In April 2019, 250 Notre Dame architecture alumni and friends traveled to Rome to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Rome Studies Program. The scene seems strange now—hundreds of people traveling to Italy, mingling with current students and faculty, and reminiscing about their own youthful experiences in Rome. No one could have imagined that less than a year later, the traditional year in Rome would be halted early due to a global health crisis.
At around 2 a.m. on February 29, 2020, Zhian Yin ‘22 awoke to the sound of students on frantic phone calls in the hallway of the Villa, the residence of third-year Architecture students during their year in Rome. Other students started to wake up as well, and soon the reason for the rush of late-night communication became clear: for the first time in history, Notre Dame was suspending its programming in Italy for the remainder of the semester and bringing students home—immediately.
“It was surreal waking up, thinking I might still be flying to the UK [for spring break], then to read multiple emails that ended up changing our plans for the entire semester—and summer—as well as messages from classmates in the program reacting to the emotional news,” said Patrick Vercio ‘21. “The events happened so quickly.”
The University’s decision to evacuate its students from Rome came after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) raised the travel advisory for Italy to Warning Level 3 due to the increasingly rapid spread of COVID-19. Weeks earlier, a committee had formed with both School and University leaders meeting regularly to continually assess the situation around the world. Both School of Architecture staff and staff from Notre Dame International at the Rome Global Gateway (RGG) had been following University security measures since the virus surfaced in northern Italy, and when the news broke they were quick to mobilize students and support the impromptu departure process.
“The Rome staff were absolutely amazing when it came to this situation,” said Michael Bursch ‘22. “The School of Architecture and Villa staff already are truly wonderful people and go above and beyond the call of duty. I was very impressed by how quickly the School got everyone's flights, and how soon we were able to leave.”
Rome staff did what it could to protect students from the virus in the previous weeks, too, placing hospital-grade hand sanitizer stations and COVID-19 info posters around the Villa in mid-February. To further educate students on the virus, they invited Dr. Andrea Guerriero—an on-call doctor who has been serving Notre Dame students in Rome for several years—to speak with them about the virus’ transmission and symptoms, and how students could safeguard themselves against it with self-care and social distancing.
As the situation worsened, the Italian government ordered the cancellation of all educational trips through the remainder of the month, ending planned studio travel to Sicily, Naples, and elsewhere in Italy. Rev. Richard S. Bullene, C.S.C. , '76 and '81, Assistant Dean, Academic Director of the Rome Studies Program, and Professor of the Practice, and Giovanna Lenzi-Sandusky, Director of Relations and Associate Professor of the Practice, held a meeting with students on February 24 cautioning them not to travel over their upcoming spring break. Rome staff held another meeting with students on February 27—the day of Graduate Midterm Reviews and the day before Undergraduate Midterm Reviews, both of which proceeded as normal—reinforcing that message, yet going further by impressing on them the serious possibility of an evacuation. Even so, many students were in denial that their time in Rome—which has been an essential, uninterrupted feature of the School’s curriculum for over five decades—could come to an abrupt end.
“I wouldn't call the mood optimistic, but nobody really acknowledged the possibility of being sent home as probable,” said Faith Primozic ‘22. “Things felt relatively normal until the evening we got the notification that Italy had been raised to a Level 3. That was, to most people, the indication that this was more serious than just a few cancelled trips. Still, we talked, watched some movies, and made plans with each other for the rest of the week like any other Friday.
“Around 1 in the morning, I was heading back to my room to get some sleep when I noticed my neighbor's door was open and heard a lot of voices. They saw me and called me in, and I joined the circle of a dozen or so people sitting on the floor, trying to stay optimistic despite a growing loss of optimism.
“Not long after, the announcement came in a mass text. We listened as one of our friends read it aloud, and then fell into a stunned silence. A few people started crying. And then we all just got up and headed back to our rooms because there was nothing else to say.”
Primozic and her fellow classmates attended a mandatory meeting with Rome staff at 8 a.m. the next morning, February 29, and due to the urgency of the situation students had 24 hours to pack up their belongings and submit their works in progress, which staff scanned and sent to them after they returned home. Overnight, the School worked with Anthony Travel to book flights home for each student.
Despite the little time left to them, students made the most of their final day in the Eternal City. After packing, many wandered Rome and visited both their favorite sites and the ones they hadn’t managed to see yet, with some even staying up the entire night to catch one last sunrise. Students and Rome faculty and staff had a group farewell dinner at Naumachia Pizzeria in the neighborhood of the RGG, and while the mood was understandably somber, many students managed to look back on their time abroad with gratitude.
“I still had an amazing six months in Rome,” said Bursch ‘22. “We were truly blessed with an amazing time abroad and with great staff to help us through the crazy transition back to the U.S. Nothing is ever perfect, but everyone gave their best to help in a difficult situation to make things as smooth as possible.”
The original plan was for students returning from Rome to self-isolate at home for two weeks before bringing them back to Notre Dame’s campus to finish their semester with their fellow architecture students in Walsh Family Hall. The severity of the crisis worsened during those two weeks, and the decision was made that all Notre Dame students would complete the semester at home through remote instruction.
The transition was not easy, but students and faculty—with the support of staff both in Rome and on campus—rose to the occasion. Students successfully completed their studio projects, as well as their watercolor, history, and theology courses.
Final reviews were conducted via Zoom and live streamed to classmates, family, and friends via YouTube. Even under the difficult circumstances, students completed beautiful projects and displayed a mastery of the course content. Their time in Rome, although shorter than intended, clearly had the designed effect of changing how they view architecture and urbanism.