The Observer is a Student-run, daily print & online newspaper serving Notre Dame & Saint Mary's. Learn more about us.



Students spend break in Europe

Emily McConville | Thursday, October 31, 2013

Before he was Pope, John Paul II was Fr. Karol Józef WojtyÅa, a priest living and working in Poland under communist rule. Junior Christina Serena, a Notre Dame philosophy and theology major, wanted to know what impact this Church leader had on his native country.

Through a grant from the Nanovic Institute for European Studies, Serena traveled to Poland over fall break and interviewed 23 people there. Some were priests; some were ordinary citizens; some knew the Pope personally and called him “uncle” at a time when it was dangerous to identify a Catholic priest as “father,” she said.  

“One summer, [the Pope] invited them to the Vatican … and Pope John Paul was making up songs about their memories back in Poland,” she said. “They still called him uncle then – they said it was like he was still their uncle – like he was the Pope, but he wasn’t the Pope … he was still their friend, even as Pope.”

Dr. Anthony Monta, associate director of the Nanovic Institute, said the group granted $31,786 allowing 14 students to go to European countries conducting research in a variety of fields.

Monta said the Nanovic Institute has a long history of working with the College of Arts and Letters, but recently it has encouraged students interested in science and business topics to apply for grants as well. This year, he said “about half” of the students conducted research related to international economics or topics outside the College of Arts and Letters.

“The economic situation in Europe affects us all, so we’re interested in sending students who are interested in those types of problems,” Monta said, “and the scientific community is global.”

Alex Yaney, a senior majoring in Science Preprofessional Studies and Italian, said he spent his fall break in hospitals and on the streets of Rome, asking both health professionals and ordinary people about their opinions on Italy’s public healthcare system.

“It really gave me the chance to practice my Italian and [learn] about the medical system there,” Yaney said. “That was why I came, to incorporate my two majors together. … It was a good reminder of why I came to Notre Dame and why I’m studying what I’m studying.”

The Nanovic Institute, Monta said, encourages seniors in particular to travel to Europe to gather material for their theses.

“We always earmark funds for seniors, because we want very much to promote a culture of the senior thesis in concert with the College of Arts and Letters,” he said. “We had five seniors working on theses receive funding to do the kind of original, experiential research that take their theses to the next level … to find bits of research that really amplify the significance of their research.”

For his thesis, Matt Cook, a fifth-year architecture student, said he traveled to the Cinque Terre region of Italy for the second time, speaking with community leaders and studying wineries, a significant source of revenue in the area. His goal, he said, is to design a winery and town center for the town of Vernazza.

Cook said he hoped to contribute to the discussion about reviving the town, which in recent years has struggled with tourism, environmental degradation and a 2011 flood.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of money in Vernazza for a project like this, but it at least gives them some kind of idea about how they can respond to the needs of tourists, how they can accommodate a growing number of visitors, and how they can get people back out into the territories outside of town and respond to the environmental pressures so that people can live safely in Vernazza,” Cook said.

Monta said the Nanovic Institute also encourages students to work on philosophical and theological projects, such as Serena’s study of Pope John Paul II’s impact on Poland, which she intends to turn into a research paper and video compilation.

“As an institution we like to build connections to the Vatican,” Monta said. “We like to build connections to all the great Catholic universities in Europe, and we have very nice partnerships set up with these.”

In addition to gathering insights about John Paul II’s personality, Serena said she found the Polish public, while they didn’t know much about his theological teachings, “loved him in the way that you love your father” and considered him a national icon.

“Pope John Paul really became not a direct leader but definitely a spiritual leader for the solidarity movement, which is a movement in Poland of the common people to fight against the power of the Soviet Union in Poland,” Serena said. “… It’s like, ‘We have the strength as Poles to be able to finally become independent.’ They have a lot of respect for him.”