Twenty eight years ago, beautiful Ilaria Serra boarded a bus in Italy while attending the University of Venice. She spotted a familiar face and a conversation ensued with the other passenger, Emanuele Pettener. They had known each other by sight since they were 15 but they had never really spoken. Emanuele knew, however, even at that young age, that it was love at first sight and that he planned to marry Ilaria. A handsome, charming young man blessed with a head full of shiny blond hair, he had a reputation as a Casanova. When Ilaria and Emanuele reached their early 20s, an old-fashioned romantic courtship began and they arranged their schedules so they could take the same courses together, or the same bus.
After graduation, Ilaria had to leave Emanuele twice: first, she won a scholarship for graduate courses at UCLA for one year and, two years later, she got a teaching job at the University in the Czech Republic. Her work kept them apart. Emanuele at that time was a television host in Italy, and was writing and presenting a show called “Orient Express. The Pleasure of Slowness.” While studying and teaching, Ilaria met a professor at a conference, Professor Anthony J. Tamburri. The professor offered Ilaria work as a teaching assistant while earning her PhD but there was a problem: it was to be in the United States. She would have to make a choice between not accepting the work or leaving Emanuele again for a third time.
Emanuele had always harbored “The American Dream” in his mind. Of course, “The Dream” actually implied an opportunity for Americans to achieve prosperity through hard work, but he says: “I thought that everyone in America was happy and everyone achieved good fortune and well-being. I was infatuated with the United States.” Ilaria and Emanuele decided that it would be best for them if Ilaria accepted the job in America and then Emanuele would follow right after their wedding in Italy. They did not realize this goal was much easier said than done. Ilaria could not find work for Emanuele while in her first semester at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. He would come to America anyway, despite never having been on an airplane, having no Visa, no job and no ability to speak English. Now, in retrospect, they both agree that they felt young and invulnerable, adventurous and unafraid to take chances. Emanuele said, “In Italian we say fortune favors the bold (la fortuna aiuta gli audaci).” As it turned out, Professor Tamburri, who had helped Ilaria, did find work and offered Emanuele a job at Purdue as a Teaching Assistant, for which he did not need to be fluent in English. However, he had to be willing to start work in only 10 days.
Fearlessly and hurriedly, Emanuele made international travel arrangements from Italy. On January 2, 2000, Ilaria and Emanuele were married, just as they had hoped and planned. A few days later, they were on their way, flying to Indiana. To complicate matters, there was a time change from Chicago to Indiana. As soon as they arrived, Emanuele’s class was starting at Purdue University. He managed to make it to his class and to introduce himself to the students with the few words he knew in English: “Good morning. My name is…..” Afterward, he was invited to observe the first class of the course he would be teaching. This sounded helpful except for the fact that, as Emanuele said, “I realized that the class was Advanced Latin, and I didn’t understand a word spoken in the entire lesson.” He was shocked and added, “In 4 days I had to teach a class in a subject I didn’t know (Latin) and in a language I didn’t speak (English.)”
As luck would have it, the Professor asked to meet with Emanuele after class. Coincidentally, there was a Latin teacher who was teaching a class in the Italian language. Professor Tamburri asked Emanuele if he would mind switching with him and teaching the Italian class but requested that no English be spoken. What could be more perfect for Emanuele—it was pure serendipity! Then, a few months later, Professor Tamburri approached the couple and asked if they would be interested in moving from Indiana to teach in Florida. Emanuele responded, “we are going to have to think about it… but yes.” Truthfully, they had learned to trust whatever destiny had to offer.
In August of 2000, Ilaria and Emanuele moved to Florida. They have now been here for 23 years, have 2 children, Ida and Gabriel, and they have been working in the Italian Department at Florida Atlantic University (FAU) in Boca Raton. Ilaria has advanced her career from Teaching Assistant to Assistant Professor, to Associate and now Full Professor. Emanuele has followed the same path and was just promoted Associate Professor. They have become American citizens and feel proud that their children were born in America. They both try now to help other students who are in the same position that they were in a little more than two decades ago. Ilaria started a Study-Abroad Program; Emanuele teaches, and writes fiction and novels. This summer they will be taking 25 students back to Venice for 6 weeks and then the family will travel in Italy together.
Ilaria and Emanuele repeatedly call it “Providence” that brought them to the United States when they were young and adventurous. Emanuele summed it up, “We truly are living the American Dream. I got the woman, the job and the life I dreamed about. We realize our good fortune and now we are giving back and paying it forward by helping our students.” Indeed their students have grown and flourished. For many, studying Italian has changed their lives: for example, one 22 year old is spending a year teaching in Italy, two students ultimately got married there, and one learned Italian so well she got a job working at Google. Even older students advance: an 81 year old graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Italian and is writing a book; another, a retired dentist, continues to fulfill his desire to learn Italian.
Ilaria said proudly, “We are making FAU’s Italian department the biggest in the world.” In fact, The FAU Italian Program is unique in the Southeastern United States: it offers the only MAJOR specialization South of Tampa, the only MASTERS graduate coursework south of Tallahassee, and the only PhD DOCTORAL courses south of North Carolina. It is also one of the few programs in the nation to be deeply dedicated to the discipline of Italian American Studies and to incorporate a strong creative writing component. The Program’s creativity and open-minded outlook has sparked the Venice Study Abroad Program, the Castle in Tuscany Research Days and the Italian Film Festival at FAU. While keeping the students’ growth as the main focus, the Program’s many activities are also open to the community.
Considering all that Ilaria and Emanuele have contributed to FAU, to their students and to our community, it is certainly “Providence” that we are fortunate enough to have them right here in our city of Boca Raton.
For more information on Italian Studies at Florida Atlantic University, visit fau.edu/artsandletters/llcl/italian