Exploring the Colosseum

It’s 5 o’clock and the golden Roman sun beats down, full summer strength.

  • The group of students waiting on the Via Nicola Salvi, perched above the piazza that surrounds the famed Roman Colosseum, sit lazily on the wall, huddling together under the only shade in sight. Pacing nearby, the School of Communication in Rome program director, Randy Hillebrand, talks on his cell phone, making another arrangement for the next day’s program.

    “Randy!” someone calls out. “Get off the phone.”

    Hillebrand waves them off.

    “Check out this view!” another student proclaims. The Colosseum looms large, meters away, aurulent in the late afternoon glow, pockets of dark cool air behind the ancient columns and arches a dramatic contrast to the brilliant summer sunlight.

  • Randy

But Hillebrand continues his conversation, ignoring the magnificent scene, as he works out the details for the next day’s trip. The sudden appearance of Antonio Amendola, founder of Shoot4Change, the non-profit the students are working for while they are in Rome, at the U.S. embassy has provided the SCO in Rome program with a rare opportunity. Can they meet Antonio? Interview him? Participate in the conference the embassy is hosting? Change the schedule of classes and touring around at the last minute?

And that’s every day with the SCO in Rome program, a unique summer study abroad program that combines a traditional class experience with touring, experiential learning and cultural immersion. According to Jeff Morosoff, associate professor of journalism, public relations and media studies, and Hillebrand’s faculty partner, SCO in Rome is a labor of love, for those who teach it and those who learn from it. “We are totally immersed in this culture, through this program, and see everything we can see in a 24-hour period, every day, for 28 days, thanks to those who conceived the program, especially Randy Hillebrand. And Randy, who has become so involved in Rome over the years, loves this place. He shares that appreciation and excitement, and it is contagious.”

“Rome is the city of echoes, the city of illusions, and the city of yearning.”
-Giotto di Bondone

A Capital City

Why communications in Rome? According to Hillebrand, “The answer is pretty simple. I fell in love with Rome over 20 years ago when I first came here. There’s an expression that once you come to Rome, you’re always going to come back. As I thought about how to do a communication program in Italy, it became pretty easy to pick Rome for the simple reasons that the communication networks are based here. The governments are based here, the embassies are based here, the historic Cinecittà movie studio is based here…

  • “As it’s turned out, over the last couple of years, Rome turns out to be a great fit for many things related to communication. Through the Roman empire, we can analyze some of the communication forms they used 2000 years ago and compare them to today. The seat of the government over the years, the Mussolini era, the Burlusconi era, it’s all centered on Rome. So Rome is really to Italy what New York and DC, together, are to the United States. And of course Rome is amazing in terms of all the things you can see and do and experience the food, the sights, the people. The people are just amazing, very open to Americans. If you approach them with an open heart, they will open theirs up to you. It’s all a good fit.”

  • Cinecitta
Students in Rome

Later that evening, the students stroll languidly, casually, down the Via del Fori Imperiale, past the complex of ancient ruins that is the Roman Forum, enjoying the cool of twilight after the lengthy tour of the Colosseum. It’s already been a long day in Rome. Starting class promptly at 9, the students had worked through lunch on projects for Shoot4Change. Totally engaged in their work, the television students edited footage of their trip to L’Aquila, a city still devastated by damage from an earthquake seven years earlier, while the public relations students worked on translations and new copy for the Shoot4Change website.

Shoot4Change: Changing Lives Through Storytelling

  • L'Aquila
  • L'Aquila

The opportunity to work with Shoot4Change came from the desire to make the program more experiential. “Shoot4Change is a Rome-based group of videographers and photographers who are telling stories that are not told by the mainstream media,” said Hillebrand. “For example, they are doing a lot with refugees that are coming into Italy and Europe. Our students have had an amazing opportunity to experience the story behind the people of a town about an hour east of Rome called L’Aquila which was devastated by an earthquake in 2009 and is still, 7 years later, not rebuilt.”


The week prior, the students had spent a full day in L’Aquila with the Shoot4Change storytellers, following them as they toured the crumbling buildings, taking photos, shooting video, and witnessing the devastation first hand.

According to senior Ashley Iadanza, the experience is changing her profoundly. “We have been able to apply what we’re learning in the classroom out in the real world. I’ve been named producer on the L’Aquila project and I’ve been in direct contact with a lot of the people there. When I go out in the real world, I’m going to have something on my resume that shows I’ve already worked with people and I know how to get a visual, tell a story in the field, in difficult situations.”

Global Experience

Student in Rome

In addition to the videos the television/film students are making on behalf of Shoot4Change, the public relations students, such as Lauren Acone, a junior from Groton, Massachusetts, are doing vital work as well. “We created a PR campaign. Shoot4Change asked us to focus on rewriting the English on their website, to make it better and more fluid. Their group is all volunteer, which makes it hard for them to have a very formal thought out plan and to make that plan happen. We’re helping to create that formal plan, to do more social media, different media outreach, and promote their video to especially younger people all over the world and specifically in America.”

According to Morosoff, “This experience is something students can put on a resume. They can say ‘We worked for a nonprofit organization in Rome. We worked with experts in communications themselves. They understand the visual media, and we have learned a lot from that.’ People who, for a living, are photographers and videographers, but now use that skill for social change. And when they go into a job interview and talk about their SCO in Rome experience, they’ve worked with Italian media professionals, Italian photographers and videographers who understand the power of the visual message… Working in a different culture brings a different perspective in any environment you’re in. Ultimately, whether we’re in Italy or whether in China or in Venezuela, when a student has an opportunity to work with people from a different country, they can see perspectives that they haven’t or couldn’t see just by being in New York.”

Students in Rome

An hour or two after finishing their Shoot4Change project work for the day, they meet again, in the lobby of the St. John’s University dorm they live in. In the upscale Roman residential rione of Prati, it is an easy walk to the Lepanto metro station. The students are, at this point in the trip, accustomed to the public transportation systems in Rome and indeed around Italy, and manage movements with aplomb.

Weekends Exploring Italy

And SCO in Rome could more accurately be called SCO in Italy, because, according to Morosoff, “We manage to see Florence and Venice and Tuscany and Positano and Capri and all of the other places that have made Italy such a wonderful place to visit. So we’re getting a total immersion in Italian life, but we’re also seeing, not only tourists’ scenes, but people living in these cities and how they experience life every day.”

  • Sara Whitman, a journalism student, appreciated “last weekend’s excursion to the Amalfi Coast. We went to Sorrento, Positano, Capri. It was incredible. I love everything about the beach and the water. I was on cloud nine the whole weekend. Everyone was. We went swimming, we went on boats, we climbed up Mount Vesuvius. That was a trip of a lifetime, and the best weekend of my life.”

  • For Amy Wang, a public relations graduate student from Taiwan, the trip through Venice, Florence and Tuscany was the high point. “I felt totally safe in Florence because there are so many travelers there and the city is so lovely. People there are very, very friendly.”

  • Students on Ferry
  • Conquering the volcano
  • IMG_4882

“Every one soon or late comes round by Rome.”
– Robert Browning

Still, the main attraction is Rome, with its culture both modern and ancient. Mitchell Weitzel, a senior television major from Framingham, Massachusetts, appreciated the students’ home base. “Studying in a place like Rome has been amazing. I’ve only been outside the country once before, to Spain, but being in a city as massive as this and just studying it every day has just been a tremendous experience. I’ve learned so much about the culture, everything they do here and it’s just been amazing do far.”

  • And it is Rome itself, and the stories of the eternal city, that are the crux of the program for Hillebrand. “Every day, we’re going to see the iconic sites of Rome. The ones that everyone knows…we do those, essentially, in the first week, and then we peel away the layers of Rome. That’s not really metaphoric, because we’re going underground, we’re seeing Rome from below where ancient Rome is literally unburied in places. We’re going up high and seeing Rome from above. The students are exposed to so many things. Each day is a new adventure.”

  • Photographing the ruins and the Altar
Fun on a night out

By the end of the evening, the group crosses Piazza Venezia, making its way through narrow, cobblestoned Roman side streets towards the Pantheon, one of Rome’s best-preserved buildings, constructed by the emperor Hadrian in AD 126. A church since the seventh century, it overshadows Piazza della Rotonda, a lively square, populated by both tourists and Romans, who watch the musicians and street performers, while leisurely eating at one of the many outdoor cafes, or enjoying the waters and sitting on the edge of the Fontana del Pantheon, surmounted by an Egyptian obelisk.

An Uncommon Bond

The group is, three weeks into the trip, aware of each other’s rhythms and likes, and as they walk down the darkening streets, they lean on each other, taking spontaneous selfies, as close as a group can be when they work and play together. “The bond I’ve created has been unlike any other. Very few of us had known each other before this program. I feel as though, in a way, these people are my soulmates. We take care of each other, we look out for each other, and we have each other’s backs,” according to Iadanza.

And the bond extends to the faculty members, too. “I know I can count on Professor Morosoff, Hillebrand, for anything. The trust I’ve built with them, how they’ve pushed me, not only in the classroom but outside the classroom and I know if I have any issues at all that they’re going to help me.”

“We do not tend to take the ‘We’ll see you tomorrow morning’ class approach,” said Hillebrand. “Instead, we spend time with our students doing walking tours or participating in a guided tour of some site. At night, we often have dinner with our students or even host dinner for our students at our apartment. We have a movie night every week which the students love. It’s very demanding in that regard, but it allows the students to experience so much more. The class doesn’t end when the official time of the class ends. Rather, the class extends throughout the day.”

  • Faculty/student conference Tuesdays at Randy's
  • Tuesday dinner and a movie Dinner and a movie night

After the evening tour of the ruins is complete, the group makes its way through the dark but lively streets to Interno 92, a restaurant Hillebrand discovered on his first trip to Rome. Below street level, resembling a subterranean chamber, the rough ceiling beams accentuating the low stucco covered ceilings, the restaurant is dark and inviting. And it is a reintroduction to red meat, which, according to Hillebrand, is rarer abroad than it is at home in the U.S.

The students and Hillebrand look forward to having the steak that Interno 92 offers, and Hillebrand coaxes them into trying the carpaccio. A few do. They relax over dinner, taking a breath from their 12-hour day, recalling the day’s events, planning the work they will pick up again early the next morning, making plans for their weekend excursion to Ibiza. Hillebrand tells stories, while Morosoff and a few of the public relations students talk about social media over their coffee.

  • View from St. Peter's Basilica dome
  • Dinner out again!

“We’re close to the students 24/7 and that creates a real bond with the students, one we would not normally have,” explains Morosoff. “It creates relationships from a professional, personal, and academic level. We’re really living with each other, giving us the opportunity to hear and see what the students care about in a much deeper way, and we can share our professional, personal, and academic perspectives in a way that you couldn’t in a classroom.”

Resting in the Colosseum

For these students, all roads have indeed led to Rome, and the stories they are learning to tell of the eternal city, its people and culture. And each of these students are changed – personally, professionally - by it.