 

Grazie, Italia. Thanks, SYA. 

Photo credit: Samuel E. 

  • SYA Italy
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A key priority of The Campaign for SYA was curricular innovation. One component of SYA’s curriculum that has been developed and implemented in recent years — fieldwork — helps SYA take advantage of our unique locations to create a quality intercultural, place-based, and experiential educational environment abroad. 

School trips

These are the moments that make the SYA experience so magical. When the lessons students have learned in the classroom are brought to life before their eyes. When the student becomes the teacher, introducing people, places and concepts using the knowledge they have gained. When students debate a relevant issue, learning how to engage in perspective taking and critical thinking.

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Giving to the SYA Fund supports SYA’s operational budget each and every year and helps to provide immediate use funds to deliver the SYA experience we know and love. Through The Campaign for SYA, over $7 million dollars were raised for the SYA Fund. We are grateful to these donors for creating a strong foundation of support for our students and educators.