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Exploring Culinary Delights and Cultural Connections: Jaden Stepp’s Study Abroad Journey with the Umbra Institute

Embarking on a study abroad journey is a transformative experience that opens doors to new academic horizons and personal growth. Jaden Stepp, an exceptional student from the College of Charleston followed her passion for Italian cuisine and history leading her to choose the Umbra Institute in Perugia as her study abroad destination, and her time here was nothing short of extraordinary.

When it came to selecting courses, Jaden strategically aligned her academic pursuits with her personal and professional aspirations. She enrolled in the course titled “History and Culture of Food in Italy,” which not only fulfilled credits for her minor in Italian but also deepened her understanding of the connection between cuisine and culture. Guided by Professor Viecelli, Jaden’s appreciation for food flourished. She observed, “The slow food movement here is countercultural to the fast pace of American life. In that fast pace, we forget to enjoy ourselves and the connections that can be made at the table. Being genuine, unique, and sustainable is reflected in every aspect of this cuisine. This is something I want to take home and be reflected in my career.”

One of Jaden’s most cherished experiences while in Perugia involved working with local women at Orti Urbani di San Matteo degli Armeni, an urban garden in the city. This hands-on experience beautifully complemented her coursework, providing her with a deeper understanding of sustainable food practices. Even though she is still learning Italian, she expressed that, “I did a lot of listening as the women hollered to each other across the garden. They were clearly dedicated to the garden, but as per usual in Italy, they were also dedicated to the cuisine, seeing as the garden workday doubled as a potluck. Each woman brought a dish, and after an hour of pulling weeds, … [we] sampled each of the dishes. Finally, they taught me a few dances to traditional Italian songs before calling it a night. That’s a memory I’ll  hold close.” Jaden’s experiences have not only expanded her knowledge of food and culture but have also fostered personal growth, intercultural understanding, and a deep appreciation for the connections forged through shared meals.

Reflecting on her journey, Jaden graciously shares some valuable advice for College of Charleston and other university students considering Perugia as their study abroad destination. She emphasizes that Perugia offers a unique experience for those seeking an alternative to the more typical Rome or Florence destinations, particularly in terms of practicing the Italian language with native speakers and immersing oneself in the local community. Jaden passionately embraced the Italian food culture and found joy in acclimating to a new routine, noting, “There are some unwritten laws you abide by in Italy.” From savoring a morning cappuccino and pastry to indulging in a late and leisurely dinner, she wholeheartedly embraced the Italian way of life.

Jaden’s study abroad experience in Italy has also broadened her perspective on global issues and the importance of intercultural communication. She stated, “Communication barriers are as limiting as you make them. If you tell yourself it’s too hard to make a connection with someone from a different culture, then you are limiting yourself. You have to step out of that limiting mindset! Intercultural communication is rooted in 1) curiosity and 2) love.  Also, there is no such thing as a language barrier when you have the language of food.”

As Jaden prepares to return to the College of Charleston this fall, she plans to incorporate her experiences and learnings from Italy into her future academic and career endeavors. She notably said, “Venturing out of the country on your own without having any close friends or family with you… It’s a bit nerve wracking because you don’t know how the culture shock will affect you. But ultimately, the Umbra Institute erased those worries.”

An asynchronous interview was conducted with Jaden Stepp to complete this blog. Be sure to check out another blog written about her experience at The Umbra Institute on the College of Charleston’s Abroad Blog here.


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