With a mysterious virus encroaching, Rome Global Gateway Executive Director Silvia Dall’Olio takes quick action to get students to safety

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Silvia Dall'Olio

Silvia Dall'Olio

Imagine you are charged with the health and safety of more than 100 students studying abroad, a formidable job under normal circumstances. Then imagine that a rapidly spreading mystery virus with no vaccine or cure that you thought was half a world away is suddenly on your doorstep.

Silvia Dall’Olio, executive director of Notre Dame’s Rome Global Gateway, says she felt like she was living in two worlds as the coronavirus rapidly spread through Italy in February. She watched a disaster unfold in the north of the country while life in Rome continued unfazed — and students prepared to attend big parties for Carnival, the festival just before Lent begins.

“No one would be wearing masks,” she said. “Transportation was running as normal.”

Dall’Olio is getting high marks from the University for how she reacted, keeping a cool head and taking all the right measures as the world’s second major COVID-19 hotspot was exploding around her.

“Silvia’s leadership was heroic in dealing with the various dimensions of the crisis,” said Michael Pippenger, vice president and associate provost for internationalization, adding that she showed “a wonderful mix of clarity and calm, analytic acumen, creative problem-solving and empathy.”

She credits her team in Rome, the University’s second-largest program abroad, and counterparts at Notre Dame International and the University’s Emergency Operations Center for the students’ ultimate safety.

“Smart people with good hearts,” she said. “That’s a good combination.”

As for Dall’Olio, she said the encroaching virus put her into pragmatic mode.

“I think I’m a very calm and rational person normally,” she said. “But in a way, I respond even more so to a high level of stress by entering into that zone in which you dissect things and you take one at a time. At least you have the idea that you are somewhat in control of what is happening. You’re not just being slammed by things, not reacting to them, but more like preempting them and anticipating them.”

Dall’Olio found Notre Dame through her now husband, Michael Driessen, a political science professor at John Cabot University in Rome. They met as students in Bologna, her hometown, through the community of L’Arche, a place where adults with and without intellectual disabilities share their lives together. They decided to get married, and three weeks after the wedding, she landed on the Notre Dame campus, where Driessen was earning his doctorate.

An assistant professional specialist of Romance languages, Dall’Olio earned a master’s degree and taught while at Notre Dame. She holds a doctoral degree in linguistics and second language pedagogy, and has worked internationally as a translator and language tutor, including at the Italian Embassy in Qatar’s capital, Doha.

Dall’Olio has led the gateway for three years, but has worked there in various capacities since it opened in fall 2014.

“I’ve loved it since the very beginning,” she said. “(Professor Ted Cachey) was the director and I was just helping him as Notre Dame built the idea of this Rome gateway from scratch. It’s a job that’s almost 360 degrees — in terms of possibilities, resources also, and the great interest Notre Dame has shown in Rome. We feel very supported in doing something that it is very rare to see other universities do in Italy.”

She is particularly proud of the gateway’s formal designation last year by the Italian Education Ministry as an Italian research institution, and the Rome International Scholars Program, which combines traditional learning with research and internships.

In her time as executive director, Dall’Olio had never had emergencies involving more than one or two students. While she had lived in and traveled often to the Middle East, a volatile region, she said nothing in her past prepared her for this.

In fact, it was the opposite. The local relationships she and other faculty and staff built while working at the Rome gateway are what really paid off in a rapidly changing situation. They had close relationships with local emergency and health officials, among others, whom they trusted for reliable information on the ground.

They also had relationships with local universities where students were taking classes, which helped them make a seamless transition to distance learning at a moment when it was not clear that the rest of the semester would be online.

Dall’Olio started monitoring the virus’s arrival to Italy in late January, a full month before anyone thought the country of only 60 million people would lead the world for a time in cases and deaths. She wasn’t at ease. She was hearing firsthand from her family in the northern parts of Italy as a few isolated cases seemed to morph quickly into an outbreak.

“We all knew people who died,” she said. “Because of that direct connection, maybe it was simply more vivid to me that this could happen” in Rome.

Back at Notre Dame, the University had been following the coronavirus since mid-January, focused on the global gateway and centers in China, the country where the virus originated. As the virus spread in Italy, Dall’Olio and Jaime Signoracci, associate director of international travel and safety, were talking and trading emails. Their communications increased to daily by the latter part of February, when Dall’Olio activated the gateway’s Incident Response Team to consider their options. New cases in northern Italy were “spiraling,” as Signoracci put it. “It was only a matter of time.”

Dall’Olio and the University’s Emergency Operations Center only had to look to China for the worst-case scenario — people locked down without travel in or out of an area for indefinite periods of time. They didn’t want Notre Dame students to get stuck in a location where the University couldn’t reach them.

On Sunday, Feb. 23, the Italian government started putting northern towns in quarantine and canceling large events such as soccer games and Carnival. Dall’Olio and the EOC started meeting twice a day beginning Monday, Feb. 24, when Dall’Olio discovered another piece of game-changing information: Notre Dame students who had traveled to the north appeared to be getting sick.

***

Imagine you’re 20 years old, studying mechanical engineering, and you’re already a seasoned traveler — hitting as many countries as your age in just two years at Notre Dame.  Your goal is to have a formative experience on every continent as an undergraduate.

Junior Henry Hentges of Jefferson City, Missouri, had already spent a spring break in Cuba and a summer in Rome, taught English in Peru, traveled through Europe and Africa and did research in Colombia, all via Notre Dame programs.

He was also seasoned in international crises interfering with his education.

Hentges originally planned to study in Hong Kong for spring 2020, but the program was scuttled in November because of the political unrest there. He chose Rome as a backup to study abroad because it was the best option for getting the right coursework, and in just seven weeks he had traveled to five more countries, including the Czech Republic and Tunisia.

The same weekend the Italian government started to shut down the north, he was returning from a ski trip in the Italian Alps on a train that took him through Milan, the city about to become the next global center for cases of COVID-19. Though he didn’t get off the train, a flood of people boarded, doubling the number of passengers. The next morning, back in Rome, he woke up with a terrible fever and aches all over his body. He attributed the pain to his first time skiing, but he couldn’t get out of bed to go to class.

***

Dall’Olio told the EOC that same morning that five students had just returned from the hot zone in the north and two of them, including Hentges, had fevers and other symptoms of COVID-19. She consulted the University’s medical staff in Rome, and was told to monitor the symptoms and call back if they got worse. There was no order to isolate at that point. Hentges lived in the University residence with seven roommates. His rector told him to stay as far away from them as possible.

While Dall’Olio monitored government and health websites and announcements on the ground, the EOC weighed updates in case numbers and deaths in Italy and worldwide.

Earlier that week we decided that if the State Department or the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) raised their travel advisory levels that we would suspend operations,” Signoracci said.

The EOC was also benchmarking other universities with travel abroad programs. Early that same week, New York University suspended its program in Florence.

“That was a really big deal for the study abroad world,” Signoracci said. “Everybody in my circles was talking about it.”

On Tuesday, Feb. 25, Dall’Olio called the students together for the first time to put out some guidelines. They were forbidden from traveling to northern Italy, and she encouraged them to consider canceling any travel plans for the upcoming weekend and for spring break. For now, they needed to stick close to Rome.

Meanwhile, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte was saying, “Italy is a safe country and probably safer than many others” the very same day, according to the New York Times.

Students had a hard time processing what they were hearing. This was an Asia problem, not Europe. “It was a challenging conversation,” Signoracci said. “It wasn’t something that they thought was going to impact them.”

They had a lot of questions, and as Dall’Olio tried to pull together the answers, she called another mandatory meeting Thursday, Feb. 27. Hentges had a plane ticket for Egypt that weekend. Still sick, he decided to go anyway and headed straight for the airport after the mandatory student meeting.

***

Imagine you’re a young woman from Niles, Michigan, living a childhood dream to see Europe. Rome was by far the biggest city architecture student Natalie Pratt had ever experienced, and she fell in love. So vibrant, so full of art and beauty and culture. She sketched everywhere in the city and enjoyed the musicality of the Italian language, as well as hearing countless other foreign languages on the street — “rather than just hearing English on the streets in places like Niles, Michigan.”

Pratt was so excited to study architecture in the same place where the masters had gone for centuries. 

“I have no excuse not to be great,” she wrote to her mother. “I’m getting the same education that all the great architects of the past have gotten.”

She traveled to Austria, Slovakia, Poland, Germany and England. Just two weeks before the Italian government started shutting down the north, she had been in Lombardy province, which was rapidly becoming the center of the pandemic. Everything had been normal. Now she was seeing chaos and food shortages on the news. One student’s friend at a university in Milan was sent home. The virus started to dominate their conversations.

“They won’t send us home, will they?” she asked her classmates.

“If they do, we’ll get an apartment and stay,” they all decided. “We won’t take the ticket.”

There was no way anyone was going to cut short her magical year.

***

In the early hours of Saturday, Feb. 29, students started getting the alert on their phones that they were dreading: the CDC travel warning had gone to 3, advising travelers to avoid all nonessential international travel. Pratt went to bed but couldn’t sleep. At 2 a.m. she got the confirmation that study abroad was indeed being suspended, and students had to report to a mandatory meeting at 8 a.m. She called her parents with the news and started to cry.

“At that point I knew: Oh my gosh, it’s over,” she said.

Her parents were relieved.

When Pratt arrived at the meeting, she already had a plane ticket to leave Italy the next day, Sunday. If students didn’t comply, they would no longer be enrolled at Notre Dame. There would be no renting an apartment.

There were so many things she wanted to do one last time. She heard that architecture students had a tradition of walking the city on their last night. She and her classmates did just that — the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps. She arrived at the airport at 5 a.m. having not slept for more than 24 hours.

Hentges got the message on Saturday in Cairo that he was to return to Rome immediately. But he was oh-so-close to the pyramids and couldn’t bear not to see them. Fate was on his side. There were no available flights back to Rome until Sunday, the same day he was scheduled to leave for the United States. He would have exactly three hours in Rome’s Fiumicino International Airport between flights. He called a fellow student in Rome and asked him to pack up everything in his room and meet him Sunday morning with his suitcase at the airport.

Then Hentges went to see the pyramids: “So cool.”

***

As it turned out, Dall’Olio was ahead of the pandemic. All Notre Dame students from the Rome Global Gateway were back on U.S. soil by Monday, March 2 — two days before Italy’s schools closed and a full week before the entire country went on lockdown. Students at Notre Dame’s Jerusalem Global Gateway were evacuated March 10, and then all other study abroad was suspended on March 11.

“Silvia and her team are just amazing,” Signoracci said. “They get a lot of credit and really paved the way for us to suspend operations in our other programs, having made that process as seamless as possible the first time around.”

All indications now are that Hentges probably didn’t have COVID-19. He sits at home in Jefferson City without any travel distractions, thinking about how his generation will be defined by the double-edged sword that is globalization.

“To realize that, you know, it’s not all about me,” he said. “It’s about the world community at large. And sometimes you have to make concessions for the benefit of mankind in general.”

Pratt sits in Niles, where she would give anything for one more cappuccino and cornetto con crema in her favorite Rome café. She too has perspective on how fortunate she is that her only problem in the pandemic was having to leave Rome.

“Is that so bad compared to what lots of people are being asked to suffer right now?” she said.

For Dall’Olio and the Rome gateway staff, the ordeal was a moment of truth.

“It was a time in which we truly needed every single person to contribute probably more than even they thought they could do,” she said. “And the fact that I think we were all in to do it was an important confirmation of something you can’t improvise, something that trainings will not create for you — which is an incredible esprit de corps.”