In 1961, the groundbreaking Siena Program was officially born when SUNY approved a one-semester trial run of the program. Design Professor Clem Tetkowski was in Italy, scouting out the perfect location for the State University of New York’s (SUNY) first formal study-abroad program. He found that perfect location in the picturesque Tuscan hill town of Siena, in the Tuscany Region of Italy.
Professor Tetkowski, who passed away in 1998, was an inspiring art professor who brought out the best in his students during a 34-year career at Buffalo State. He also insisted on the best from himself. He was insatiably curious and always sought to learn more about art and culture. And, like John Dewey, Tetkowski believed the best way to learn was by doing; he wanted to see and hear and taste and touch other cultures. He wanted all that for his students, too.
Today, the Siena Program remains one of the flagship study-abroad opportunities sponsored by Buffalo State. About 15 students are admitted to the program each semester. Over the past five decades, more than 1200 students have participated in the program, which is now open to students from any major and any college. According to comments posted on the program’s popular Facebook page, most alumni describe their time in Siena as “life changing.” That does not surprise anyone who has ever enjoined in the Program.
Siena is a well-preserved medieval city steeped in history, but it’s hardly old-fashioned. Inside the city’s walls, architectural wonders abound—from the ornate Cathedral of Siena to the shell-shaped Piazza del Campo, the popular city center that has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. Around each cobbled corner, it seems, there is a fountain or a castle or a gelato shop. Outside the walls, at the edge of town, lies the Tuscan countryside, a breathtaking landscape dotted by vineyards, olive groves, and hidden gardens.
This wonderful landscape continues for students in the classroom, too, where they study Italian language, history, and art in sublime surroundings. Non-art courses are held in the Siena Program’s new office and classroom complex that overlooks the piazza. Art courses such as painting and ceramics are taught in the studio in the venerable Siena Art Institute, with its marble floors and fresco ceiling.
That extra-special something about Siena might also be the host-family aspect of the program. Each student lives with a local family for the duration of their stay in Italy. The host-family experience is—and has been from the very beginning in 1961—one of the highlights of Siena. The host family offers learning opportunities that are difficult to replicate in a classroom and can’t be achieved by living in a dormitory with other American students. The Siena Program gives students the chance to form real and lasting relationships with Italian families. Students learn the language from them, eat meals with them, and participate in family rituals, celebrating birthdays and holidays the way Italians do. Students really appreciate that connection, and many keep in touch with their host families long after they return home.
While some host families have been working with the Siena Program for nearly 30 years, all new host families are personally selected by its long-standing (1999-present) Site Director, Professor Daniela Perozzi. Professor Perozzi readily admits, she is very selective. “I emphasize to prospective families that they’re not just providing a bed and meals. They must give some heart. Over the years, I have developed a good sense for identifying families who can provide that type of ‘home away from home.’ We have wonderful host families, and that makes such a difference for the students.”
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