By Pete Kennedy
Gabriella Finizio knows the value of speaking a foreign language — and the impediments of not speaking one.
“I arrived in the United States without really knowing a word of English,” she said. “Not being able to speak the language is really a tremendous loss, a tremendous condition.”
She came to America in 1966 as a 23-year-old newlywed, joining her husband, Michael, a chemist who had taken a job at Endo Pharmaceuticals in New York. She had been studying philosophy and French at the University of Naples, but that didn’t help her communicate in her new country.
She went back to school, studying English as she worked toward a bachelor’s degree in languages and literature at City University of New York. She would later receive a master’s degree at University of Delaware and a doctorate at Middlebury University in Vermont, and enjoy a distinguished career as a professor at UD.
Finizio, now 73, retired from the school in 2011, but her passion for teaching language and spreading Italian culture hasn’t diminished. Each summer, she runs La Mia Piazza, a summer camp for children to learn Italian. At the beginning of each year, she organizes an Italian film festival. She’s an occasional host of the Italian-American Herald on the Air program on WILM 1450 AM, and she serves as a consular correspondent for the Italian consul general in Philadelphia.
In 1969, DuPont acquired Endo Pharmaceuticals, bringing Finizio and her family to Delaware. When she joined the UD faculty in 1986 as an Italian teacher, the school’s Italian program was lean, offering no Italian major or minor.
Finizio helped to enhance the course selection and added a study-abroad winter session, giving students a chance to travel to Siena. As the program grew, a full semester abroad was added, first in Siena and then in Rome. She traveled with students nearly every year from 1990 to 2010. Despite the lively nightlife and lower drinking age, there were never any major issues with student safety, she said, but some students did fall in love.
“After the session was over, they’d come back sometimes with rivers of tears. But in a couple of cases, the sadness turned into joy because the relationship created was strong enough and they married,” she said.
Finizio, whose classroom material included the works of Dante and the study of politics in Italian cinema, received the UD Excellence in Teaching Award in 1992 and again in 2010.
“The first element is total respect for students,” she said. “The second is a passion for the subject.”
In 2007, she became a correspondent for the Italian consul general, translating documents and helping American citizens apply for dual citizenship. The option to become an Italian citizen is open to many natural-born Americans, depending on when their ancestors came to the United States and became naturalized.
“The first generation adjusts, the second is the one that really has to get into the mainstream, and then the third rediscovers the roots,” she said. “But there are also practical advantages.”
For example, a young American soccer player who might not be able to play professionally in the U.S. could make a decent living in Italy, even playing for a third- or fourth-tier club.
Many of Finizio’s students have become language teachers at area high schools, and several also teach at La Mia Piazza, the camp she runs for two weeks each July, instilling a knowledge and appreciation of Italian language, history and culture. In 2016, about 100 children ages 4-14 attended the camp, which took place at Cooke Elementary School in Hockessin.
The Italian film festival she organizes each year, held one weekend per month from January through April, supports scholarships for the summer camp. Funding also comes from the Delaware Commission on Italian Heritage and Culture and the Delaware Italian-American Education Association.
Finizio also has been working with Wesley College professor Maria Teresa Morrison, a member of the commission, on a grander project.
“We have been working for a while to establish … Italian in elementary school,” Finizio said. “This is the dream of my life. I hope to complete it before I depart for other shores.”
Finizio lives in North Wilmington with her husband. They have two grown sons, GianClaudio, a Pennsylvania lawyer, and Francesco, an artist living in France. She said she used to enjoy painting, but her many efforts related to Italian culture have left little time for hobbies.
“I love my life in the United States,” she said. “I love the country, I love the opportunities, the possibilities that one has to pursue a passion.”