By Alexa Conti (class of 2021)
Every year, the National Italian American Foundation (NIAF) sponsors 20 Italian-American college students to travel to Italy (for free!) for their first times. The Ambassador Peter F. Secchia Voyage of Discovery Program is meant to strengthen the Italian American identity by bonding young Italian-Americans to the country, culture, and heritage of Italy; to help them gain an understanding of their heritage for the next generation; and to understand the historical significance of Italy and the current contribution Italy is making to the US and the world. The trip also offers students the opportunity to perform community service in areas of need during their stay in Italy.
This summer, I was fortunate enough to be awarded this opportunity. I spent two weeks in the southeastern region of Puglia, famously known as Italy’s “Heel of the Boot”, reconnecting with my cultural roots and refreshing my love for where I come from.
While both of my parents hail from southern Italy, I was exposed to customs and traditions native only to Puglia. For example, while pasta is a staple of the Italian diet, orecchiette is the pasta type most characteristic of this region.
Puglia is an incredibly diverse region. On my left was the mountain range and on my right was the Adriatic Sea. Puglia is known for its intense olive oil production as well as the abundance of cozze, or mussels, from the sea. Some major points that were visited during the trip include three UNESCO sites (Castel del Monte, the Trulli of Alberobello, and Matera) the easternmost point of Italy, Otranto, and the region’s capital, Bari.
The most unique aspect about this experience was that I got to experience it with other Italian-American students from around the country. Unless you live in a heavily populated community with other Italian-Americans, it’s usually hard to meet people who identify with their Italian heritage. Throughout the trip, we were all able to share and compare stories from our crazy Italian backgrounds, from our families to holidays to idiomatic expressions in each of our dialects. In addition to an augmented sense of pride for my ancestral country, I know that I also walked away with a new group for friends and expanded community, all bound by this “voyage of discovery”.
Flash forward four months after the trip, NIAF hosts an annual anniversary gala in Washington, D.C. that which all of the Voyage of Discovery alumni are invited to. The theme of the gala is based around that year’s region of honor. The food, drink, decorations, dances, and anything else needed for the gala were imported from Italy, and more specifically, Puglia. Many important Italian and Italian-American guests were invited to the event, including the Ambassador of Italy to the United States, the President of Puglia, and the CEO of Bristol-Myers Squibb.
Overall, the entire experience is one that I hope every Italian-American can be involved in and remain a part of for the rest of their lives, because I know I will be.