Ciao, Italia!

Meredith College started a low-cost Italian getaway program for employees prior to the pandemic. Now the morale-boosting initiative is roaring back to life.

November 28, 2022
A brochure for the Meredith College program in Sansepolcro, Italy.
Meredith College is offering employees two subsidized trips to Italy this year, no vacation days required.
(Meredith College)

Some colleges and universities have offered mental health days or experimented with work-from-home policies to address burnout and low employee morale during the pandemic. Meredith College, a private women’s liberal arts institution in Raleigh, N.C., is doing something else: offering faculty and staff members a low-cost Italian getaway.

Meredith—whose study abroad program has long occupied a 16th-century palazzo in Sansepolcro, Tuscany—first offered this kind of trip to employees in 2017. It offered a second opportunity in 2019. The pandemic put things on hold. Now the program is back, with a few changes. Meredith is offering two weeklong trips this academic year, not just one, in December and in May, respectively. Participants don’t have to use their vacation days anymore. And due to high demand, longer-serving employees get priority.

“It’s a way to recognize the support and longevity and loyalty of employees who have stayed with the college, throughout the pandemic and before,” said Brooke Shurer, director of international programs at Meredith. And to some participants, she added, “it’s a trip of a lifetime–type opportunity.”

Donna Kocur, a field experiences coordinator at Meredith who started working there in 1997 as an adjunct instructor, is traveling to Italy in May via the getaway program. She’s taking her daughter, who is graduating high school. Neither has been to Italy before.

Kocur said, “A program like this does make a difference in employee morale. My paycheck, like many in the field of education, is not keeping up with rising costs, so I value any job perks that come my way. I know that I will travel with people I have not yet met, and I look forward to getting to know new colleagues and their traveling companions. And what a treat to be offered these days away from the office. I am certainly thankful to be offered this opportunity.”

The trip is $600 per person. Included is shared accommodation in Palazzo Alberti (two to three people per room), ground transportation, international health insurance coverage, several meals prepared by a local chef, breakfast vouchers for a local cafe, a private wine tasting and on-site assistance from college faculty members. Optional excursions are available for a fee.

Participants pay for their own plane tickets, but Meredith hopes to eventually offer airfare grants to make the program to be accessible to any interested employee.

Capacity ranges from 12 to 14 guests per trip. Employees may bring one travel companion. Some travel alone.

“It’s open to all Meredith College employees, and that includes adjunct faculty and part-time staff—it’s a wide variety of people who participate,” Shurer said. “There’s an itinerary put together for the week, for employees to see some of the special places that our students experience on study abroad, or they are welcome to use the palazzo as a home base and explore their own interests.”

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The palazzo is walkable to Sansepolcro, a medieval walled city in the Apennine Mountains, about 70 miles from Florence. The area is home to multiple museums, including one featuring Piero della Francesca’s “The Resurrection” fresco, along with historic churches, restaurants, wineries and other cultural sites.

Catherine Rodgers, a professor emeritus of theater at Meredith who has led every employee getaway so far, said that Sansepolcro is “just is a special place that has some of the best restaurants in the world. Because it’s small, we know everybody, and so we’re always invited to wine tastings and included in events that they have.”

‘A Lasting Impact’

The Italian getaway program was born when the college identified a short gap in student programs at Palazzo Alberti in 2107, Shurer said. The idea was to offer faculty and staff members a taste of what students experience in Meredith’s popular study abroad program—something like professional development—and to generally make international travel accessible, as a job perk.

“We had two retired professors who led study abroad programs for a long time who put together an itinerary, and the program is set at a really accessible cost—we pretty much just run it at baseline cost of our expenses, break even for the week,” Shurer said. “And I’ve found this has been a really wonderful professional development opportunity for colleagues on campus to see an aspect of our international education that’s such a critical component of what we do here, so they’re able to return to campus and speak about their experiences and share that with students. It also has connected employees, faculty and staff with colleagues on campus who they may not normally interact with. There have been some really wonderful bonds and relationships formed from colleagues who traveled together.”

Dana F. Sumner, director of career planning at Meredith and a 22-year employee, traveled to Sansepolcro in 2017 with her mother. Up until that time, Sumner had limited international experience and was eager to visit Italy when presented with the opportunity.

“I wanted to immerse myself in the environment,” she said. “Eat the food, visit the area—the smaller communities and the big cities—and see architecture and works of art that I had studied and appreciated. And experience life in a different country, for myself and to be able to share and sell the experience to our students.”

One “unexpected gift,” Sumner added, was having two college faculty members who are familiar with Sansepolcro as guides. “We experienced things that I would not have known about on my own. Visits to basilicas and cathedrals, a monastery, wineries, small cafes and coffee shops, locally owned restaurants, pottery and linen-making shops, and museums in Anghiari, Deruta, Assisi, Arezzo and Florence made this a trip of a lifetime for me and prepared me to plan and take other international trips on my own.”

Can a program like this really make a difference in morale? Sumner said the getaway “made a lasting impact on me.”

Faculty and staff members “continue to ask about my mother, whom they got to know on our adventures abroad. I have relationships with faculty and staff I call on to support me and the work of my office because we shared this common experience. It bonded us, and, as a result, I have a stronger tie and commitment to the Meredith community.”

Grace Sugg, associate director of admissions at Meredith and a 15-year employee (and alum), traveled to Italy in 2019. She said she was looking forward to experiencing “true Italian culture, less as a tourist and more through authentic relationships that have formed with the college’s history in Sansepolcro,” and to experiencing firsthand the program she regularly speaks with prospective students about.

Ultimately, she said, “Learning the history, taking in the beauty of the scenery and the art, and enjoying the incredible food were all wonderful, but my favorite parts of the trips were the unplanned moments that allowed us to appreciate the relationships formed with the people of the local community and how they’ve embraced Meredith over the years to form this incredible connection.”

Mattie Hawkins, an administrative assistant in the School of Natural and Mathematical Sciences who’s worked at Meredith for 17 years, is traveling to Sansepolcro in May with her husband. She said she’s been interested in visiting Italy since learning about the Roman Empire in elementary school and that “adulthood has only increased my fascination with Italian arts, architecture, the picturesque countryside and of course fine cuisine.”

“Making this program available to all employees equally, subsidizing some of the costs, allowing a plus-one, affording the opportunity for professional and personal growth, and not docking vacation time is a definitive morale booster,” she said.

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Colleen Flaherty

Colleen Flaherty, Reporter, covers faculty issues for Inside Higher Ed. Prior to joining the publication in 2012, Colleen was military editor at the Killeen Daily Herald, outside Fort Hood, Texas. Before that, she covered government and land use issues for the Greenwich Time and Hersam Acorn Newspapers in her home state of Connecticut. After graduating from McGill University in Montreal in 2005 with a degree in English literature, Colleen taught English and English as a second language in public schools in the Bronx, N.Y. She earned her M.S.Ed. from City University of New York Lehman College in 2008 as part of the New York City Teaching Fellows program. 

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