Articles by: Walter De marco

  • Are you connected?

    What do Florence, Moscow, London and Seattle have in common? Give up?

    Then I’ll tell you the answer. They are all home to an Italian Connection Meetup group, an international network of over 1,200 Italian language and culture lovers.

    These groups were created through to help people with an interest in the Italian language and culture connect with one another, both online and in person.

    About once a month, Italian Meetup members around the world meet at a local venue to have a friendly chat and/or practice their Italian with other group members while sharing a meal or sipping a cappuccino or a glass of wine in a casual atmosphere. This is made possible by, a Manhattan-based website where anyone can join or create a real-life community or club on just about any imaginable topic, wherever they live.

    Currently there are Italian Connection Meetup groups in eight cities across the US and Europe. I founded the first group two years ago in Florence, when I was struggling to find a job as an English teacher there, and joggling a couple of part time jobs to make ends meet.

    My professional life did not go quite as planned, but the success of the first Italian Connection group inspired me to create similar groups in other countries. I proposed the idea to two longtime friends who immediately offered me their support, so we founded a non-profit organization called Lega mondiale di cultura italiana / World Italian Culture Connection (Lega italiana in short).

    The founders of Lega italiana strongly believe in the importance of social networking with a cultural and educational purpose, and with we have found the ideal technology to manage real-life clubs through the Internet in a professional and user-friendly manner.

    We are planning to start Italian Connection Meetup groups in other cities as well, and this summer we are launching a cultural holiday program in Italy, in partnership with Centro linguistico italiano Dante Alighieri (CLIDA) in Florence. To learn more about the program, or to join an Italian group near you, visit 

  • Op-Eds

    High and dry. Is Italy failing its high-school students?

    Starting high school is no picninc for anyone. At an age when most of us can’t even decide what to wear or what to have for breakfast in the morning, imagine having to decide what you want to be for the rest of your life. That’s the kind of decision an Italian student and his or her parents must make when it’s time to choose a high school, and making the wrong choice could bear awful consequences.


    “I attended the magistrale (a high school specializing in teacher training) because I thought I wanted to be a teacher” says Giovanna Cancelli, a medical student at the University of Rome, “but after the first year I realized that I did not like that school. I wanted to go to the liceo scientifico (a high school with a science specialization), but if I went there I would lose a year.” 


    An army of 600,000 Italian students are starting high school this week, with all the same dreams and anxieties of their peers everywhere else. Little they know that if they have made the wrong choice, they will pay a high price for it. Once entered high school, it is already too late to change your mind, and the nearly total lack of guidance only helps make this problem worse. Before he or she even learns how to drive, a student must decide whether they want to be a mechanic or an interpreter, an engineer or a chef. High school programs are in fact so specialized and different from one another, that it’s virtually impossible to transfer from one program to another.


    The data speak loud and clearly about the effects of this gridlock. Over 30 percent of high-school freshmen will fail or drop out of school, and another 30 percent will pass the first year with unfinished courses, which they will have to complete over the summer.


    “All these problems might be prevented if the students had the resources to make a sound choice.” says Roberta Iacobelli, a high-school teacher from Florence.


    The most motivated students can increase their chances of completing high school by enrolling in remedial courses or tutoring sessions offered by some private schools, an option that requires an additional expense for their parents.


    The criteria for choosing a high school are usually very random and instinctive, rather than well weighed. High schools with highly academic programs, such as the liceo classico (a high school with a focus on classical studies) have been traditionally associated with the better educated, thus usually wealthier social ranks. On the other hand, the high schools that offer clerical or vocational training programs are deemed as training camps for the workplace. These differences will also determine who will be more likely to succeed in college. In fact, students graduating from a liceo stand a much better chance of graduating from college than those coming from a technical or clerical institute.


    In the absence of adequate guidance programs, the luckier students are those who can benefit from the advice given by university educated parents, or a generous teacher who takes the extra time to help them choose the right high-school specialty. For everyone else, it’s hit or miss. When an Italian teenager says that he or she hates school, they might have a good reason after all.

  • Op-Eds

    Higher Ed-spresso. The Joys and Woes of an Italian College Student

    Studying in Florence may sound tremendously alluring to ambitious students from elsewhere, enthused by the thought of living in a city that has bred some of the world’s foremost artists and thinkers of all time. Yet not everyone is aware of the challenges faced by University of Florence students.

    In spite of the city’s many amenities and the highly affordable academic fees, students must deal with the high cost of housing in the cradle of the Renaissance. For the nearly 60,000 students at the University of Florence, tuition costs between 1,000 and 2,000 euro per year; therefore the heaviest financial burden is the astronomical living expenses. 

    The official length of a standard degree program—or laurea—is three years. A laurea specialisitica (specialized degree) should take five years. One can obtain the specialized degree at the end of the laurea, or by combining the two programs together. However, here in Florence it is not unusual to run into university students who are already in their late twenties, if not well into their thirties. Monica, a fine arts major who is originally from Puglia, admits that she has passed her thirtieth birthday, and she does not expect to graduate until next year. ‘I have to work for a living and help my aging mother with her housekeeping’, she explains with a sigh.

    But Italy is not the only place where a student’s career is affected by jobs or family matters, one may argue. So, what’s causing such big delays in graduation around here? The answer lies in the way services are run in the Bel Paese. Imagine a system where most services are highly institutional, and where you have to stand in line for virtually everything. Basically half of your time is spent in a queue, from buying your books to eating at the student cafeteria, from meeting with one of your professors to requesting a transcript.

    Your living situation can also greatly affect the time it will take you to complete your degree. Because the university is spread across the city, if you can’t afford to live fairly close to your department, you are penalized by the long commute to your classes. Even small delays like this can add up and affect on the number of years it takes for you to get the highly valued degree.

    Then why don’t the students just live in student residences? Different from most English-speaking countries, living in a dormitory in Italy is not the norm, but an exception.. Only one in 50 students at the University of Florence manages to live in one of its nine residence halls. Every year, the university administers a highly competitive ranking process, called a concorso, to assign the 1300 available spaces. Successful candidates are rewarded with a free living space since students who apply are selected on the basis of both academic standing and financial need. All the others have to settle for a room or a shared room in a private apartment, unless they are lucky to have parents who live close enough so that they can live at home.

    The Regional Office for the Right to University Education (ARSDU) manages the yearly competition for student housing at the University of Florence. ‘Students fill out an application form meant to assess both their academic merit and financial needs’, said ARSDU official Enrico Andreini, ‘Their answers are verified by a professional committee and [those] qualified are subsequently offered free accommodation in a university residence’. Alternatively, the winners can opt for a monetary grant, which helps reduce the cost of living away from home.

    One way or another, nothing comes without a heavy price tag for students in this romantic city, but to those who do manage to graduate amidst so many hurdles and pitfalls, success must surely taste sweeter than anything.



    Walter De Marco is an Italian-Canadian teacher and freelance journalist. He has an MA from the University of Buffalo, NY, and has published articles on education and culture in various American, Canadian and Italian newspapers.

  • Op-Eds

    English, “or Something Like It”

    Rimini, on Italy’s famous Adriatic Riviera, for decades has been a popular destination for vacationers from across Italy and the rest of Europe. While sitting in one of the city's many beach-front snack bars one afternoon, I witnessed an entertaining attempt by a small group of Italian teenage boys to strike an acquaintance with two attractive female tourists who did not speak Italian.

     After a brief consultation among them, one of the boys bravely turned to the two girls and asked “Do you want to have dinner without us?”

     The girls understood that the boys were attempting to invite them, and asked them a few questions, but the unlucky boys did not know how to handle a conversation in English, so the chat was quickly aborted.


    In spite of the Italian government’s move to expand the teaching of the language to all levels and streams of education, most youngsters are still unable to speak or write in English, even at a basic and informal level. The only exceptions are those who take additional English courses at a private school, or spend some time living in an English-speaking country, but these are luxuries that not everyone can afford.


    Determined to find out if Italian high-school students think they know the language, I joined a forum on a social networking website in Italy, and the youth that I interviewed admitted to having serious problems with the language of world communication. Most students said that they would be unable to handle a simple conversation, such as making a hotel reservation or reporting the loss of a passport to foreign authorities in English.


    With some relief, I learned that a high-school student from Pisa actually managed to ask for information in English when she was in an emergency situation.

    “I was in an airport and was almost late for my flight home. I talked fast and effortlessly, which had never happened before,” says the student.


    Teachers also say that the public-school system is not preparing the students to use English in real-life situations.

    “Foreign languages in Italy are taught badly, and students do not learn much in the few hours of language instruction they have,” Says Loredana Campoli, a 37-year-old school teacher living in Rome.

    “Three hours per week are insufficient. Only the language–training secondary schools (licei linguistici) allow for satisfactory results, but their programs are completely different – they have language labs, student-exchange programs, intensive language training and so on,” she says.


    With such limited exposure to the use of English in a real-life setting, both in and out of the classroom, it is no wonder that Italian high school, and even university graduates end up with very poor writing and oral skills in English, says Campoli.

    From the sixth grade to the last year of grade school, students at most pubic schools are required to take three hours of English instruction per week, which is arguably too little to build their oral and writing skills.

    The lessons focus mainly on reading comprehension and grammar, with little or no emphasis on writing or conversation. Further, English classes are taught by local teachers who are not required to have received language training in an English-speaking country, thus students are rarely exposed to authentic English-language communication.

    Younger students, from primary school to the fifth grade, also study English for two or more hours per week, whereas until the 1990’s they were not required to. But these changes have not helped boost the students’ knowledge of the language.


    The teachers use the same methods that were used in previous dacades, with equally poor results, so the parents who can afford it are compensating for the shortcomings of the public-school system with private English courses or tutoring.

    “School programs have changed to expand the study of international languages, yet students know the languages less than they did before,” says Rome’s school teacher Campoli.

    “On the other hand, now there are more and more private schools such as The British Council  and Trinity College, with very good programs, so they prepare the students well. The best method remains going abroad to learn a foreign language, at least for [us] Italians,” she says.



  • Op-Eds

    A family business? Nepotism in Italian universities

    Forget about straight A’s, reference letters, acedemic publications and professional experience, if you want to teach at an Italian university, the most important asset is your family tree. Yes, because unless you are the child, a relative, or at least the protégé of a university professor, your chances of getting the job are quite slim. At least that’s what university professor Quirino Paris believes.


    Originally from Trieste, University of California professor Quirino Paris developed a statistical model to prove that academics at Italy’s 77 universities have adopted illegal or unethical methods “to give privileged collaborators and family members an unjust advantage in their academic career.”, he writes.


    “Every university department [in Italy] is a restricted caste, an ivory tower with its own rules, impermeable and very diffident.”, says a Florence high-school teacher who prefers to remain anonymous. And this explains why nepotism and favouritism are a common, long-standing practice in Italian academia.


    This teacher, completed a research doctorate at the University of Genoa in 2000, and says that the children and relatives of his professors have managed to pursue careers in his field, although not all of them had better academic merits than he did.

    “My only ‘defect’ is that I am not the child of a professor”, he jokes.
    Upon the release of Paris’s study, in 2005, angry Italian academics and graduate students joined forces to expose all the possible cases of unjust hiringprocedures by the so-called “baroni” (barons) in online forums, and report them to justice authorities. As a result, prosecutors launched invastigations to verify whether the countless cases of kinship among faculty members at the same institutions are the consequence of rigged hiring procedures. The procedure to fill vacancies in Italy’s public sector, including universities, is called “concorso”, and is regulated by the government.
    As Paris’s article explains, whenever there is an opening for a faculty position at the university, one of the local deans, or even the president, chooses the winnerdeliberately. This choice is not based on merit or experience, but rather on convenience. In fact the position often goes to their own children, relatives or favourite students. Meanwhile a notice of the “concorso” is published in the official outlets, and a selection committee is formed among professors of that discipline. However, all members of the committee are informed ahead of time of the candidate that the “barone” wants to hire, so they act accordingly.

    It is difficult to understand how long this practice has been going on. However, the aspect that has allowed it to survive is arguably this “caste system” itself, which has prevented any external influences from upsetting the power structure of many academic departments. When everyone is either a mastermind or a player in the same scheme, denouncing the system may result in self destruction.


    From northern borders to the shores of Sicily, the instances of kinship among academics abound. A notorious example is the Faculty of Economics at the University of Bari, where Massari is the last name of 8 faculty members. Other familiar last names among academics at this university are Dell’Atti and Girone, both linked to former university president Giovanni Girone.
    This nation-wide plague has not spared major universities, such as “Sapienza” in Rome, which is home to nearly 140,000 students. Here the authorities are investigating whether the university’s president Augusto Guarini has used his influencial position to facilitate his daughter Maria Rosaria’s academic career as a professor of Property valuation.
    Florence university president Augusto Marinelli is also being investigated with regards to the role he might have played in his son’s academic career. Marinelli’s son Nicola obtained a research position in the Faculty of Medical Studies in Florence in 2002, before he even completed graduate school.

    Meanwhile the websites on academic corruption and nepotism have flourished. Some of their names are Concorsopoli, Ateneo Pulito, Ateneo Palermitano and Malauniversitas.


    The governemnt has also acknowledged the need to eliminate this widespread phenomenon. In an attempt to introduce more ethical and transparent hiring procedures, the former minister of Universities and Research Fabio Mussi proposed a number of changes to the current law on university recruitment. After a two-year-long political and bureaucrtatic ordeal, the new regulations were rejected by the Parliament of Italy earlier this year.
    Walter De Marco is an Italian-Canadian teacher and freelance journalist. He has an MA from the University of Buffalo, NY, and has published articles on education and culture in various American, Canadian and Italian newspapers.
    (Originally published in The Florentine, April 3, 2008)

  • Op-Eds

    Don’t Call Me a Blogger

    I remember quite vividly the day that I became a blogger, the main reason being that it was just the other day. The idea that I would undertake such an activity had never crossed my mind until an editor at i-Italy proposed that I start my blog on this website. As much as I love writing and reporting, I had always dismissed the possibility of writing in a blog, because I did not have much regard for this form of writing.

    Whoever used the word "blogger" for the first time should be eternally condemned for giving a potentially benign and creative activity such a horribly sounding name. The other reason why I did not fancy becoming a blogger is that it requires no particular skills. Anyone who knows how to set up an email account also knows how to start a blog, so a blogger can hardly be compared to a writer in a traditional sense.


    A writer had to go through the loops and hurdles of finding a publisher or editor who would read their work, evaluate it on the basis of the organization’s standards, compare it with the work of other aspiring writers or journalists, and eventually print and publish their work at the organization’s expense.


    On the other hand, a blogger can rant, rave, moan or bore about anything they want with no need for anyone else’s review or approval. A blogger might be an unseccessful writer or journalist for whom the Internet is an accessible substitute for a traditional publication.


    They may also be highly opinionated outcasts who can’t resist the urge to vent their grievances at the entire world. At best, they are well-meaning activists who use this tool to propagate their ideas and gather support for their philanthropic projects.


    My other concern is, who reads all these blogs, anyway? Do people really care to know what an obscure blogger thinks of tongue piercing or Mariah Carey’s latest video? If you are a movie or pop-music celebrity it’s a different story, of course. And in this case having a blog can just add to your popularity and glamour.


    If you’re a Tom Cruise or a Jessica Simpson, for instance, then everybody wants to know how often you brush your teeth, and what color your bedsheets are. But for the rest of us, our writings are doomed to remain unnoticed in the infinite world of cyber communications.


    Having said that, I wish to explain how I wound up as a blogger. I had written an article on the Italian brain drain and submitted it to a number of publications. A couple of weeks after sending the piece to i-Italy, I received an email from one of the editors who said that they were interested in publishing it. When he saw that I had published other articles in the traditional form (i.e., in print), this editor asked me if I wanted to start writing for i-Italy’s blog.


    In other circumstances I would have paid no attention to this invite, but after seeing who is behind this website, my hesitations quickly vanished. i-Italy’s administrative and editorial team is comprised of established journalists and college professors from the United States and Italy. For an Italian journalist educated in Canada and the US, it couldn’t get much better than that.


    So here I am, twenty years after publishing my first article back home in Italy, and eleven years after my first article in English, marching towards the blind future of journalism along with a small brigade of Italian and Italian-American journalists. And please, don’t call me a blogger, I took my first steps as a journalist before Google and Yahoo! were even conceived.

  • Life & People

    Who Wants to Be a Professore?

    If you’ve lived in Italy long enough, or if you have ever seen ‘Ciao, Professore!’, directed by Lina Wertmuller, you know that professore (masculine) and professoressa (feminine) mean not only ‘professor’, but also a middle- or secondary-school teacher.


    Antonella Gatto, an Italian-Canadian teacher from Toronto, has known that she wanted to be a teacher ever since she was a girl. Little did she know, however, that it would take her over 30 months, and countless phone calls, service fees, and meetings with bureaucrats—not to mention the emotional turmoil—to learn that she could teach in Italy. Ironically, when she finally got her letter of approval, it was too late to apply for a position this school year.


    ‘What’s most upsetting’, says Antonella, ‘is that the school board did not accept my application to teach because it was late, but it was late just because they did not do [their work] on time.’

    A native of Sora, in the region of Lazio, Antonella was 14 when she moved with her whole family to Canada, where she completed high school and university and then got her teaching credentials. After teaching there for four years, she decided to return to Italy, determined to continue to work as a teacher. She assumed that it would not be terribly difficult: she is an Italian citizen, and, having lived here nearly half of her life, she is fluent in the language.


    Antonella had already done substantial research on the requirements to get her Italian teaching credentials, officially called abilitazione all’insegnamento, before arriving in Sora in January 2005. When she wrote to the Ministry of Education in Rome, requesting an appointment, the reply did not take very long to arrive. The public official who looked at her application left her with high hopes, never hinting that two years later she would still be waiting to receive the final letter of approval.

    ‘A few months later, the Ministry of Education wrote to me to let me know that I was qualified to receive my teaching credentials, but first I had to pass an oral interview at a local public school’. The interview was supposed to be organized by a school board official, who, in turn, had to select a principal and two teachers to form an ad-hoc committee. And that’s where Antonella’s application suddenly came to a halt.


    She had just found aemployment as a tour guide in Rome. Preoccupied with her new job, the oral exam became a secondary concern. But towards the end of the year, she decided to call the school board in Frosinone, her home province, to find out about the status of her application. After countless unanswered calls, the head of the Office of Foreign Credentials (Ufficio Equipollenze) explained this was not their job; she would have to contact the Equipollenze office in Rome.

    She traipsed from one office to the next, and from meeting to meeting between the school boards of the provinces of Frosinone and Rome, and several teachers’ union offices—with no results. Only later she found out that the school-board official in Frosinone had not been truthful with her.

    In early 2007, Antonella found a new job in Florence. Having lost all hope of hearing from board officials in Rome and Frosinone, she requested permission from the Ministry of Education to interview in Florence. The ministry approved her request within weeks, rekindling her hope of finally obtaining her long-anticipated ‘prize’. When, several weeks later, she had still not heard from anyone in Florence, she decided to call the Office of Foreign Credentials for an explanation, and was subsequently summoned by a board official.


    ‘The head of the Ufficio Equipollenze said that he had never seen my application, and he started to look for it through a pile of files on his desk in my presence, until I lost my patience and offered him a copy of the application I had made for myself’, says Antonella.


    She spent the next few months calling every office at the provincial school board in Florence and meeting repeatedly with the head of the credentials office to make sure her application was being processed. She passed her long-awaited interview in July—which was great news, except that she had missed the June application deadline for the current school year.


    Antonella could have gone back to Canada at that point, but she has chosen to stay in Florence and continue to juggle two part-time jobs while waiting for the next round of applications to teach in an Italian school. Stay tuned for the outcome.


     (Originally published on The Florentine)

  • No Place Like Home. Italian Scientists and Professionals Overseas

    A Rockefeller University researcher, a University of Toronto doctoral student and teaching assistant, a University of California scholar and instructor of Physics. What do these three have in common? They are all Italian-born and educated young academics with outstanding experience and qualifications, for whom there are no jobs in Italy, yet they have managed to put their knowledge and skills to use on foreign soil.


    Two studies released recently by the OECD and by the Migrantes organization, show that university-educated professionals continue to migrate abroad in our time. Italy is among the top European countries affected by this type of migration, commonly referred to as the brain drain. Italian and international specialists and organization leaders agree that in most cases the migration of highly qualified professionals and researchers from their home country is most often the result of necessity, rather than choice. One of the leading reasons for this ongoing exodus from European countries being “the inadequate support for research by Italy and other European countries”, says Calogero Rubino, the president of the Collettivita’ Italiana association in Grenoble.


    On the Rockefeller University campus in Eastside New York, Roberto Picetti brushes shoulders with leading-edge biomedical scientists, including seven Nobel-prize winners. Picetti is an Italian-born-and-raised neuro-scientist, who has also worked for a private company in Milan for two years. After losing his job, he was unable to find another one here, so he returned to the United States, where he had previously completed a post-doctoral degree program. As soon as his former American employer learned that Picetti needed a job, she gave him back his job at the Institute of Neuro-pharmacology, where he has now worked for over three years.


    Born in the northern Italian city of Luino, Picetti is a Biology graduate from the University of Pavia who earned his Ph. D. in Neuroscience from the University of Strasbourg in France, and then a post-doc at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego.Although he can boast a remarkable international academic and scientific career, Picetti is one of thousands of Italian scientists whose decision to study and work abroad has been caused by the lack of opportunities in his home country, rather than choice.


    Many professionals in other areas also face the same involuntary choices.


    “Is Italy a country where someone with a goal is able to live, work, and fulfill their ambitions, and at the same time find or save the money [they] need to start a new business?” wonders Luca Di Giovanni, a 30-year-old manager from Italy at a Los Angeles Information Technology company. Di Giovanni, who earned his university degree in Italy, says that if he had stayed there, he would “have wound up running photocopies, or doing something just a bit better.”


    On his way to the University of Toronto’s St. George campus, Sciltian Gastaldi crosses paths every morning with hundreds of busy multiethnic commuters in the city’s downtown core, where sidewalks are scattered with hot-dog vendors and panhandlers, even in the cold winter months. Gastaldi is a PhD candidate and a Teaching Assistant in the University of Toronto’s Department of Italian Studies. Although his exotic first name may suggest otherwise, he is a Rome native who has won journalism and literary awards in Italy. Gastaldi also wants to be a university professor, but every time he applied for a Ph.D. program in Italy, he was inexplicably turned down.


    A quick glimpse at Gastaldi’s CV or website is enough to tell that he does not lack the skills or the qualifications to become a professor. He has completed undergraduate degrees at the universities of Rome and Bologna, and his two university theses on American history and politics were published as books. He also has a number of post-graduate diplomas, two novels and several collaborations with Italian and Canadian newspapers under his belt.


    After many unsuccessful attempts to enter a doctoral program in Italy, he was offered admission and a teaching job at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Italian Studies, and he says that his talent and enthusiasm are finally being rewarded there.


    Many professionals in other areas say that they left Italy after experiencing similar difficulties.


    Rome native Claudia Cannatelli’s fascination with volcanoes led her to southern California, where she has to drive four hours every day between her home in LA and the UC Santa Barbara campus, where she is a physics teacher and post-doctoral student. Cannatelli earned a degree in Physics from Roma Tre University in 2003. After countless applications for doctorate programs and jobs, both in the private and public sectors in Italy, she was finally accepted into a Ph.D program at the Federico II University in Naples in 2004. This program allowed her to attend courses and carry out research in the United States.


    Upon completion of this Italian-funded program, Cannatelli was invited by her supervisors at Virginia Tech University to pursue a post-doctoral degree there, which she completed last year. For personal and professional choices, Cannatelli eventually relocated to Los Angeles, where she is now living with her future husband.


    University of Toronto doctoral candidate Sciltian Gastaldi, who has lived there for less than two years, says that he would be happy to continue to live and work abroad. However, both Roberto Picetti, who works at the Rockefeller University, and the UC Santa Barbara scholar Claudia Cannatelli say that they would rather live in Italy, or at least in a country nearby.


    “My fiancée and I are trying to find jobs in France or another country in Europe,” says Cannatelli, who has never lost her hopes to be able to live and work closer to her family and to familiar places.



    Walter De Marco is an Italian teacher and freelance journalist living in Toronto. He has an MA from the University of Buffalo, NY, and has published articles on education and culture in various American, Canadian and Italian newspapers.