April 26, 2011 | Andrew Steiner

Two Calvin seniors are studying in Perugia, Italy via an award from Grand Rapids Sister Cities International.

For Calvin seniors Alicia Sheppard and Alyson De Walle, international travel is nothing new. Yet both admitted to being more than a little ecstatic when they found out that they would be given $2,000 each and one-month’s tuition to study in Italy.

“I cried,” De Walle remembers. “It was overwhelming.”

Sheppard confessed that “afterwards there was a little bit of jumping for joy.”

Sheppard and De Walle are the recipients of this year’s Angela Ryan Scholarship, an award given by Grand Rapids Sister Cities International. The scholarship sends two Grand Rapids college students to study at the Universita per Stranieri in Perugia, Italy every year. Sheppard will go in July and De Walle in September.

Students from around the world

The “University for Foreigners” in Grand Rapids’ sister city, Perugia, is an international center for the study of Italian language and culture.

“It was originally an Etruscan city, which is pre-Roman,” Sheppard said. “The bus ride is only two hours from Rome and a lot of students, through the university, have gotten the chance to go to Florence and Venice and Rome.”

The University for Foreigners was created by the University of Perugia as a place for students from around the world to study Italian culture, specifically that of its own region of Umbria. Founded in the fourth-century B.C., Perugia boasts medieval fountains and aqueducts, Renaissance cathedrals and frescos by Perugino and Raphael.

The daughter of an officer in the American Navy and an enthusiastic traveler, Sheppard has lived in Spain, Japan, Germany and Italy. “I kind of grew up in Italy,” she explained. “I spent one year [there] when I was really little, and then two years later, when I was a little bit older, I lived in Naples.”

“It was a part of my life, going down to the grocery store and asking for uovo instead of eggs,” Sheppard said. When she came across the Angela Ryan Scholarship in a Calvin honors news feed, she viewed it as a chance to explore the culture of Italy more deeply: “Italy’s got an amazing history, and where else would I be able to go off to Italy for a month? I’m taking advantage of my freedom. I’m trying to do as much as I can.”

For De Walle, whose hometown is Lethbridge, Alberta, studying at Calvin has been an international experience. “I know how much I’ve learned about different cultures just living in Michigan compared to Alberta,” she said. “I’ve gotten to do a little bit of traveling, but nothing immersion-type like this.”

Changing it up

“I did do the interim to Australia,” De Walle reflected. “I just signed up for it by myself. There’s just that sense of adventure.” While Australia was rewarding, she said, “at the same time, I wasn’t satisfied because they speak English. I was almost more excited that we were traveling through Japan on the way there.”

Studying psychology and biochemistry, De Walle plans to go to medical school after graduation. A month in Perugia represents an opportunity to hone the communication skills needed to work with patients. “I know how much that’s going to teach me,” she said, “especially as a doctor in the future, just to be a good communicator, to understand differences. Multicultural competence, basically.”

Every year, the University for Foreigners draws students from 100 different countries. The promise of studying in such a diverse environment was one of the main attractions of the scholarship for Sheppard.

“They have people from all over,” Sheppard said. “We were talking to one of the girls who went last year, and she met an Israeli soldier and a German schoolteacher – it’s all these people from all over the world coming to study Italian. So you not only get the Italian culture, you get all these people who are just there to learn and enjoy Italy. I’m really looking forward to it.”

One of the attractions of the opportunity for De Walle is the generosity behind the scholarship: “It still amazes me that there are people out there who are so passionate about Italy and about Grand Rapids that they give money, they give me hugs, that they chose me. One lady cried about it. It just means so much, especially to the Italian community within Grand Rapids. It was just that it existed, that someone would send a college student to Europe for free.”

Alicia Sheppard

Alyson de Walle

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