For many immigrant families, their new lives in the United States are so consuming that the countries they left behind quickly become idealized memories. But for Mario Laurenti ’50, who grew up in the heavily Italian Chambersburg section of Trenton, Italy remained excitingly present and real.
In the mid-1930s, when the Italian government selected some first-generation sons of emigrants to spend a summer in the country, Laurenti jumped at the chance. Just 13 at the time, he traveled to Italy by boat, unaccompanied by family members. He would return a half-dozen times over the course of his life, introducing his wife Doris (née Fauver) ’48 and children to a wider world.
Decades later, when his children established a scholarship fund at TCNJ in memory of both their parents, they paid homage to their family’s passion for travel and sense of global connectedness by supporting study abroad. As young adults, the children had in turn widened their parents’ horizons, leading them to places as far-flung as Brazil and India, Bulgaria and Syria, Egypt and Tunisia, Malaysia and Japan.
The Doris and Mario Laurenti Fund recently awarded its first scholarship to Wiktoria Leja ’12, an international studies major who is spending five months in Senegal this semester.
“The fund goes back to my parents’ own formative experiences,” said their son, Jeffrey Laurenti, who still lives in the same Trenton neighborhood. “My father was exposed to the world at an early age and, as a result, he saw the world with wider lenses than most of his friends growing up.”
“Our mom also became an adventuresome traveler,” he added. “She was always thrilled to explore places in the developing world that shaped the growth of civilization. Always the teacher, she saw this kind of travel as practical education.”
When their mother passed away last year, the family asked mourners to donate to the scholarship fund at her alma mater rather than send flowers.
“Supporting something they cared about—education—seemed like the perfect way to honor them,” Jeffrey Laurenti said. “It’s a shared family conviction that educational opportunities are vitally important for a healthy and dynamic society, while enabling people to more fully appreciate the world.”
He added, “And Trenton State was an important place in both of their lives. It’s where they met.”
As both Mario and Doris Laurenti were physical education majors who went on to become teachers, a portion of the fund supports students majoring in Health and Exercise Science. Both parents were closely connected to their local community.
Indeed, Mario Laurenti is a sports immortal for his legendary run as coach of the boys’ soccer team at Steinert High School in Hamilton. From 1969 through 1973, his teams boasted an 84-7-7 record and four state championships, winning him a place in the Steinert Athletic Hall of Fame, the Mercer County Soccer Hall of Fame, and TCNJ’s Athletics Hall of Fame.
From a trip to Poggiodomo, the Umbrian town where Mario Laurenti’s father was born, Jeffrey recalls a startling collision of the local and the global. When he and his father stopped to ask a townsman for directions, the man responded: “You must be from Trenton. From this village everyone went either to Rome or Trenton.”
His family’s passion for travel and interest in the connections it revealed inspired his own career, Jeffrey Laurenti said. He now directs foreign policy programs for The Century Foundation, a progressive, non-partisan think-tank founded around the time the League of Nations was established just after World War I. Over the past few months alone, he has traveled to Jordan, London, Moscow, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, and, inevitably, Italy.
In devising the study abroad scholarship, the family structured it in such as way as to encourage TCNJ students to “stretch themselves,” as Jeffrey Laurenti put it. Awardees must be pursuing academic research or other approved study in Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, or East Asia.
The other siblings who joined in setting the guidelines for the fund are Shawn Laurenti DeFazio, of Morristown, who works in government affairs; Kris Laurenti, a social worker in Washington, DC; and Mark Laurenti of Chesterfield, now teaching at Hamilton High School West in suburban Trenton.
“We want to make it possible for students to look beyond the narrow and easy framework of the prosperous and developed world and discover a dramatically different culture,” Jeffrey Laurenti said. “There are parts of the world largely unfamiliar to the American public, and we hope that by studying at local universities and engaging with their peers, they will forge bonds there.”
Leja, who intends to pursue a career in foreign service, is eager to do just that.
Initially she had planned to study at the Sorbonne in Paris to improve her fluency in French—her third language after English and Polish—but learned about Senegal from a professor, Moussa Sow, and quickly changed course.
“I took French and Franco-African Cinema with Dr. Sow and saw Senegalese films which were really interesting,” she said. “When I learned about the possibility of studying in Africa, I thought it would be an experience that would allow me to pursue more than one goal. I want to improve my French, but I’m also really interested in U.S.–Africa relations.”
“I feel Africa is poorly understood. So much of what we read is negative, and people don’t understand how diverse it is,” she added.
To more quickly immerse herself in the local culture, Leja studied Wolof last semester with Sow, learning “enough vocabulary and phrases to help me get by there, and how to pronounce those long vowel sounds I’m not used to.”
She saw the Laurenti scholarship listed on the College’s Web site and immediately applied for it. It was the first of several scholarships she received.
“It was a very generous award that allowed me to study abroad,” she said.