As a resident adviser at the University of Oklahoma, Bridgitte Castorino thought she had seen everything the student experience presents. She was wrong.
Castorino spent three of her undergraduate years on the Norman campus as an RA, serving as a de facto house mother, friend, confidant and disciplinarian. She watched students grow from the opportunities academics and social life on a college campus present. Her time in the residence halls led her to the above conclusion. A year in Italy convinced her otherwise.
It was a year as graduate resident director at OU’s center in Arezzo, Italy, under the university’s Education Abroad program, where Castorino figured out the world was much larger, both literally and figuratively, than that residence hall in Norman.
“As an RA, I thought I’d seen all the student development I could see,” Castorino recalls. “I was wrong.”
Wrong, understand, in a good way, as in there were plenty more opportunities for learning, growth, relationships and service to which she could introduce students.
“It was the best experience of my life,” Castorino says. “It involved three things I’m passionate about; working with students, the University of Oklahoma and traveling. How can you not love that?”
With infectious enthusiasm, Castorino now works to pass on her love for students, her university and the expansive international opportunities available to students in her role as the OU in Arezzo (OUA) Study Abroad Adviser.
In June, Castorino will return to Arezzo with OU President’s Community Scholars students for a two-week immersion in academics, culture and service. It will be her first trip back to OUA since her year as a graduate resident director.
“It is such a life-changing experience,” Castorino says. “There’s a feeling of confidence you get. It’s realizing you can be independent.”
Along with PCS Adviser Kari Dawkins and the OU Alumni Association’s Courtlyn Shoate, Castorino will make the trek to Italy with 30 PCS students. Suzette Grillot, dean of the OU College of International Studies, will serve as the faculty member teaching the international and area studies course around which the trip is constructed. Students will earn three hours of credit. However, Castorino points out, many lessons learned will also come outside the classroom.
“The amount that students grow is amazing, especially those students who immerse themselves,” she points out. “They just realize the world is a much bigger place. They become more self-aware. They gain an appreciation for diversity. You watch students completely transform.”
PCS students will follow members of the President’s Leadership Class to Italy. Some 50 PLC students left earlier this month to study with Kirk DuClaux, director of Italian Programs, and David Ray, dean of the OU Honors College.
In addition to their time at OUA, PCS student will visit Rome, Florence, and Assisi. In Arezzo, they’ll continue a service project begun last summer by prior PCS summer group in Arezzo. They’ll paint the walkway under a city rail track with murals depicting both local flavor and a bit of Norman.
Through its study abroad initiatives, OU offers various opportunities for students to study away from the Norman campus, including yearlong and semester-long programs, 3 – 4 week Journey programs and college- or major-specific programs run by the university’s academic colleges and independent educational travel partners. In addition to OU in Arezzo, the university runs OU centers in Puebla, Mexico and Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. Destinations for this year’s Journey programs include Turkey, Tanzania, China and Brazil, in addition to Italy. This summer, nearly 340 OU students will study abroad in Italy.
Regardless of the destination or program, Castorino says the experience of taking the classroom beyond Norman becomes unforgettable for students.
“There are so many takeaways, culturally and academically,” she says.
Castorino experienced firsthand those “takeaways” as she was saying goodbye to her first class of students in Arezzo last year. She recalls seeing a student tearing up, a student who she says normally might not be prone to show such emotion.
“I was surprised,” Castorino admits. “It wasn’t his personality. I asked if he was okay and he said, ‘We’re leaving.’ I said, ‘Yeah, but you can come back.’ And he said, ‘But not with this group, not like this.’
“It was deep and profound. It was a memory and a story that was created.”
Deep and profound. Both experienced in Norman and thousands miles away.
For more information on OU’s Education Abroad program, visit http://www.ou.edu/cis/education_abroad.html.