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Student Spotlight: Volunteering in Italy

by Jason Su | February 13th, 2012

It was the summer before entering graduate school. I was still working on my full-time job in a non-profit I was very passionate about. In a sense, I was pretty lucky, especially in the current state of the economy, but I still yearned for that experience abroad, that adventure. Who would’ve known my experience would not be defined by the sights of Rome, but by a little village up in the mountains and all the spiritual revelations that came with it.

I knew I wanted to go to Italy, to see the monuments and art, and to experience the food firsthand. I wanted to go to Europe for all the touristy reasons and to do what I have always dreamed of doing–volunteer abroad. I decided to volunteer at in an eco-village by Pescomaggiore, a village in the mountains by L’Aquila, the largest city in the region.

A major earthquake affected the area in 2009, displacing thousands of residents. Two years later, the efforts to supply everyone with housing were still in effect. The eco-village had goals of keeping local citizens around the homes they grew up in and helped build. It sounded great and, going into the field of urban planning for my graduate study, it gave me a logical reason to take this leap of faith.

It was a Sunday when my first day of volunteering started. I fell asleep on the bus ride there, and got off when everyone else did. Little did I know, I got off at the wrong stop. The sun was about to set, and I was no longer in the big city of Rome. I was in a town where people did not speak English, and I needed to figure out where I was going–quick.

Eventually, I found my way to the work-camp leaders who took me to a small village celebration. Though I was still fatigued, I was enamored by the ceremony. A whole crowd assembled as the procession of people in large paper doll costumes led the mob through earth-quaked ruins to stations where the village elders told stories of love and lost in a beautiful language I had no familiarity of. The rest of the trip held their own such treasures: touring a small, near-deserted village where most of the buildings were too damaged to be inhabited, jogging six kilometers through pristine hills from one small village to the next, and experiencing cuisine made by other international volunteers such as Czech potato cakes, Spanish paella, and self-grown zucchini.

What did I do? I put plaster on the walls of straw bale houses, helped convert a restroom in a trailer to a library, built a solar oven, watered fruit trees, helped harvest a wild bee hive in the middle of the night, and operated a motorized weed whacker to clear a field of golden grass to make room for saffron planting. All these experiences I will hold onto dearly. And the friends I’ve made? Well, I think about them often, and the two weeks in Italy I was able to share with them.

But I will always remember the scene on the first weekend I was able to share with everyone. We all took a trip to a lake up in the mountains, and I remember climbing a playground slide before having the best Italian dinner of my life, with the most vibrant sunset on one end, and the most serene view of the lake in the other, and later that night, falling asleep as I watched the stars. It was better than any ruins anyone can imagine visiting.

Jason Su is a graduate student studying urban planning at San Jose State University. He enjoys volunteering, photography, writing, urban planning and design, and daydreaming. Check out his site at


One Response to “Student Spotlight: Volunteering in Italy”

  1. Thank you for this!

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