Samantha Mistretta was the lone student from Ramapo College traveling with a group of 44 Americans when she touched down Jan. 25 in Rome.  Photo courtesy of Samantha Mistretta
Samantha Mistretta was the lone student from Ramapo College traveling with a group of 44 Americans when she touched down Jan. 25 in Rome. Photo courtesy of Samantha Mistretta
Samantha Mistretta’s semester abroad in Rome during Lent and Easter was supposed to be the very best college experience, one that combined studies with an unparalleled opportunity to engage in her deeply held Catholic faith.

“I was really so excited at being in Rome during Lent,” said Mistretta, 20, a sophomore in Ramapo College and a member of St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral, Freehold. “I had dreams of being in St. Peter’s Square on Easter.”

Mistretta was the lone student from Ramapo College traveling with a group of 44 Americans when she touched down Jan. 21 in Rome to study at Roma Tre University. Among them were 15 students from Philadelphia’s Villanova University.

She had no idea that the arrival of the coronavirus would quickly put an end to her dreams of Easter in the Holy City.

With an apartment in Rome’s up-and-coming Garbatella area and the Roma Tre University and the Papal Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls – where the Pope is known to spontaneously celebrate Mass – nearby, the scenario seemed as good as it gets, Mistretta said.

And for a time it was.

 

IT WAS A FILM COURSE that brought the communication art major to the famed Cinecittà Studios, where filmmakers such as Federico Fellini, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese had worked. A food studies course in sustainability introduced Mistretta to the zesty tastes of real Neapolitan cuisine.

Her history course was taught by a professor who used Rome as the classroom, taking his students to historical sites including the Colosseum and Pantheon.

The city also brought to life dimensions of the Catholic faith, she said. “I’m pretty religious and being near the Vatican, the spiritual hub of the Catholic faith,” was very meaningful.

Mistretta attended Mass in different churches throughout the city, even serving as a reader in one, and on side trips to cities such as Florence, where the beauty of Mass in the Florence Cathedral left her in tears.

While early warnings about the virus had started to filter in, it wasn’t until Valentine’s Day weekend, she said, that everything started to change. “People started getting very nervous, and parents were contacting their children, wanting them to come home.”

For her group, the atmosphere changed drastically at the end of February, when Villanova University pulled its students out of Rome. In an article Mistretta wrote for her college newspaper, she recalled that “everyone in the program was upset. We did not want our friends to leave … everyone began to fear they would get pulled by their schools.”

But when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention travel warning was raised to a Level 3, “I emailed back home that I would definitely be coming home.” Soon after, Mistretta was notified that the program was requiring the remaining students to leave Rome.

“I was crying,” she said. “It wasn’t my choice. It became scarier. I was being told that ‘for your safety, you need to come home.’ It was very frightening. I did speak to my parents. They booked a flight home.”

She spent her last day in Rome with friends, “getting up at the crack of dawn to do everything we could before we left. We went to the Trevi Fountain and made wishes. We climbed the Spanish Steps and went to the church at the top. We had a nice dinner.”

 

MISTRETTA FLEW OUT OF ROME the next day at 9 a.m. When she landed in the United States, she was told that she would have to self-quarantine for 14 days.

The circumstances of her departure, Mistretta said, “didn’t hit me until I landed home. It was so quick. I didn’t really register what had happened until then.”

Nervous and worried soon after arriving home that the stuffiness and congestion she was experiencing was more than allergies, she and her parents went to Jersey Shore University Medical Center in Neptune.

“There were multiple tests, a mouth swab, blood tests, swabs up my nose … a chest X-Ray,” Mistretta said. The tests, which took several days to process, came back negative.

Mistretta said she is grateful to be home with her family, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to grow. They pray constantly for the safety of all.

Another thing for which Mistretta is grateful: that her memories of Italy – including Mass with Pope Francis in St. Paul Outside the Walls – will stay with her forever.