URI Italian professor receives Genocide Educator of the Year Award

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KINGSTON, R.I., May 4, 2016—University of Rhode Island professor Catherine Sama teaches Italian, but the Armenian genocide is also close to her heart.

For years, she’s been teaching an Italian literature class in which students study genocide through the lens of Skylark Farm, a historical novel about the Armenian genocide by Armenian-Italian writer Antonia Arslan.

Sama’s commitment to genocide education has now been recognized statewide, with the Genocide Educator of the Year Award from the Rhode Island branch of the national Genocide Education Project.

The site for the reception last month was fitting—in front of the Armenian Martyrs’ Memorial Monument in the North Burial Ground in Providence. Among the guests were Pauline Getzoyan, co-chair of the Rhode Island branch of the Genocide Education Project, Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, and U.S. Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse.

Sama has been teaching the genocide-focused course since 2008 when she invited Arslan to URI as a visiting scholar. Students also study the Holocaust by reading the Jewish-Italian author Primo Levi’s memoir, Survival in Auschwitz.

During the class, genocide survivors or descendants of survivors meet with students to talk about their experiences. In addition to Getzoyan, speakers this year also included George Aghjayan and Alice Goldstein.

“It’s one thing to learn about genocide from a book, or from the whiteboard in a classroom, but it’s another thing entirely to talk to someone whose life has been affected by it,” said Shay Spacco, of Tiverton, a student in the course. “If more students, especially in high school, got an opportunity like this, instruction about genocide would seem less like a lesson before a test, and more like a horrible reality that is part of human history, which should be important to everyone.”

A professor of Italian and film media and head of the Italian section at URI, Sama joined the University in 1997 after receiving her doctorate in Italian Studies from Brown University. Under Sama’s leadership, URI now has one of the largest Italian undergraduate programs in the country.

Along with a certificate, Sama received $500 to continue her genocide education. The stipend was made possible through the Armenian Cultural Association of America, Rhode Island chapter, and the Armenian Martyrs’ Memorial Committee of Rhode Island. The Rhode Island branch of the Genocide Education Project presents the award annually at the April 24 commemoration of the Armenian Genocide of 1915 to a teacher in the field of genocide education.

Between 1915 and 1918, up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks in what is now eastern Turkey. Many Armenian men were arrested and killed, and women and children perished during forced marches to the Syrian desert.

The genocide was carried out during and after World War I amid fears that Christian Armenians in the Muslim Ottoman Empire were a threat to the state for allegedly siding with the Russians, at war with the Turks.

Sama says she teaches the course to “make these horrific historical events and their aftermath real, present and personal to students, and to encourage students to see connections to current events and take a stand in helping to prevent genocide from continuing to occur.”

Pictured above:

Standing in front of the Armenian Martyrs’ Memorial Monument in Providence are Pauline Getzoyan, Shay Spacco of Tiverton, Briana Clift of Coventry, Catherine Sama, Elizabeth Daley of Coventry, ReenMarie Varkey of Williston Park, N.Y., and Drew Lachapelle of West Warwick. Photo courtesy of GVK Images.