When she arrived in Florence in August, Maira Angela Tafolla was not planning to seek an internship or volunteer opportunity. However, a few minutes into the volunteer information session at ACCENT, she was convinced. Maira spent the fall semester volunteering at the Mameli elementary school in the Novoli neighborhood, a suburb in north Florence.
Maira is a senior in the Psychology program at UCLA with a minor in Disability Studies. Since high school, she has had a particular interest in Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Between regular coursework and a research placement at the UCLA Center for Autism Research and Treatment (CART), she had developed an understanding of the U.S. approach to integrating students with ASD in a classroom setting.
During her volunteer experience in Italy, Maira alternated between two different second grade classrooms where she spent most of her time reading English-language books to the students and helping teachers with their English pronunciation. While her main tasks were simple, Maira now recognizes that the greatest opportunity of the placement was the chance to observe a foreign education system and reflect on her own assumptions and cultural values.
“I chose the school placement because I wanted to see how the Italian education system works,” Maira says. “It felt like curriculum was less structured than in the U.S. and I was surprised how much emphasis was put on learning through speaking.” In fact, oral skills are central to education in Italy, especially when compared to the variety of learning and assessment activities in the U.S. “It was tough to see so much focus on oral communication, considering my knowledge of Autism.” She was also able to observe the role of a one-on-one aid for a student with ASD and noticed a strikingly different approach.
However, Maira was careful not to judge. “I tried to learn by watching the teachers,” she says, reflecting on teaching styles and interactions with students. “I accept that there are differences in cultures and I know that ours is not necessarily the ‘right’ one. I realize that I’ve been taught a very specific way of how things are done, but now I feel more open-minded and able to learn about other cultures through observation.”
Now back on Los Angeles, Maira hopes to spend another year at the UCLA Autism research center before applying to graduate school, where she plans to research treatment and classroom strategies for students with ASD in different cultural settings. As she puts it, “This experience will allow me to approach graduate school with a completely different mentality, knowing that there are different practices and approaches in the world. I want to make connections across cultures and across different fields.”