Meet Valentina Seffer, Ph.D., who says serving as assistant dean of the University’s campus in Prato, Italy, is a “dream job.” She enjoys introducing students studying abroad – including the group visiting now – to her home country, sharing her passions for Italian food, language, art, and history.
February 17, 2022
The lifeblood of the University of New Haven are the faculty and staff members who dedicate their lives to helping our students reach their goals. Periodically, we’ll introduce you to a member of the staff so you can learn more about them – beyond their day to day work.
Next up is Valentina Seffer, Ph.D., assistant dean of the University’s campus in Prato, Italy, who has traveled around the globe and has fond memories of her trips to New York City and to the University’s main campus in West Haven, Conn.
Renee Chmiel: What do you enjoy the most about living and working in Italy, and what are you most excited to share with visiting University of New Haven students?
Valentina Seffer: I was born and raised in Palermo, Sicily, the island at the tip of Italy’s boot, in the center of the Mediterranean Sea. I lived at home with my family until my early twenties, when I moved to Siena, in Tuscany, to study for a master’s degree in foreign languages and teaching Italian as a second language. I then moved to Australia for six years, to Melbourne first and Sydney afterward, to continue to study and to teach Italian at different schools and universities. In 2017, I finally returned to Italy to work at the University of New Haven’s Tuscany Campus in Prato, first as a student affairs coordinator and now as assistant dean.
I’ve always loved living in Italy, but the years I spent abroad made me appreciate it even more. I came back looking at my country with fresh eyes, enriched by personal and professional experiences. I also witnessed firsthand how Italy is loved and appreciated in other countries for its rich history, art, the food, and fashion, which makes me feel very proud to be Italian.
Working at the University of New Haven in Italy is a dream job, as it allows me to foster my interests in education and foreign languages, and to share my passion for Italy with the students, most of whom are traveling here for the first time. One of the things I’m excited to share with them is, of course, the love for Italian cuisine! Penne al ragù (pasta with bolognese sauce) and penne al pesto (pasta with basil pesto) are a big hit. One fun fact about our eating culture is Italians never drink cappuccino after a big meal or during a meal. That’s something I make sure I mention to them on day one.
Another great thing about my job is the opportunity to travel often with the students. One of my favorite trips with them is to the Tuscan city of Siena, as I studied there myself for almost three years when I was their age. When we walk around Siena, it’s a trip down memory lane. I like to point at all the places where I used to hang out with my friends and share my stories with the students.
When students come to Prato, I usually chaperone them on academic field trips, which is one really fun and interesting aspect of my job. On these occasions, I learn a lot about Italy myself, and I do things I had never imagined I’d do! Just to name a few: I went with paramedicine and fire science students to the local firefighter headquarters in Prato to practice with them on the training tower. We also ventured into the woods to simulate the search and rescue of an individual lost on the cliffs.
Students still make fun of me over this last activity as, according to them, I wasn’t wearing proper shoes and they thought I’d never make it out alive, which I did! Overall, what I really appreciate about my job is the opportunity to engage with the students, and to see them develop a better sense of their identity and their professional ambitions. I love that I can be part of this meaningful and creative process, as I know this experience will change their lives forever.
RC: What are some of your hobbies?
VS: Whenever I get the time, I like taking TRX, Pilates, and yoga classes to recharge the batteries. Occasionally, I like to go for long walks in nature by myself, along the Bisenzio river, in Prato.
As I’ve spent almost 10 years apart from my family, I have found that Skype has become a daily routine of my family life. I have three siblings, one sister and two brothers, and we all live in different places. My sister lives in Milan, one brother lives in La Spezia, in northern Italy, and my other brother lives in Bristol, UK, while my parents still live in Sicily. As we are a close-knit family, we reunite on Skype every evening, even if only for 10 minutes, just to say hi. This moment is, by far, the one I treasure the most, and is an appointment I never miss.
I also like seeing contemporary art exhibitions. I’ve recently seen ‘Shine’ by Jeff Koons, and ‘Aria’ (air) by Tomás Saraceno at Palazzo Strozzi, in Florence. I also enjoy visiting museums. One I particularly like in Prato is the Museo del Palazzo Pretorio, which is right in the historical city center and hosts all sorts of works of art from medieval times to the nineteenth century. I was there recently for a city event, which included a visit to the museum and ended with a wine tasting on the rooftop terrace, from which one can see the city of Prato, and Florence in the distance.
Cooking is something I particularly enjoy. I come from a family where food is the main topic of all conversations! Before we ask, “How are you?” we ask, “What’s for dinner?” My earliest memories of cooking date back to my childhood. Almost every Saturday, my father would make red tomato sauce and had me stir it, and then we made fresh pasta and ravioli. My main task was to seal the ravioli filling accurately with the fork ribs. My dishes don’t taste as good as my parents’, but I keep trying! Cooking also kept me company during the period of the COVID-19 national lockdown, back in early March 2020. As almost everyone had to work from home, the internet was often out of order. When that happened, I would cook a lot, especially recipes that required a long preparation time, for instance olive oil taralli, which are little snacks in a knot shape, typical of the Puglia region, the heel of the boot.
RC: Of all the places you’ve traveled, what is your favorite?
VS: I’ve travelled throughout Italy, and I visited lots of European cities such as Munich, Budapest, and Paris. I’ve been to London and Bristol, in the UK, to New York in the USA, and I spent almost six years in Australia, where I lived both in Melbourne and Sydney. Of all these places, Sydney is the one that stole my heart and largely contributed to making me the person I am today. When I first moved there to begin my Ph.D. program, I didn’t know anyone there. I had to start from scratch. I took a leap of faith, and in the end, it was the right move for me. After spending the first five days questioning my decision, I chose to just put myself out there. I started to attend each event the University of Sydney had organized for international students and began to meet new people from different countries. I immediately created a little family and formed deep friendships, which last even today.
I will never forget my first swim in the ocean, terrified by the idea of being attacked by a shark, or the famous Sydney fireworks on New Year’s Eve at Sydney harbor. I loved taking a ferry to move from one bay to the next, and I cherish the memories of all the multicultural dinners shared with my friends at Rose Bay. Sydney will always hold a special place in my heart because that is the place where I was challenged, both personally and professionally, and where I learned the values of difference, tolerance, friendship, and education. That’s the city where I learned the invaluable lesson that I still had a lot learn.
RC: What are some of your favorite books?
VS: As a kid (as well as today), I loved the Harry Potter series. I was obsessed with it! I read all the books both in English and Italian, and now that I have young nieces and nephews, I like that I can share this passion with them. In general, however, I enjoy different kinds of books. I like poetry, and one of my favorite poets is the Italian Giorgio Caproni. I love the rhythm of his verses, especially in the poems he wrote in memory of his mother, Annina. I also love Wisława Szymborska’s poetry and the delicate writing of Cristina Rossetti. I like Elena Ferrante’s novels, and I’m currently reading her latest trilogy.
One of my interests is Italian American literature and women’s writings, especially memoirs. One memoir I’d recommend to anyone is The Skin between Us: A Memoir of Race, Beauty and Belonging by African American and Italian American author Kym Ragusa. Her narrative exemplifies the dangers and fragilities that derive from the construction of race and ethnicity and shows how urgent it is we keep questioning ourselves about the issue of hybrid identities and the coexistence of cultural differences.
RC: Do you have any hidden talents or skills?
VS: I can make little origami. I am especially good at making paper hearts. After folding them, I usually write little quotes or short poems on them and then put them in a basket. Every now and again, whenever I need motivation, I like to read one as a motto of the day. I also use them as decoration when I wrap presents for my family or friends. It’s my way of telling them I love them.
RC: What is the scariest thing you’ve ever done?
VS: I once abandoned my comfort zone when I finished my Ph.D. and decided I didn’t want to become an academic and didn’t want to live in Australia anymore. I vividly remember waking up one morning, packing all my things in suitcases, collecting my friends to help me ship everything back home to Italy, and I never looked back. I was left with no plan, so I did what I always do when I don’t know what to do: I moved. This time, I moved to Bristol, UK, where another brother of mine lives with his wife and three adorable children.
I spent a year there trying to figure myself out. When nothing worked for me and I was going through a tough time, I turned to the thing that has always brought me joy and satisfaction: education. I studied to become an English language teacher. I felt alive again, and I understood that education was my mission, just in a different way than the one I had initially envisioned for myself. That’s when I applied to work at the University of New Haven, and I have never regretted my choices.
What I’ve learned from that tough year is that, not only is failure OK, it is also the best place to start to build strong foundations upon which to stand tall and proud.
RC: What did you enjoy about visiting the U.S.?
VS: I’ve been to Connecticut twice to visit the University’s main campus. I didn’t explore New Haven much, as I spent my days mainly on campus to meet with staff and students. It was a fun experience for me, as the Italian college life is completely different. We just go to school to study and then go home. At the University of New Haven, students organize club activities, engage in all different social events, practice sports, live in residence halls, and have access to amazing facilities to study and to hang out. Engaging in conversations with them, I felt a strong sense of community. I didn’t meet Charlie the Charger, though. That would have been a nice picture to take!
I also visited New York for three weeks in 2013 with my sister. I wouldn’t even know where to start to say how much I loved New York! I finally understood what people mean when they say it’s the city that never sleeps. Things I loved the most were eating at Momofuku (best ramen I’ve ever had), visiting the Metropolitan Museum, and attending the show “Stomp.” I remember telling a student how beautiful the Met Museum was, and she said to me, “Valentina, what are you talking about?! Your country is a whole open museum! Just look around you!” I guess that is true, and I feel extremely lucky. At the same time, visiting New York and seeing the Statue of Liberty from the ferry, taking a walk in Central Park and Times Square, studying at the public library, and seeing the New York Times building just made me feel like I was in a movie.