University News

Study Abroad-Sorrento Provides WNE Students an Opportunity to Hear Realities of War

Published: July 14, 2022 | Categories: Faculty, All News, Arts and Sciences
Professor Brenda Garton-Sjoberg with Olena Stasiuk in Italy.

Seventeen students participating in the Study Abroad: Sorrento, Italy program were expecting activities outside the classroom, such as immersing themselves into the Italian culture with site visits to olive oil and mozzarella cheese factories, Naples, Pompeii Ruins, Capri, touring the Amalfi Coast and an authentic Italian cooking class. Yes, they did all that, but what was even more memorable - was a talk by Olena Stasiuk. She and her family are victims of the Russian invasion. They escaped their native country of Ukraine and relocated to Italy. Olena's 17-year-old daughter, 12-year-old son, and aunt, were forced to leave their home while her husband, Max, remains in Ukraine to support the resistance.

"This was a powerful moment for students to hear first hand the horrific realities of this war from one family torn apart by this tragedy," explains Professional Educator of Communication Brenda Garton-Sjoberg who directs the study abroad program. "Max Stasiuk happens to be the illustrator for the "Little Frog and the Bright Lights" a children's book commissioned by the Spirit of Springfield (SOS) which tells the story of a frog visiting Bright Nights in Forest Park." Professor Garton-Sjoberg's husband John is Chair of the Board for the Spirit of Springfield organization. When hearing of the hardship the illustrator's family was having, the SOS board made the decision to redirect 100% of the proceeds of the book sales to help the Stasiuk family.

After learning of the Stasiuk's escaped to Italy, Professor Garton-Sjoberg began planning for Olena and her family to meet with WNE students and share their story. "I knew it would be a powerful lesson for students to hear and a talk they would never forget," said Professor Garton-Sjoberg. "It provided our students a unique and transformative learning experience - teaching them about this devastating war as Olena shared firsthand accounts on what happened to her family being forced to escape to Italy - with an uncertain future."

Sophomore Kaleigh Watts, a Gloucester Rhode Island student on the Sorrento trip said Mrs. Stasiuk's lecture was an emotional one to experience. "Hearing from her with her children was life-changing and gave me a new perspective. Here we were studying abroad, enjoying all the excitement and culture of Italy with happy moments, then to meet this family dealing with such hardship was something I’ll never forget." Watts continued, "It made me realize how lucky we are and how sad it is for so many in this war. It really brought home and gave a personal story to this war forced on the people of Ukraine."

Western New England University study abroad programs offer students important opportunities to experience new places and cultures while gaining a better understanding of the complexity of global issues and perspectives. This is Professor Garton-Sjoberg's fifth trip to Sorrento, Italy in partnership with the Sant'Anna Institute. This year she was accompanied by WNE Professors of Psychology and Neuroscience Dennis Kolodziejski and Sheralee Tershner.