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PRESENTED BY ST. STEPHEN'S BOARDING SCHOOL

Boarding school life at St. Stephen’s in Rome

Rome has captivated the imagination of artists, poets, and tourists for centuries. But it’s far more than postcards and pasta. One international boarding school is giving students a deeper experience, and transforming lives in the process.

Boarding school life at St. Stephen's in Rome
St. Stephen's school photo: Liana Miuccio and Luigi Fraboni/St. Stephen's

It's 7:30am on a Tuesday and Jonah Mayer is faced with an unusual choice for most American teenagers: a leisurely breakfast with a few dozen friends — or a jog around the Vatican. 

“I can go to the Vatican any day of the week,” Mayer tells The Local. “I can jog past a building that’s iconic all over the world. Rome is a city that never runs out of surprises.”

In many ways, Mayer is an average American upper secondary student. He spent most of his life in West Chester near Philadelphia. He enjoys football (or soccer), video games, and hanging out with friends.

But his high school education has been far from average.

Mayer is currently enjoying his second year as a boarding student at St. Stephen's, an international day and boarding high school nestled in the heart of Rome.

“The city is just unreal. It’s vibrant but very relaxed,” Mayer says. “It offers endless possibilities.”

When Mayer found out his family was relocating to Rome, he was thrilled, but anxious. He travelled to Italy on his own a half year ahead in order to start the academic year there.

“I was pretty nervous about the whole transition process,” Mayer confides. “The whole thing, the possibility of moving to Rome and it actually happening, went very quickly. It didn’t feel real.”

Mayer’s family now lives just a stone’s throw from campus. But Jonah Mayer chose to continue the boarding experience for the atmosphere.

“I walked in and everyone was sitting in a big circle in this room we call the Chapel, and it was like, ‘Wow, this is really happening,’” he says. “And I very quickly felt at home.”

Mayer said he appreciates the boarding programme because it prepares students for life, offering a stepping stone to independence. 

“It seems like there’s been an epidemic recently of students burning out in college because they’re not prepared,” he says. “Boarding school is a great middle ground.”

Waking up in Rome

St. Stephen’s, founded in 1964, boasts a tight-knit community of 275 students from around the world – 40 of whom are boarders and constitute a 'nuclear family' at the school, along with ten boarding faculty who also live on-campus.

 “I love this boarding programme because of the intimacy,” English teacher and Co-Head of Boarding Katherine Young tells The Local. “We are ten adults working with these 40 students, so all the adults know all of the kids quite well.”

Mayer, who wakes up “pretty early for a boarder”, gathers with his international ‘family’ for breakfast each morning at 7:45am, talking, laughing, and building relationships.

“I have a 45 minute breakfast and hang out with the other boarders, and then gather my books and head off towards class,” Mayer says. “I love all my classes this year.”

The schedule is different depending on the day of the week, but his favourite is economics.

“It’s not really a typical class I would have taken if I hadn’t come here,” he adds, “but the teacher I have made me really fall in love with it.”

And since arriving at St. Stephens, discovering new passions and interests has become something of a trend for Mayer.

“I don’t really consider myself someone interested in English either, but this year – wow, poetry,” he exclaims. “I have teachers who help me look at subjects in ways I’ve never seen them before.”

Indeed, St. Stephen’s teachers are one of the school’s main selling points.  Of the diverse faculty, 83% have advanced degrees, and 20% have earned a PhD. This translates to a group of talented professionals who transmit their passion and enthusiasm for learning to their students.

“The teachers are unreal. Having teachers who are so excited about their subjects gets me excited,” Mayer adds with a grin.

And that vivacity continues into the afternoon.

“Lunch is full of laughter,” Mayer says. “There’s a terrace and benches, and a lot of people in the cafeteria too. There’s a lot of energy during lunch, and it’s nice to catch up.”

The small but diverse community is valued by teachers and students alike.

“We have people from Russia, Mexico, the US, Austria…it’s great,” Mayer exclaims. “It’s a vibrant mix, with all of these people from diverse backgrounds just hanging out.”

Indeed, the school is home to students of 39 different nationalities and offers nine different languages. St. Stephen’s is also an IB Diploma certified school and has Advanced Placement classes as well, making its programme competitive for students planning to study in the US or anywhere else across the globe.

“It’s a liberating cultural atmosphere,” Mayer says. “I’m used to this social hierarchy from my other schools, but here everyone is laid back. There aren’t those social constructs and divides.”

When afternoon classes end, many of the students go directly to club activities. For Mayer, it’s football – not just physical activity, but a truly unique cultural experience.

“I wouldn’t consider myself the most skilled soccer player in the world,” he laughs. “And I’m playing with a lot of other students who have been playing for a really long time, especially the Italian kids. It’ something they grew up with.”

But on the field it doesn’t really matter, he says. It’s competitive – but it’s not something to stress about, Mayer says.

“It’s a place where all the cultures wash away and we’re just out there having fun.”

Community Night Dinner

Following evening activities, the boarding students gather for a communal dinner at 6:20pm – an “early American dinner” by Roman standards. And it’s not just about food – it’s a valued social event for students and teachers alike.

Community issues and activities are discussed, birthdays are celebrated, and students express their appreciation and thanks for special moments enjoyed throughout the school week.

“When 6:20 comes around I am drawn down to the dining hall because it’s a time when the community really comes together,” Michael Mottola, the other Co-Head of Boarding at the school, tells The Local. “There’s a wonderful energy and a wonderful buzz. It’s a relaxed family environment.”

For Mayer, the true highlight of the day comes as the light is fading on the city and the campus. After dinner the students gather for study sessions, snacks, and conversations.

 “We just hang out and have the craziest conversations,” he explains. “The other night we found ourselves debating the morality versus economic necessity of sweatshops in China. And you think, how did this even come up?”

Mayer says it’s an experience he may not have had if not for boarding.

“I feel so much more aware, and being in a group with all these people with different ideas has really opened my eyes.”

And a key ingredient of success at St. Stephen’s is that this diversity is not just in the classroom, but permeates the entire community, creating long-lasting relationships.

“The boarding community is very tight-knit,” Mayer says. “There’s basically an open-door policy, and no one is ever surprised when you barge into their room.”

The boarding students are split into separate floors for male and female students, and Mayer said that it’s common for “the guys” to hang out playing video games and guitar.

And the relationships extend beyond campus. The boarders share “community night” once a week, go out for dinner, have movies nights, field days, service activities, and much more. There are also group activities offered every weekend, such as the annual beach trip.

“It’s great,” Mayer exclaims. “It feels like we are all very academically motivated, but at the same time you’re living in a hall with a bunch of cool people to hang out with.”

A Transformative Experience

One of the key goals at St. Stephen’s is to promote individual growth in every way, not just during school, but for the future. When speaking with students and teachers about their experiences there, one word crops up again and again: transformative.

“We get to be involved in watching these kids grow not just academically, but also emotionally,” Co-Head of Boarding Katherine Young reflects.

 “The kids who are outliers in some way really shine here. And they love what they experience here.”

Young’s colleague and Co-Head of Boarding Michael Mottola agrees.

“The community offers a great deal of support, and it’s something I love being a part of, he says. “Working with students in a residential setting is something I enjoy very much.”

Mayer has been changed and transformed by his time at St. Stephen’s. He says the boarding experience in Rome has accelerated his growth and challenged him to accomplish things he didn’t know he could do. Rather than black-and-white, he now sees the world in a million shades of grey.

 “I’m more aware as a human being from living in this melting pot,” Mayer says. “I’m exposed to it every day and every night, and it just soaks in. And it’s fantastic. It’s invaluable.”

This article was produced by The Local in partnership with St. Stephen's Boarding School.

All photos: Liana Miuccio and Luigi Fraboni/St. Stephen's

QUALITY OF LIFE

‘Why I used to hate living in Rome as a foreigner – and why I changed my mind’

Yet another survey of Rome’s foreign residents has rated the Italian capital dismally for quality of life. Jessica Phelan explains why she too disliked the city when she first moved here, and what helped to change her mind.

A view over the city of Rome at sunset.
Life in Rome can take a while to get used to. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP

If you’d told me four years ago that I’d be coming to Rome’s defence, I would have told you: Ma va’. Yeah right, get out of town. And I would have said I’d be long gone myself. 

And yet, as the latest InterNations survey of expats around the world puts Rome in last place for city life and work, here I am not only still living here but saying out loud: this place isn’t so bad.

It’s not that I don’t get where my unhappy fellow foreigners are coming from. I never dreamed of Rome before I moved here and found it far from dreamy once I arrived, in summer 2017. I’d grown up a short flight away (the UK) and lived in European capitals (Paris, Berlin) for several years, and after a stint further afield (Japan), I naively thought that moving to Rome would feel like coming home. 

Instead I found myself complaining to anyone who would listen about the same things that InterNations’ respondents listed as Rome’s downsides. The unreliable public transport. The scant public services. The politicians on the take. The provincialism. The rubbish – good grief, the rubbish. The inequality and lack of opportunities for young people – and lack of young people themselves, as it seemed in certain neighbourhoods. 

READ ALSO: Rome and Milan ranked ‘worst’ cities to live in by foreign residents – again

Sure, I liked the food and I couldn’t argue with the weather, but it felt frivolous to enjoy the small pleasures amid what I began to see as existential flaws. They spiralled for me into the impression of a city on the brink: the trash is piled shoulder-high because people here don’t care about anyone else, I told myself.

The fact everyone assumes I’m a tourist means they’re not used to anyone who doesn’t look or sound like them. I’m struggling to meet other young professionals – it must be a sign that the best and the brightest have all left. Because really, who’d choose to live here?

Photo: Andreas SOLARO/AFP

Partly it was because I didn’t feel I had chosen to live here. I had moved for my American partner’s teaching job, and nothing was more alienating than encountering people who were stubbornly, unaccountably, in love with the place – or an idea of it. An awkward pause would ensue as I contemplated whether to mumble something innocuous about gelato or take it upon myself to debunk their romantic notions and expose what I was convinced was the ‘real’ Rome – dirty, dysfunctional, doomed. 

It wasn’t all in my head. As the InterNations survey has shown for several years straight, many foreign transplants report deep dissatisfaction with the city. So do Romans as a whole: one survey in 2020 found that most residents said their quality of life had worsened in the past five years. Global studies have named Rome one of the unhealthiest cities in Europe, and its roads some of the most dangerous. When Italians compile the list of the ‘best places to live in Italy’, there’s a reason why Rome never comes close to the top ten. 

In fact, every time I lamented the city’s decline, I fitted in better than I realised: no one complains more about Rome than Romans themselves.

Photo: Alberto PIZZOLI/AFP

There was perverse comfort to be had in realising that people born and raised here saw the same things I did and found them just as galling. La grande monnezza, they call it: forget ‘the great beauty’ (la grande bellezza), it’s the great rubbish dump. Roma fa schifo, as a popular local blog has it. Rome is disgusting. 

Huh, I began to think I scrolled through photos of egregiously parked cars or smirked at another meme about the incompetents in city hall, maybe we can get on after all. It was a glimpse of a dark, deeply cynical humour that was one of the first things about Rome I had to admit I liked.

READ ALSO:

Gradually, other qualities forced their way into view. I moved from a stuffy neighbourhood in the west of the historic centre to outside the city walls in the east and discovered that yes, other people under 50 do live here, no, not every foreigner is a tourist or study-abroad student, and thank goodness, not every restaurant serves only Italian food. Our new apartment was bigger, and bigger by far than anything our relatively modest incomes would have got us in the capitals of our home countries.

In fact, I suspected I wasn’t living in a capital city at all. Milan is where most of the money and opportunities within Italy are to be found, which has long made it a more logical place to move to for Italians and foreigners alike. I envy Milan’s metamorphosing skyline and cosmopolitan population – things I associate with ‘real’ cities.

But what do you know: if Rome comes 57th in the InterNations survey, Milan comes 56th. The responses suggest that housing is more expensive and harder to find up there, and the cost of living higher. 

I’ll leave it to people who live there to say what it’s really like, but I wonder if there are other trade-offs: I’d take the people-watching and window-shopping in Milan over Rome any day, but would I have to wear the ‘right’ clothes to fit in? I might have more chances to get ahead, but would I be judged on my job title or salary, and would people be more competitive? For better or worse, these aren’t things I have to worry about in Rome.

OPINION: Why Milan is a much better city to live in than Rome

Lucky for me I can afford not to: I’m not one of the 41 percent of foreign residents in Rome who told InterNations their disposable household income is not enough to cover expenses. Salaries are low here, and the cost of living – not visiting – can be higher than you might think. I’m in the privileged position of working for international employers, who pay better than local ones, and of splitting the bills with someone else in the same boat. We’re comfortable, but Rome isn’t the place to make your fortune.

So it’s no economic powerhouse. But culturally it’s got more life than I first gave it credit for. The things I’d assumed were missing altogether – new music, interesting events, a mix of people and backgrounds – were all there, they were just on a smaller scale and correspondingly harder to find. (Places to start looking: mailing lists, venues’ Facebook or Instagram pages, Zero.)

Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

In other cities I felt I’d made inroads by the end of the first year; in Rome, I was still at least another year away from meeting the friends who’d become my group here and, in turn, introduce me to people and places I wouldn’t have found on my own.

More than other cities, people say that Rome – the Rome that’s not in guidebooks, at least – is da scoprire, ‘to discover’ or even ‘unearth’. While you’re digging, having an ‘in’ can make all the difference. 

In some ways, Covid-19 also helped to rehabilitate Rome for me. The seriousness with which most people took the pandemic, and the camaraderie my neighbours showed throughout that first bewildering lockdown, proved that Romans were more than capable of caring for strangers. The months that followed, when we were confined to city or regional limits, taught me to appreciate the possibilities I might otherwise have ignored: travel might be impossible, but at least I had woods, lakes, mountains, waterfalls and the Mediterranean on my doorstep.

Other things I had to work around, or simply live with. I’m as convinced now as I was four years ago that Rome’s public transport system is woefully inadequate, but now I mainly avoid it: I walk or cycle as much as I can. In fact a whole alternative network of shared transport has sprung up in the time I’ve been here, from e-bikes to car shares and scooters, or monopattini.

Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

I’m yet to see a fix for the city’s rubbish problem, but I no longer assume it’s all the residents’ fault. It’s the result of decades of misuse of public funds, graft and organized crime – hardly reassuring, but marginally less bleak than thinking that none of your neighbours give a damn.

Because always, of course, there are people trying to improve things – by protesting, by voting, by picking up litter, even by filling in potholes on the sly. (Remember that if you’re a citizen of another EU country living in Rome, you have the right to vote in city elections too.) Doing the work yourself doesn’t absolve the authorities of the responsibility to do it, but in the meantime, as one acquaintance put it, at least your sidewalk is clean.

And those small pleasures: I finally gave myself permission to enjoy them. I like cracker-thin Roman pizza, supposedly kept from rising by the city’s hard water. I like sun that dries my laundry even in December. I like the view of mountains on a clear day. I like the light that glows golden around half an hour before sunset and works a kind of magic on ochre walls and brick bell towers and crumbling aqueducts.

In my fifth year here, I know now that these things don’t blind me to Rome’s faults, nor do I have to pretend not to see them to prove I’m not just another tourist. I live here; sometimes it’s bad; and most days, at about 5pm, looking over the rooftops, it’s good.

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