Q&A with Adult Study Abroad Participant Susan Cohen

A Philadelphia native and Temple University graduate in accounting, Susan Cohen ’76 first studied abroad at Temple University Rome during the 1973-74 academic year. A college junior majoring in archaeology and anthropology at the time, Susan’s decision to study abroad in Rome was a natural one. A working commuter student in Philadelphia, Rome was Susan’s chance to have a real residential college experience, to study art history and archaeology first hand, and to see another side of the world for the first time. On her experience as a Temple Rome student, Susan said, “It was my best year. It was my best year in school.”

In May 2019, Susan Cohen ’76 returned to Temple Rome as the campus’ inaugural Adult Study Abroad student. As part of this program, Susan participated in student orientation and audited two undergraduate courses throughout Temple Rome’s 6-week summer semester.

Before returning to Philadelphia, Susan sat down with Temple Rome staff member AJ Fitzgerald to discuss her return to campus 45 years later. Read on for Susan’s take on her experience.

Q & A

Q: Ciao Susan! To start off, could you describe some of the differences between Temple Rome in the 1970s and Temple Rome today?

Well, for one thing, there was less oversight from the administration. We were on our own a lot. I don’t know how they kept track of us. On weekends, nobody asked us where we were going, or what we were doing. The experience was different from what the students have today. It’s a different world today.

It was striking to me, especially during orientation, to hear about the support staff and the various outlets students have to resolve their problems. I just don’t remember any of that. Maybe it was there in some fashion, but I don’t remember it.

Of course, there were no cell phones back then. I had to call my parents once a week to check in. There was this place on Via Corso, about halfway between Popolo and Piazza Venezia, with a big bank of phones. You gave your American phone number to the front desk and then you sat and waited for maybe an hour. When your call was ready to go through, they directed you to a phone booth and you talked to your family.

That and aerograms was how you communicated with home. So having the connection that the students have today is really different. I think it’s easier to travel and to be away from home [today] because of that connection.

The city was different too. At the time, there were no gates on the Colosseum or the Roman Forum. We used to cut through the Forum just to go someplace!

Q: What about your experience at Temple Rome kept it in your thoughts, and made you want to come back years later?

I was here two years ago for the 50th reunion, and there was a panel discussion with about six alumni from different years. I believe I was the oldest one there, and I think the youngest alum had just graduated the year before. There were three or four others in between.

During the panel, we each talked about our experience at Temple Rome and what it meant to us. I remember saying how much I loved it here, and that I got so much out of it, that it really was my best year in college. But to have the opportunity to come back again, as an adult, with more experience and a different perspective on learning? I just thought, wouldn’t that be a terrific thing to do?

Ever since then, I’ve been hoping that it would work out that I could get back here. And then it worked, and it’s been amazing.

Oddly, I do remember a lot of what I learned back then. For example, if I’m in a museum or a teacher points out something that I took a class in, I remember a lot. It’s really surprised me how much I remember. But I also learn differently now at age 66. So it’s been enjoyable for me to think about my former student-self sitting in a classroom, and then looking at myself today and wondering, what will I remember? What’s important to me now and what am I taking away from this experience compared to back then?

Q: Which classes did you decide to audit this summer and why? Can you talk a little bit about your experience in each class?

I took Roman History and [Digital] Photography.

Photography was my first choice because it’s been a hobby of mine for a while, maybe 10 years. I’ve never taken a full semester course before, only various workshops with photographers around Philadelphia and some travel trips with photography groups. It was very immersive and different from what I was used to doing. It was great because I’ve never had that much instruction in my life and I learned a lot. There were all levels of students in the class: both people who had never picked up a camera before and people for whom photography is a hobby.

I got to focus on one project throughout the semester, which was an easy choice for me. I am a rower back in Philadelphia, so I’m very connected to the river. And of course, the Tiber River runs through the city here and you can’t ignore it. I noticed the rowers on the Tiber the first day I was here. So I thought, I have to find out where they row and how I can be a part of it. And it was a natural topic for me to choose for my photography project. So I looked at the city of Rome from the point of view of the Tiber River. And it was really fun and comfortable for me because it was something I’m used to.

And then the other course I took was Roman History. That was a real stretch for me, I’ve never done anything like it. There were a lot of facts and information, and it was difficult for me to retain all of this information being thrown at me, but I liked being out of my comfort zone. I think that’s one of the important things about doing something like this: to challenge yourself. I wanted to do something that would challenge me academically, and so that was a good choice.

Q: Can you talk about your experience outside the classroom? You stayed in the neighborhood of Prati, correct? What was that like?

Yes, I lived in Prati which is just across the river, about a 20 minute walk from campus. It’s a lovely neighborhood and I felt very safe there. It’s very green. There are a lot of trees, and a lot of little restaurants and bars that aren’t filled with tourists. I don’t think I heard too much English there, and often went to places where my Italian was as good as their English, which isn’t saying very much. I liked that, because I felt like I wasn’t a tourist, and I didn’t want to feel like a tourist.

The downside was that I was the only one in the program this year, and there was a lot of alone time. It would be nice to have more people like me. So sign up!

I did have a couple of contacts here because of rowing. I contacted a rowing club that’s just across the river from school, about a 10 minute walk across the bridge, and got the name of someone. He was terrific, and told me to come row whenever I wanted. Later I also made contact with a friend who lives in Rome. I ended up having dinner with him and his wife, and rowing at his club a little north of here. There I was introduced to another woman about my age, who had about the same ability as a rower. We rowed together a bunch of times. So that ended up being my social life, the rowing.

Q: Now that you’re going home tomorrow morning, is there anything else you’d like to say to sum up this experience and what it meant to you?

It went too quickly! I am sorry that it’s over and I would like to be back here again. And I would encourage other adult learners like me to try this experience. I think anyone would get a lot out of it.

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