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Italian president knights Saint Mary’s professor

Megan Loney | Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Chivalry may be dead, but the honor of knighthood still recognizes individuals for their work, like Portia Prebys, director of Saint Mary’s study abroad program in Rome.

Italian President Giorgio Napolitano knighted Prebys on May 24 in Rome, bestowing her with the title “Cavalier of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic.”

This Order of Merit of the Italian Republic is the highest-ranking honor in the country and is awarded for “merit acquired by the nation” in literature, the arts, economy, public service and social, philanthropic and humanitarian activities as well as for distinguishable civilian and military careers.

Prebys is among a handful of women who have been given the title of “Cavaliere” by the Republic of Italy. This makes her title all the more important to her, she said.

“Italy’s prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, is sometimes referred to as “Il Cavaliere” and when I hear the term, I just kind of smile to myself and chuckle away at the irony of politics,” Prebys said.

The title is a sign of great respect in Italian society, Prebys said.

“I am thrilled at the honor that recognizes international cultural exchange as a goal for Italian society and recognizes my work at the university level in trying to sustain this goal,” Prebys said.

Prebys was awarded for her service to the nation through her committed career in international education. 

The knighthood recognizes Prebys’ contributions in the field of international cultural exchange on the university level, especially through the founding and development of the Association of American College and University Programs in Italy (AACUPI) over the past 35 years. 

Prebys is president of the AACUPI and therefore represents 25,000 North American students studying in Italy in any given year in 150 academic programs. As president, she has designed and passed legislation through the Italian Parliament in regards to North American study abroad in Italy. 

Her other work promoting cultural exchanges between the United States and Italy include serving on the Italian Board of Trustees to the Fulbright Commission for Educational and Cultural Exchange between the United States of America and Italy from 1992 through 2002. 

She was chair of the Fellowship Selection Committee from 1996 to 2000.

This is not Prebys’ first time receiving recognition for her work for education between the United States and Italy. 

At the College’s Sesquicentennial Convocation in 1994, Saint Mary’s awarded her with the President’s Medal for her contributions to the Rome Study Abroad Program. 

Prebys was living in Italy doing research after graduating from Saint Mary’s. When Saint Mary’s contacted her to assist them in founding the Rome Program. She has been working with the program since 1969. 

Prebys has also been awarded a doctorate in Letters honoris causa in 2003 and the President’s Medal in 2009 for her leadership with AACUP, both from John Cabot University in Rome. 

The United States Embassy to the Republic of Italy recognized her work with a Certificate of Appreciation “for work promoting international educational exchange and commitment to strengthening the bonds of friendship between the United States and Italy” in 2008.

Prebys is an advocate for international education traveling widely and lecturing, in both English and Italian, on international education and on the Italian literature. 

She has published articles and books, in English and Italian, and her latest titled “Educating in Paradise: 30 Years of Realities and Experiences of North American Colleges and Universities in Italy” was published by Centro Stampa 2P and released in Florence in 2008.