Tara Fenner talks about her experience with the John Carroll University Vatican City Program and how it brought her a future in Italy.

“Mi sono trovata,” I read while enjoying a novel and granita (an icy Italian treat) down in Southern Sicily. I broke down the grammar. The writer was talking about the person’s state of being in the past tense; about herself specifically.  In this instant I knew that I had finally allowed the Italian language into my life. And for the first time, since my decision to leave everything stable and everyone I love for an uncertain future in Italy, I knew I was on the right path, and in that moment, just like the author, I found myself.

The bond I shared with my Italian grandfather was what originally brought me to study abroad in Italy; however, my innate curiosity was the motivation. It was during my experience in Rome with the John Carroll Vatican City Program (2007) that I realized I was following in the footsteps of many others: from travelling students and guiding professors to famous artists and accredited writers all in search of something.  As far as my future was concerned, humanistic studies were never a possibility as I anticipated following my proclivity involving a combination of business plans and budgets. Conversely, my time in Rome unknowingly lead me in a different direction as I was no longer studying but became a part of my studies in the intriguing way Italian Literature, Art, History, Religion and Language intertwines. I was inspired to learn and taught to reason in ways I hadn’t before through the richness of these courses.

After I returned home to the States I found myself constantly involved in the Italian-American community. It wasn’t until I started working and settled myself that although my life had a sense of security, I knew I needed to make a decision between following my natural inclination and pursuing my dream to live in Italy. For the next year I underwent the excruciating process of searching my ancestral roots in hopes of receiving my dual-citizenship. When I was about to give up hope, I received an email from a woman in Bronte, Sicily, who not only validated my great-grandfather’s document for my citizenship but informed me that she and I are cousins.


Within months I found myself in Sicily, teaching English and getting to know and love my cousins in Bronte. I was able to connect with my relatives, travel across Italy and Europe, make life long friends from all over the globe (shout out) and enjoy every moment I taught in the classroom.

It was upon my return to America when I visited Ellis Island with my Italian cousins, that my perspective on life changed.  I thought about the overwhelming sensation I felt when my families from two different worlds met for the first time. I appreciated the risks my great-grandfather took on his voyage to America, fighting sickness and hunger, undergoing quarantine, and the efforts he made to build a life that could provide for his family an ocean away. I was thankful for the educational values he integrated in the foundation of my family by pursuing great opportunity, which is the same part of him I have found in myself,  and I believe defines me today.

Almost 5 years to the day, after my first trip to Italy, I found myself boarding a plane to Rome to assist in the same study abroad program that instigated my journey. There is not a day that went by that I did not see our students maturing into young adults of the world through the exposure of these studies. I saw in them, the same innate curiosity and yearning to discover that I developed when I made the same trip years before.  I saw how the work of the Director, Dr. Santa Casciani, helped to guide the students to find the answers they seek.

Today, I find myself in Cleveland a changed person, because of my time with the JCU Vatican City Program. Professionally, the program helped me to find what I want in a career and brought me to my job in Philanthropy at Cleveland Clinic. Personally, I have found a family that I was always meant to meet.


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