GoAbroad Interview

Donnamarie Kelly Pignone - Academic Advisor & U.S. University Programs Coordinator

Donnamarie Kelly Pignone - Academic Advisor & U.S. University Programs Coordinator

Donnamarie has worked at Babilonia since 2003, coordinating customized study abroad programs for American students as well as assisting with the development of faculty led programs. Prior to working for Babilonia, she was a teacher for many years and also worked with international students studying in the U.S. Currently based in the U.S., Donnamarie is readily available to speak with students, parents, university advisors, and study abroad offices, in order to assist students with enrollment in Babilonia as well as the process of academic credit transfers.

How did you get connected with Babilonia?

Thirteen years ago, I was searching for a place to vacation and study and Babilonia was recommended to me by a professional colleague in Italy. I spent one week studying Italian and enjoying all of the co-curricular activities that Babilonia offered.

As a teacher, and at the time an administrator in the field of international education, I was so impressed with the school that at the end of my study time I introduced myself to Alessandro Adorno, the Director and Founder, raved about the program, and volunteered to help promote the school in the U.S. In a short time, Alessandro created a formal position. Since then, I have thoroughly enjoyed working with U.S. students and Babilonia staff and faculty. Although I am based in the U.S., I spend two to three months each year in Taormina, which has become my second home.

Students and staff having lunch at the Babilonia Center for Italian Studies
Lunch in the Babilonia Gardens with students

What makes Babilonia better than other Italian language schools in Italy?

Babilonia is unique due to its commitment to cultural and linguistic immersion, highlighted by the international and multigenerational student body, which provides a unique and rich classroom environment. Through fostering this environment, students become more engaged with cultural knowledge, both of Italy and their own native cultures. Conversations range a variety of topics and students are motivated to learn and socialize. Host families genuinely include students in their family activities, since meals are provided seven days a week. On weekends, students join in family activities, birthday celebrations, and local festivals.

What does a typical day of work look like for you?

Since I am based in the U.S., my day begins early to check emails sent from the office which is six hours ahead of the East Coast. When in Taormina, I enjoy meeting with students and sharing lengthy lunches with staff and faculty in the gorgeous Babilonia gardens.

How do you ensure students are ready to attend Babilonia both before and after they arrive?

Each U.S. student enrolled in courses at Babilonia has a pre-departure orientation, during which students are given an overview of the program and an explanation of a typical day. Guidelines to prepare students culturally for their experience and logistical information, such as packing tips, are covered.

Babilonia staff members at the Babilonia Office in the U.S.
Babilonia Office

Once in Taormina, students have an on-site orientation and a walking tour of the town to familiarize them with the location of grocery stores, pharmacies, laundromats, etc. Many of our U.S. students live with host families who provide breakfast and dinner seven days a week, so students quickly orient to their neighborhood and easily become aware of local activities.

What do students typically enjoy most about studying at Babilonia?

Students enjoy the international population Babilonia offers them due to the selective enrollment of U.S. participants. Students boast of their host family experiences, often remaining in contact with them for years after studying. Students learn Sicilian card games, attend concerts, and learn to cook Sicilian specialties with their families. Students are always genuinely happy to feel like a local in the town.

Since Taormina is a small town, students get to know the cafe and bar owners by name, creating a sense of belonging each time they return.

Taormina isn’t the first city travelers think about visiting in Italy. What makes the city especially great for language study?

The easy-going Sicilian residents are patient with language learners and encourage students to speak in Italian rather than speak in English. Conversations at shops, bars, cafes, and on the street are often initiated by locals who are noted for their hospitality. The cultural offerings scheduled at the Greek Theater located just steps from Babilonia, provide cultural activities such as concerts, operas, and one of the most noted International Cinema Festivals in Italy. 

Tourists near a beach in Italy
Day at the beach with family visitors

What is your number one tip for students attempting to learn the Italian language?

Relax and speak Italian without hesitation or embarrassment. In the U.S., often students learn grammar, but there is little time to practice speaking. When in Taormina, speak with everyone; the locals will appreciate your efforts and your skills will accelerate.

How does Babilonia make sure students get out of the classroom to experience the real Italian way of life?

Babilonia offers social and co-curricular activities five days each week, introducing various themes through films, lectures, etc. All of Babilonia staff and faculty are native Italians who are passionate about sharing their language and culture; staff and teachers make sure students are aware of feast day activities, exhibitions, concerts, nearby festivals, etc. Classes are highly interactive so students feel comfortable with each other and often make plans to go to the events together or simply arrange to go to the beaches to swim and relax. Host families include students in their social lives, exposing students to extended families and friends.

What is your favorite part about working for Babilonia?

One of the most rewarding moments for me is sharing the excitement of students when they make local friends and talk about socializing with local friends and their host families. Their enthusiasm is genuine and at the end of their programs they are always saddened to leave friends behind. Many return to visit and they always drop by the school to say hello and share a lunch with faculty and current students.