Passion for Italy

Cranstonian celebrates 40 years since founding Italian exchange program

Posted 1/17/23

Maria Vallone has a passion for Italy and the Italian language. The now retired teacher of 34 years started the first Italian exchange program at Newton North High School in Massachusetts and will …

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Passion for Italy

Cranstonian celebrates 40 years since founding Italian exchange program


Maria Vallone has a passion for Italy and the Italian language. The now retired teacher of 34 years started the first Italian exchange program at Newton North High School in Massachusetts and will celebrate its 40th year at an awards celebration in Florence, Italy, on Feb. 10.

Residing in the Garden City section of Cranston, Vallone grew up in the city and lives in the house that her father built when she was a teenager. A 1962 graduate of Cranston East, Vallone grew up speaking Italian with her Sicilian grandmother; she added that her grandfather started the first macaroni factory in Providence after coming to the country. Today, Vallone teaches Italian at the Johnston Senior Center.

In college, Vallone obtained a degree in education from the University of Rhode Island and her master’s of arts in Italian from Middlebury College through the University of Florence. After working as an English teacher at the junior high level, she assumed her position as an Italian teacher at Newton North High School. She recalled that upon arriving at the school, there were many languages – Russian, Chinese, Spanish, German and French – being taught and all the language courses had exchange programs. Vallone said the high school’s other languages influenced her to start the Italian exchange.

“So once I got there in ‘71, it took us 10 years to convince the Italian government to accept an American school to come and study,” said Vallone.

She vividly remembers the day in 1981 when her department head, David Phelan, walked to her classroom door waving papers saying ‘we got it.’ Newton North High School had been paired with Florence’s Liceo Gramsci. Over the years, Vallone recalled the assistance she received from Emilio Mazzola who worked at Newton North.

The first group of 17 exchange students visited Florence in 1982. With Vallone as the sole chaperone, the group’s exchange families greeted them upon their arrival in Italy. During the students’ month-long stay, they studied six days a week at Liceo Gramsci and took trips to cities and small towns (Rome, Venice and San Gimignano) with Vallone.

Today, upwards of 1,000 Newton North High School students have traveled to Italy over the last 40 years; And Vallone’s students still remember the trip’s impact.

“My vision of Italy was very, very different than the city of Florence,” said Lucia Graziano, one of Vallone’s former students who attended the 1984 Italy trip.

Graziano is a child of Italian immigrants and grew up with Italian as her first language. She said the Italian exchange was an amazing experience and it was interesting that she could speak to them in the language that she spoke with her family.

“She's [Vallone] ignited a lifelong passion for learning about our heritage,” Graziano said.

In the 80s, Newton North High School students took Italian from tenth to twelfth grade and could go on the exchange for multiple years if they had the finances to do so. After the American students visited Italy in the spring, students from Florence came to the states in the fall and stayed with the families of Vallone’s students. Vallone’s Italian counterpart in this experience was Prof.a Clara Vella who would travel to America with her Italian students.

Karen Ashworth, another one of Vallone’s students who traveled to Italy in 1984, recollected on having the Italian students try different American foods and snacks like Coco Puffs and fluff when they stayed in Newton. Since they didn’t have the processed foods that America has, the Italians found it strange. Their expressions were priceless and they said the snacks were terrible, chuckled Ashworth.

Graziano stayed with Silvia Anichini her junior year and the next year Anichini stayed with Grazizno’s family in the U.S.

“And we have continued to be friends all of this time. I just talked to her yesterday,” Graziano said in a Thursday interview.

Graziano said the experience is different from study abroad since individuals are completely immersed with a family.

“In high school you’re much more impressionable and really starting to take those first steps on your own,” Graziano said, adding that it’s an incredible way to test independence and build confidence.

Today, Graziano and Ashwoth live in the Newton area with Graziano working as a marketing executive and Ashworth working as a nurse practitioner.

Both agreed that the experience was extremely positive and had a huge impact on their education. Meanwhile, Vallone’s impact has been multi-generational. Graziano said her two siblings had Vallone as an Italian teacher including a niece and nephew and at least 10 of her cousins. Additionally, Florentine students from the 1982 trip have written to Vallone saying they are waiting for her to return to Italy to meet their children.

Vallone added that students from the 1982 Italian group still socialize together. She received a phone call several weeks ago and, when she picked up, all she heard was ‘Maria, Maria.’ One of the Florentine students from the 1982 group had called and had sat down to dinner with other members of that group. They all passed the phone around asking her who they were to see if she could recognize them 40 years later.

As for the impact the Italian exchange had on her life, Vallone spoke about how important it is for students to learn about their heritage and where it began.

Ashworth fell in love with the language in school and said it sparked an inner fire in her. Italian was her best class and the language stayed with her throughout the years.

She’s heard from people that back in the day some Italian families who immigrated to America didn’t want their kids to speak their native language. Since there was discrimination against Italians, families wanted their children to fit in and be accepted which called for integrating and learning English and the American culture. For some individuals, speaking Italian at home was scolded. With Vallone coming to the Newton school system, Italian became a course offering and it was seen as acceptable to learn and celebrate.

Ashworth loved how Vallone taught the students about Italian culture, food, communication at the dinner table and camaraderie. She said Vallone expanded traditional lesson plans and would bring in Italian food to try. Vallone’s influence of Italian language and culture encouraged her to connect with others who had a passion for Italy.

In 2007, Ashworth reconnected with an Italian friend through email. The two communicated for several years and, in 2009, the exchange students joined Facebook, connected with each other and created a group on social media.

“To reconnect was such a gift and to know these friendships so many years past you pick up where you left off 30 years later,” Ashworth said.

Vallone will be in Italy for two weeks in February, and the Florentine students who were here in 1982 will meet her at the airport. The Feb. 10 reunion and awards celebration will include hundreds of people, and some of Vallone’s Newton North High School students will make the trek to Italy for the occasion along with the school’s 40th year of exchange students. The mayor of Florence, President of Toscana and Ambassador from the United States to Florence will be present. Vallone and Vella will each make speeches, and a student from each exchange will talk at the event; Graziano and Ashworth will watch the event virtually.

Maria, Italy


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