Hiking in the olive groves of Tuscany, strolling among the columns on Palatine Hill in Rome, making lifelong friendships – these are some of the experiences Ernesto Rizzi’s family and friends say he loved most about his 2002 study abroad term in Cortona, Italy.
When Rizzi passed away unexpectedly last year, his loved ones decided the best way to honour his memory was to make it possible for other students to embark on the same kind of journey.
“My brother had a deep sense of adventure and loved everything Italian,” says Luisa Rizzi. It was these things – in particular, his strong interest in exploring his Italian heritage – that inspired Rizzi to spend a term studying at the U of A School in Cortona>. The school, which is a satellite campus run by the Faculty of Arts, allows students from any discipline to immerse themselves in Italian culture while earning regular UAlberta course credits.
“It’s life changing,” comments Rizzi’s classmate Margot Burstow. “When you’re in that unique situation – a bunch of English-speaking kids in the middle of Tuscany, trying to learn a bit of conversational Italian and sticking together – you get really close to people. You never shake the impact of that.”
Within their tight-knit group that term, Rizzi became known for his sense of humour and practical jokes. “He really enjoyed having fun and poking fun at people all the time,” recalls Burstow. “He was a people person.”
He was also known to share his love of food by cooking for his classmates on the weekend – perhaps foreshadowing his future career in the hospitality industry, culminating with his “dream job” of owning a successful food truck in Edmonton, Dolce and Banana.
Stunned by the news of Rizzi’s sudden passing in 2016, his classmates knew they wanted to do something to honour their friend. Over coffee at the Italian Centre after his memorial service, the idea for a travel award to help other students attend the School in Cortona first began to take shape.
“We just loved [Cortona] so much, all of us,” explains Burstow. “Any time we can help students who might not otherwise be able to go, or who might just be under a bit more financial stress, this can take a bit of the edge off.”
Through personal donations, Rizzi’s small group of classmates from 2002 was able to raise more than $6,000 to create the Ernesto Rizzi Memorial Award.
“That the moving force of the award is Ernesto's fellow students speaks volumes to the contribution that he made to the group and how much he was loved, but also to what the program collectively meant to them all,” says Helena Fracchia, director of the School in Cortona.
When the Rizzi family learned about his classmates’ efforts, they were “completely overwhelmed and speechless,” says Luisa Rizzi. “We knew my brother had an impact on others, but we didn't know how much.”
The family was eager to get involved, and is now working to endow the award so that it may continue to be offered to students for years to come. “Our deepest desire is to keep the award going so that our children and their children will never forget their uncle,” says Luisa.
In Cortona, Ernesto Rizzi certainly hasn’t been forgotten – Fracchia says his “good cheer and smile remain in the halls of the program” and is pleased that he is being remembered in this way.
“[This award] has a special place in my heart and in the Cortona program,” she says. “[It] not only honours Ernesto and his memory, it also continues his experience, his generosity, his kindness by helping to provide the same opportunity to other students.”
The award will be granted for the first time in 2018.