March 3rd, 2016
PERUGIA, Italy — “A person should not be defined by where they are from,” emphasized SUNY Buffalo student, Brenna Riordan, as she described how her experience studying abroad in Perugia, Italy has shaped her view of intercultural relations. Brenna is a Health and Human Services Major who is currently enrolled in PYHD 430: Human Development in Culture as well as CESP 354: Critical Disabilities Studies: Seminar and Practicum at the Umbra Institute, a study abroad program in Perugia, whose courses focus on service-learning and community engagement as a way to introduce students to intercultural interpretations of international realities.
Brenna admitted that, as she was preparing for her time in Italy and her future in nursing school, she was not thinking of societal issues and their cultural interpretations; her perspective was widened during her time in Umbra’s Human Development course, led by Professor Christian Tarchi. In this course, Tarchi teaches the ecology of human development, or the complex interaction of a constantly changing organism and its constantly evolving environment. He emphasizes the idea that even though individuals and groups of individuals differ from each other, some ideas, values, and behaviors may be universal and shared by all humans in all cultures, ultimately making us more alike than we may realize. “Through this experience, I have learned how to really look at [an individual’s] culture, to try to see where they are coming from, and to think more critically without making judgements,” said Brenna as she described how the course material relates directly to her future career in New York. “This is definitely going to help me in the future because I will be working with a lot of different people from many different cultures.”
Brenna’s understanding of the influence of culture on societal expectations and realities is further developed through her participation in Umbra’s Critical Disabilities Seminar and Practicum. During the seminar portion of the course, an examination of disabilities from a culturally diverse perspective is completed in a classroom setting. During the practicum, Brenna and her classmates work with VIVA Sports Association, a local athletic program designed to teach people with motor and/or intellectual disabilities various teambuilding sports and games with the goal of integrating them into society. Brenna’s participation in the course has led her to better understand VIVA’s approach to the inclusive Italian perspective expressed toward those with disabilities. “They are included, not babied. Of course they have their difficulties, but I feel they are a lot more confident,” said Brenna as she shared what she had learned and observed while working with VIVA. She went on to describe how she had watched VIVA participants be placed in time-out for not following the rules of the athletic activities, or not taking participation seriously. She noted that each VIVA participant is aware of the rules of their environment and takes care to be polite; mutual respect is displayed between VIVA participants and volunteers so that conversation is welcomed between the two groups who appear to be one, further emphasizing what she had learned about the effect of interpersonal interaction on society.
Experience with Italian culture and the culture of the intellectually and/or physically disabled, has inspired Brenna to emphasize that not just every country, but every social group and every individual has a different culture that influences their perception of events in the world around them. “The way that people from different cultures think is so different from the way that I think,” said Brenna, in closing. “Things that are normal to me are weird to them and it is difficult to realize how different a culture can be until you step out of your comfort zone and experience it.”
About Critical Disabilities Studies at the Umbra Institute:
The Umbra Institute offers a course in Critical Disabilities Studies during the summer, fall, and spring semesters. This course is taught by Professor Christian Tarchi and complemented by the Human Development in Culture course, offered during the fall and spring. The Critical Disabilities Seminar and Practicum is divided into two parts: the seminar portion allows participants to examine theories and models on critical disability studies from an international and cross-cultural perspective; the practicum portion allows students to work with VIVA Sports Association, an organization that uses athletics to move beyond “compassion” and “medical help” in order to integrate people with disabilities into society and help them develop team building skills that also improve their ability to be self-supported.