GoAbroad Interview

Dr. Cristiana Panicco - Founder, Director, & President

Cristiana grew up in Turin in the north of Italy, where she started studying languages at the age of 13. Her passion for international cultures was further enriched from the travel experiences she had been fortunate enough to have since childhood. Upon moving to Sorrento in the south of Italy, Cristiana was inspired to unify her love of Italian and international cultures and began what is now Sant'Anna Institute, a school for both Italian language and study abroad students. Cristiana's mother was a teacher and her father was an entrepreneur so the idea for Sant'Anna Institute was also naturally bred from the skills and values she learned from her parents.

You are a study abroad alumni yourself, having studied abroad in England and Germany during your academic career. What drew you to study abroad initially? How did your experiences abroad impact you?

I had a curiosity to discover a different culture and to meet different people. When I lived there I avoided Italian interactions, like Italian restaurants and even Italian people. I really just wanted to immerse myself with the locals, listening to what they said and observing the way their culture was. Especially in England, I was really lucky because I lived in a flat with an international group of students (from Iran, Sweden, England, and France), our dinners every evening were diverse and enlightening. I probably would have never had the idea to open the school if I hadn't had those experiences. 

Apart from learning in a new environment and enhancing your knowledge in the discipline of your choice, what did you gain from studying abroad?

I think the freedom of being who I am. If you always live within your comfort zone, you can find yourself constrained by that environment. When you go away, you gain the freedom to be who you really are without the pressure and influence of your culture. Once you have the freedom to be who you are, you’re mind is free to to fly and to discover its own way.

I am lucky because I have always brought my roots with me, I never planted my roots in the earth. It's the way you look at things, the way you see things, that allows you to feel good anywhere, without judgement, with enthusiasm and curious eyes, like a child. Judgement is a limit, so with an open mind, I have found myself at home wherever I have been.

SantAnna Institute staff and study abroad students in Sorrento, Italy

A group of Sant’Anna Institute students and staff in Sorrento.

Your world changed after studying in England and Germany. Can you explain how you felt about study abroad before you left and when you returned home?

I didn’t have a single expectation of studying abroad. I was open to whatever the experience would take me. When I returned home to my old surroundings, I realized that I had changed. When I moved here, I felt like it was my turn to give this type of experience. Sant'Anna's very existence represents myself and what my views have become...curiosity, new challenges, shared experiences, no borders, and no limits.

As a native of Torino, Italy, what must-see sights do you suggest students visit while studying abroad in Italy?

The known but also the less known places. For example, the countryside in Umbria is not a foreigners typical view of Italy, but it is breathtaking, every single meter. From the most important cities to the medieval small remote towns, everything in Italy is filled with history, culture, and poetry. 

Sant'Anna Institute has won many awards for its academic programs. What strategies do you employ in providing great, life-changing programs to students from other countries?

Having a good staff and a good faculty that share the same passion, not only for our country but also the passion to share their knowledge with someone else, this is the key. Someone can have an amazing knowledge but lack the capability to communicate it to others, I put a lot of attention on having high communication skills. You have to be able to talk with the heart of people...this has been the real success of Sant'Anna's mission.

What is the Sant'Anna Institute's most popular areas of study?

The programs with the strongest links to the territory tend to be the most popular. We don't do fashion because that's more Milan's strong point, as engineering is Torino 's, etc. However, we are incredibly lucky that our territory has such an abundance to learn from – the Italian language, Archeology, Volcanology, Marine Biology, internships in Tourism/Culinary/Hospitality, etc. It's hard to pick just one! We also offer the unique opportunity to connect and give back to the local community through service learning and community service projects.

You founded the Sant'Anna Institute in 1998 as the language school Sorrento Lingue. What has been the toughest part about establishing the organization? What has been the most rewarding aspect?

To get people's minds unfixed on from Rome and Florence as the only cities in Italy for studying abroad and to open them about the south... that has been the toughest challenge.

The most rewarding part is every single time we have a thank you from a student, seeing their tears when they leave, or getting letters from parents about all that we have done for their kids. Seeing the growth and success of our alumni in their careers is immensely rewarding as well.

How does the Sant'Anna Institute select applicants?

We do so on a more personal basis, in the sense that we don't stop at just the application, but try to get the best sense of who a student is and what he/she truly wants to gain from his/her abroad experience.

Safety is a concern in most study abroad programs. How does Sant'Anna Institute ensure the safety of international students?

We already live in a town where safety is not a problem, so that helps. We do an in-depth orientation explaining cultural differences between the U.S. and Italy, especially about alcohol. It's a safe place, but it's still a new place for students so we always try to make them aware of possible challenges/encounters.

Where do you see the institute in five years?

We hope to continually increase the number of students we reach as well as the number of  faculty-led programs, because we truly believe we are the perfect location for a truly integrated study abroad experience. We would also like to further enrich our programs in Tourism and Hospitality Management, because Sorrento has around 300 hotels, a great local resource. We are looking for American universities who might like to start an 18-month Masters program in Sorrento, which would consist of ten months of study and eight months of an intense internship immersion.