E-service-learning: Through new class and U.N. partnership, Notre Dame students teach Italian virtually to African refugees

Author: Pat Milhizer

Tiziana Serafini Refugees

The value of learning a foreign language can be measured in personal and social growth. We use new words and new understanding to talk to others, study abroad, and pursue a post-college career.

Notre Dame Italian language students achieved a new level of growth this summer that’s a rarity in collegiate education. They did so through a course that empowers undergraduates to educate students of their own — African refugees who must learn basic Italian before they can relocate to Italy.

In the process, the Notre Dame students sharpened their Italian skills, learned how to teach others, and developed global awareness and empathy for the refugee experience.


Tiziana Serafini, a native of Rome and a teaching professor of Italian in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, created the class, called Learning and Teaching Beyond the Classroom. She partnered with the Office of Digital Learning to offer it as an online course last summer — co-teaching it with Suzanne Shanahan, the Leo and Arlene Hawk Executive Director of the Center for Social Concerns — and will be leading it again this spring and perhaps regularly going forward.

“We really need to rethink the teaching of foreign languages,” Serafini said. “We need to be thinking in terms of the social needs that we see arising in societies every day, more and more with all the wars and tumultuous situations we see in the world.”

Last summer, the course began with five undergraduates — including majors from the College of Arts & Letters, College of Science, and Mendoza College of Business — and one graduate student engaged in experiential and service learning. Serafini and the students met with the refugees virtually in their African camp, and in three weeks, they covered a semester of Italian for beginners.

The refugees, who previously lived in the Congo, Nigeria, and South Africa, were eager to learn the language and the customs of the places in Italy they would go. For each lesson, the African students huddled around one screen in their refugee camp, about five students at a time, to learn the basics of introducing themselves, talking about their day, and communicating in social settings.

The lessons were assisted by the fact that the students all spoke English, even though their native languages included Kiswahili, Lingala, Kinyarwanda, and Swahili. Some also spoke French.

“We saw a tremendous amount of motivation,” Serafini said. “Whenever we hit a stumbling block, at least we were able to communicate in English.”

“We really need to rethink the teaching of foreign languages. We need to be thinking in terms of the social needs that we see arising in societies every day, more and more with all the wars and tumultuous situations we see in the world.”

Eager to lear


The class attracted sophomore Gabe Biondo, who spent summers as a youth visiting grandparents in Sicily, where they lived near a refugee facility. This summer, he plans to work with physicians in northern Italy at a medical center for refugees.

Gabe Biondo

Biondo said the class accomplishes Serafini’s goal of developing the global perspective while putting the refugees in a position to overcome language barriers when they reach their new homes.

“In communicating with the refugees, it was interesting to see how passionate they were about learning and asking for more sessions to increase their learning of Italian,” said Biondo, who is majoring in Italian and neuroscience and behavior. “They really are very happy to be given this opportunity to move to Italy and have a new life, which was really inspiring. You could see the effect of your work; it’s not being taken for granted. It’s really appreciated.”

That appreciation came during class questions and feedback that was followed by emails in which the refugees requested more sessions and talked about the class being well-organized.

“They were all really eager to learn,” Biondo said.

Tricia Mccormack

Tricia McCormack, a junior history major, said the experience demonstrated how crucial language is for human connection.

“This is an incredibly valuable experience because human culture, language, and histories are the roots of personhood and are ultimately what bind people together across the world,” McCormack said. “I believe that widespread appreciation for other cultures, histories, and languages would ultimately facilitate a more peaceful world.”

Globally speaking Junior psychology and peace studies major Abigail Mancuso leads

an online class session for African refugees learning Italian last summer.

To establish the connection between Notre Dame and the African refugee camp, Serafini collaborated with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Caritas Italiana (the charitable arm of the Italian Bishops Conference), and faculty from the University for Foreigners in Perugia and the University of Siena. 

The UNHCR has coordinated Italian classes for refugees since 2019 with a consortium of 32 Italian universities. Notre Dame is the only American university working with the consortium.

After last summer’s course, Notre Dame students were surveyed about the experience and cited compassion as a transferable skill they acquired. They also reported developing empathy and social awareness, and that their confidence increased after working with refugees. 

They all agreed that they are now able to identify and apply information from the class to address real-world problems — and several students wished the class had run even longer.

“I hope the students will appreciate that this course makes them go from the personal to the social to the global. It’s not just doing something for yourself; of course we want to do something for ourselves,” Serafini said. “But in an affluent society like the one we live in, we have the luxury to entertain the idea that we can help others, and I think it will make our life so much more meaningful.”

“Language is at the center of our beings. We need to communicate. And if we speak different languages, we have to find a common way to communicate. What better way than to put your knowledge to the service of another person who is in need?”

‘Language is vital’

Serafini got the idea for the class in August 2021 after seeing images of Afghanistan refugees crowd into a U.S. military cargo plane. Several people hung outside the plane before they fell to the ground after takeoff. While the video and images told the immediate life-and-death story, Serafini’s thoughts later drifted to the next steps for the people on the plane who were about to arrive in a different country.

“They have to learn a language to lead a new life. Then I thought, there must be a need for foreign-language teachers,” she said.

She read Italian newspapers, and the plan emerged: a free online course that could be a solution for refugees and a novel educational experience for Notre Dame students.

“Language is vital. It’s at the center of our beings. We need to communicate,” she said. “And if we speak different languages, we have to find a common way to communicate. What better way than to put your knowledge to the service of another person who is in need?”

Originally published by Pat Milhizer at al.nd.edu on November 09, 2022.