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Just outside of Rome, the 16th century Chigi Palace in Aricca, Italy, is renowned for safe-gurading Italian heritage, educating students — and for keeping secrets.

Part museum, part residence and academic hall for the Joseph S. Bruno Auburn Abroad in Italy program (JSB), the Chigi Palace recently revealed a hidden staircase that makes it primed to expand the program to more Auburn students. With eager students patiently adding their names to a two-year waiting list for the program, the College of Human Sciences is launching a campaign to make the expansion a reality.

An experience that stays with you

The Chigi Palace is Auburn’s only permanent overseas campus and has hosted more than 1,000 students in the JSB program since its inception two decades ago. Beyond living and learning in the welcoming community of Ariccia, the students experience a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to study abroad for a semester in Italy while earning an international minor in human sciences

“The opportunity gave me a greater confidence and self-awareness while also learning to appreciate other cultures and learn to respect those that are not similar to me in a lot of ways,” said alumna Kate Addison, who attended JSB in 2013. “These skills translated well for me when I entered the workforce and into my career today.” 

The 12-week curriculum is a dynamic mix of classroom lectures and field trips that augment the academic lessons with first-hand excursions focused on myriad subjects from sustainability, world history, architecture, fashion and design to language, cuisine and culture. Students tour ancient Rome, Castelli Romani towns near Aricca, olive oil production facilities, wineries, museums and other historic sites, to name a few. At the conclusion of the program, students come away with an international minor in human sciences and invaluable experiences that have enriched their understanding of other cultures, societal systems and themselves. Additionally, through the Elevate Ariccia component of the program, students spend time giving back to the local community and utilizing their new found skills in cultural intelligence.

“The JSB program was by far the best experience of my life!” said alumna Margaret Anne Albritton Gilchrist, who attended JSB in 2011 as a student and 2013 as a graduate teaching assistant. “I loved being able to live in Italian culture for the summer and really feeling like we were a part of the Ariccia community and family.” 

Currently, due to housing limitations at the palace, the popular program can only accommodate 23 students per semester and has a two-year waiting list. But a plan to reduce the waiting list and give more Auburn students this once in a lifetime opportunity is underway.

Friends of the College of Human Sciences gathered in Aricca in Fall 2023 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the JSB program. Photo by Emily Baas.

A hidden staircase inspires renovation

Alumni of the JSB program know that students live on the lower level of the Chigi Palace in spaces referred to as “nests.” The nests currently allow for 23 students to attend the program per session, but the discovery of a hidden staircase sparked renovation plans that will enable the program to house 50% more students.

“Administrators at the palace found a stairwell hidden behind a wall in the current living space,” said Michelle McBride, director of development for the College of Human Sciences. “The wall not only covered the staircase, but access to a larger, windowed series of rooms below the current living space. With the staircase connecting both spaces, the living space will be able to accommodate up to 13 more students a semester.”

The reason the staircase was walled-off remains a mystery, but with the wall gone, the space inspired new efforts to renovate the area for additional living and dining quarters, and common space.

“Once the space was discovered, our team worked through more than two years of historic preservation processes to gain permission for renovating the additional two floors of the palace complex as well as adding an outdoor living and learning area in the national forest that is a part of the palace complex,” said Kate Thornton, director of Global Education in the College of Human Sciences. “Having worked with the program for more than a decade, it is thrilling to see this campaign to grow it underway.”

“Experiencing life in the beautiful Chigi Palace is both a living history lesson for our students and an opportunity to enrich the future," said Lydia Witt, who is with the students daily in Ariccia as the executive director of the JSB program. "Providing this study abroad experience to more students on their journey to becoming global citizens will impart on them the confidence needed to contribute to their local and global communities.

“JSB program is really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Gilchrist. “You won't get to experience that much of Italy at any other time in your life. The expansion is great for the students, for Auburn and for Ariccia — it's a win for everyone!”

Exterior shot of the Chigi Palace. Photo by Emily Baas.

Expand opportunity for students to experience global education

The past 20 years have been transformative for the students, faculty and staff of the  JSB program. To ensure more Auburn students can take advantage of all this educational experience has to offer, the College of Human Sciences is asking for support to help make the renovation of Chigi Palace a reality.

“Investing in this program is so important because it gives students the opportunity to live abroad and provides a very structured environment to learn and immerse themselves into a culture that they wouldn’t get by just traveling abroad on their own,” Addison said. “The sites and individuals we saw and met through this program were priceless. I lived in a palace! You can’t do that just anywhere and with any program.” 

As the program embarks on this campaign to renovate and expand, it’s a promise to continue its prestigious legacy of opportunity.

"Joseph S. Bruno Auburn Abroad in Italy has grown into an experience that shapes young lives into highly impactful global citizens," said Susan Hubbard, dean of the College of Human Sciences. "Many of us were at the table more than 20 years ago as we discussed and created the curriculum focused on allowing students to immerse themselves in a different culture and learn to collaborate in new environments. Along with succeeding in these areas, the students tell us they come out of this semester abroad with a newfound confidence that is then taken into their careers all over the world, so yes, we are eager to grow this opportunity that is already impacting communities worldwide."

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