Italian American Studies gains prominence in New Jersey

Montclair State University (MSU) is taking steps to help young Italian Americans gain a deeper understanding of their culture with the development of an Italian-American Studies minor. Currently, no other university in New Jersey or Pennsylvania offers a minor in the field. The only existing program is at SUNY Stony Brook.

Thanks to a gift of Lawrence R. Inserra, Jr. and the support of UNICO National and individual donors, the Theresa and Lawrence R. Inserra Endowed Chair was created to develop research activities, cultural programs and educational activities to continue the growth of the Italian and Italian-American Studies programs at MSU. The first and current Inserra Chair, Dr. Teresa Fiore, took the position in 2011.

“A lot of students have first-hand experience, but don’t have an academic knowledge,” Fiore said. “It’s a challenge to have them move from personal impressions. [The discussion] needs to go beyond ‘yes, in my family we do it this way,’” she said.

The debate between Italian-Americans is not black and white. The goal of the minor is to give students the ability to respond to attacks against Italian Americans in an educated way, and show true knowledge of Italian Americans beyond personal experience.

“Students rarely know when, how or how many Italians came to the United States,” Fiore said.

Through teaching, learning and cultural programs, Fiore wants to put students in a strong position when talking about Italian-American issues through teaching, learning and cultural programs. Fiore also sees the professional prospects in the minor when paired with majors in education, business, food, psychology or medicine.

“It’s about equipping students with the tools to become a more balanced leader,” she said.

Fiore has run into students and professionals alike who say they are not Italian American, but an American of Italian descent. She often finds students who say “I am not Italian-American, we came here when I was 10, we do not eat spaghetti and meatballs.”

Fiore wants Italian-Americans to better understand the negative effects of the language they use.

“Students do not know what they are saying when they say they are not Italian-American,” she said. “The label is much more complicated.”

The minor is not only for Italian-American students, but those who wish to better understand the culture of immigration in the tri-state area, as well.

In order to change the dynamic, “we need to have a strong, meaningful effect outside of the community,” Fiore said.

This semester, MSU offers two classes in Italian-American studies, “The Italian-American Experience” and “Italian Americans in Film,” with immediate plans to develop an 18-credit minor including three required classes and three electives like “The Italian American Novel,” and “Italian Language in the U.S.” Over 25 percent of the student body at MSU is represented by Italian Americans.

To learn more about the Italian American Studies minor at MSU, read Spotlight on Italian American Studies at Montclair State University: New Courses in the Fall.

Written by OSIA National Office Assistant, Carol Cummings.

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