Venice at night, Ummara Khan

Venice at night, Ummara Khan


Traveling to Italy, I expected that something about the way I view the world and my own life would change. That’s what is supposed to happen. I was ready to embody Mary Anne Radmacher’s quote: “I am not the same having seen the moon shine from the other side of the world,” but there is really no way to prepare yourself for that kind of change.

Sometimes you can feel something inside you shift. Maybe you even go through a brief existential crisis as you try to comprehend the beauty you are witnessing. For me, this happened when we took an elevator to the top of the Altare della Patria, in Rome. As I stood on the rooftop, overlooking the ruins of the Roman Empire, I couldn’t stop looking at the Colosseum. It was swarmed with tourists posing for a quick picture in front of the World Wonder, and then continuing on. Being so high up, my mind wandered to how the Colosseum was built. It bewilders me how something could have been built five hundred years ago and manage to bear countless storms and survive numerous earthquakes (well, for the most part). We could also see the place where Cesar is rumored to have died. Suddenly, this individual that seemed little more than a mythical hero transformed into a historical figure in my mind. I wish I could find the words to describe the pure ecstasy and wonder I felt in that moment, but I know that words will undoubtedly fail.

Other times, the change creeps into your heart and seems to be dormant, until one day you look back and realize how much you have grown. It is a more subtle type of change, but it is one that molds you into the person you are. I’ve had some time to reflect on my trip, and I realize that Italy changed my perspective on how accessible the world is. Statistically speaking, I am not someone who is likely to study abroad. According to a study  done by the Institute of International Education, non-white students make up around 40% of college students in the US, but only the 24% participate in study abroad programs. When socio-economic circumstances are taken into consideration, even fewer students travel internationally from low-income families. Aside from study abroad programs, the idea of visiting another country seems extremely daunting, especially if you are planning the trip yourself. However, while in Italy, I realized that it is completely possible to plan a trip that is fun, informative, and not overwhelmingly expensive. It really is one world, but it takes an experience like this one to understand what one world truly means.

The more you travel, the more you realize the importance of building bridges, and the dangers of building walls. How dull would life be if the only lifestyles you were exposed to were the ones you and the people immediately around you lead? Understanding the world beyond our own community and nourishing our sense of humanity should be a goal for all of us. It’s hard to understand the sorrows and triumphs of people who live in a place you have only heard of, but when you visit that place and interact with those people, you become invested in their well-being.

It’s easy enough to condemn walls, but it’s harder to actively promote the creation of bridges. In our current political climate, indifference is inexcusable. That doesn’t mean that you have to participate in every rally and sign every petition. Advocacy means something different for everyone. Maybe it’s talking to someone who comes from a background you have never been exposed to. Maybe it means searching for opportunities like the Wandering Scholar to travel. However you chose to create your own bridges, the important thing is that you do so wholeheartedly.

Going back to what Radmacher’s said, when I close my eyes, I see the moonlight dancing on the restless Venetian water. That image, along with countless others from the ten days we spent in Italy, is a testament to that fact that I am not the same. I am more confident. I am braver. Most of all, I am more optimistic that we can build a world in which our differences are celebrated, not feared.  read more →

suitcase travel scholarship high school wandering scholar

All packed and ready to go. Image credit: Wander Wellness Travel Magazine

Note: For this assignment we asked our Scholars to share how they’re feeling in the days before takeoff. Their trip to Italy begins on June 23!

Three…two…one, and then off to Italy! The closer the trip gets, the harder it is for me to conceptualize myself traveling without my parents. This newfound independence is not something I am afraid of; in fact, I have been craving it for quite some time. Being the eldest in my family, I think I have always had the autonomy that I will have in a few days, although to a much smaller extent.

I spent some time reflecting on how I feel about the trip. I still don’t know. It feels as though I leech off the emotions of those around me. When I am with my friends, who are enthusiastic about me going, my excitement overwhelms me at moments. When I am with my mother, who still has some reservations about her little Marie flying halfway across the world, I feel anxious.

For me, the hardest part of the pre-departure part of the trip has been convincing and consoling my mom. She, of course, knew that I had applied for The Wandering Scholar fellowship in February, but the chances of me being selected were so minuscule that neither of us gave it any real consideration. When I was chosen and the idea that I would be traveling without her set in, I spent a good two weeks addressing her preoccupations and outlining all of the reasons I had to take this opportunity. Although she finally came around, I know she is not completely comfortable with me going. I always suspected that when it was time for me to “fly out of the nest”, my parents would have a harder time coming to terms with our separation than I would. Granted I haven’t actually been without my parents before so maybe I should wait and see how I cope before passing any judgments.

Researching the immigration crisis in Italy has been heartbreaking at times, but extremely interesting and necessary. One of my biggest goals has been to raise awareness of the struggles of refugees worldwide, and The Wandering Scholar allowed me to do that in ways that I had not considered. One of our requirements for the fellowship was to tweet every day and to follow different Twitter accounts that related to our research about the trip. On Twitter, I found so many organizations that are designed to help refugees. The amount of information that I have gathered from these accounts is unfathomable. Two of my favorite accounts are the Tent Partnership for Refugees (who you can check out on Twitter:@TentOrg and their website: and Concordia (@Concordiasummit). I have become exposed to a venue of advocacy that I plan to make full use of in the future.

I feel ready for Italy. The research I have done in the past three weeks, and the support from the Wandering Scholar Team as well as my amazing mentor, Jennie, have prepared me well for the trip. Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned my fellow Scholars, Jerlay, Nancy, and Maggie, yet! Those girls are incredible and I cannot wait to spend time with them. Whatever awaits in the next two weeks will be absolutely amazing. read more →

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Tagliatelle Funghi Porcini e Tartufo. Image credit: Silvia Ferrante

When I received my acceptance email for The Wandering Scholar and saw the words “Cuisine and Culture of Italy,” a giant smile spread across my face. Coming from a family that rarely eats anything but Pakistani food, I was thrilled to be part of a trip that emphasized my exposure to traditional Italian cuisine. As excited as I was, I am going to admit that I was a bit worried too. Aside from the delectable pasta and pizza, Italy has a lot of food that includes meat. I can’t expect halal meat to be available everywhere I go, so I will be adopting a pescatarian diet for the trip. Not only do I love my roasted chicken, but not being able to eat the meat of farm animals significantly reduces my meal options…or so I thought.

Breakfast options in Italy tend to be great for the vegetarian diet. Italians, like much of the world’s population, prefer lighter breakfasts. Coffee, some cookies, and fruit are common breakfast foods throughout Italy. Another terrific breakfast option is a cornetto, or croissant. Though it is not unique to Italy, bread with a buttery taste is popular throughout the peninsula.

For lunch and dinner, dishes that include meat, like the Bistecca Alla Fiorentina (Florentine steak), are very popular. However, there are also a variety of delicious vegetarian options. A dish that I am particularly interested in tasting is “Tagliatelle Funghi Porcini e Tartufo”, which is pasta tossed in mushroom sauce and pieces of vegetable. Another traditional dish, Ribollita, is a soup comprised of stale bread, tomatoes, beans, and other in-season vegetables.

Speaking of bread, restaurants in Florence usually serve bread that may taste bland, with a hard, dense crust. This taste occurs because the bread lacks salt. Back in the days of the Medici family, a feud broke out between the parts of Florence that the Medici family ruled, and Pisa, a port in Tuscany. Pisa cut the salt supply to Florence, and as a result, bakers had to start making bread without salt. Even today, the bread in Florence is baked without salt. Italians do love their traditions!

Now if you truly want to get an authentic taste of the traditional foods of Florence, you must try some street food. Two popular options are lampredotto and trippa. Both are sandwiches made from the edible parts of the stomachs of farm animals. Lampredotto is made from the final stomach of a cow. Don’t get too squeamish-judging by how popular it is among native Florentines, I’m sure both dishes taste great.

Last, but in no way least, is the gelato in Florence. Gelato is a lot like ice-cream, but gelato contains more milk and less cream than ice-cream. Know the numbness in your mouth that you get when you’re eating ice-cream? You won’t have to worry about that as gelato is served at a higher temperature than ice-cream. Here are some quick tips for buying gelato in Italy: avoid buying gelato from street vendors, because their gelato is often made with artificial ingredients. If you want to try the pistachio gelato, which I certainly will do, make sure the color is no brighter than a dull green; a brighter green is usually indicative of a lower quality gelato.

Is your stomach growling? Mine sure is. It’s a comfort to know that there will be more than enough vegetarian options for me to choose from and that my sugar cravings will be met. Just imagine: walking over the Ponte Vecchio at sunset, with some soft Stracciatella gelato melting in your mouth. What could be more perfect? read more →

Florence Italy Art travel scholarship high school

Fra Angelico: Annunciation(c. 1440–45), fresco, north corridor, monastery of S Marco, Florence; photo credit: Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY

Note: To help our scholars familiarize themselves with their host country, we asked each to watch a different 25-30 minute youtube video about a particular region of Italy. Each video stars Rick Steves, a foremost expert on European travel. After they watched their assigned videos, Scholars were asked to provide a summary of its contents and highlight a topic it covers that especially interests them – this could be anything from a moment in history to a place or a person. In addition to explaining their personal interest in the topic. 

Italy has always had a unique relationship with modernity and religion. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the power of the pope increased considerably. Although Italy’s political structure changed drastically, the influence of the Catholic church stayed prominent throughout Italy. From the Florence Cathedral to the Vatican City, the presence of religion on the Italian peninsula is indisputable, and yet Italy also played a large role in the Renaissance. We have all heard of Donatello and Di Vinci, Italian natives whose artwork helped shape the Renaissance.

Located about 273 km (around 168 miles for my fellow Americans) from Rome, Florence is called the “home of the Renaissance, birthplace of the modern western world” by Rick Steves . The Florence Cathedral features the famous Dome, a common architectural feature of the Renaissance. That Dome was, in fact, the first great dome to be built in a thousand years, and the first dome of the Renaissance. The city’s location allowed it to flourish financially, as it was the center of trade between the East and the West. Money was invested in creative genius, so numerous talented artists made their way to Florence during the 13th and 14th century.

The Renaissance is often viewed as a time period in which religion took a back seat, and all of Europe became focused on celebrating the achievements of humans rather than praising God. Too some extent, I agree. Advancements in science were encouraged, and the Church could no longer put a limit on learning. But I think an important distinction must be made: a decrease in the influence of the Church doe not necessarily mean a decrease in the influence of religion. There was a definite shift in the mindset of individuals about how to worship God. Whereas following the word of the Pope and spending hours in prayer were the accepted ways of showing your commitment to religion during the Medieval ages, it became common to use art as a form of expressing religious devotion during the Renaissance. Painters used realism to draw scenes from the life of Jesus. Sculptures embraced the idea of creating nude sculptors to celebrate how perfectly God had designed the human body. Artists wanted to showcase the wonders of being human by adopting a more realistic form of art, but much of their artwork was inspired by stories from the Bible. For example, in one of Michelangelo’s masterpieces, David, the nude David’s considerably large right hand symbolizes the hand of God. Donatello also created a sculpture of Mary Madeline, highlighting her deteriorating body through her hollow eyes, but also her strong spirt as she stands straight and tall.

I think it’s strange that I identify with this city. Its history of balancing religion with modern ideas parallels my own efforts to stay devoted to Islam while embracing progressive ideas. All of this just makes me even more excited to visit Florence, cross the Ponte Vecchio bridge, admire the doorway of the Baptistery, and of course devour the food. read more →