It was a bit after midnight when Colleen Sharkey and her study abroad group left dinner on their first night in Rome. They had to be back in class early the next morning and had spent the evening getting to know one another over the first of many Italian meals.

“Then we got lost,” Sharkey said.

After missing their apartment by only one stop on the tram, they found themselves in quite unfamiliar territory.

“It was late, we were jet lagged, and everyone was freaking out. We just started walking, hopefully going in the right direction,” she continued. “That was my first experience in Italy, and although it was scary at the time, it was one of the most memorable moments of the entire trip.”

She said that being a group of Americans lost in Rome on the first night after arrival is far from ideal, but since returning home from her summer in Rome, it is those unexpected moments that have stuck with her more than anything.

“You find the best things when you aren’t looking. On our late, lost walk home, we discovered a cute little gelato place, we found our favorite miniature cannoli and returned to that area time and time again.”

ETSU’s Rome program has become one of the university’s most well-known study abroad outlets. The program occurs every summer and is funded by private donors, many of whom participated in the program themselves.

On Friday, Aug. 19 at the Reece Museum, this year’s participating students got to meet over lunch with those who funded their experience. When Jeremy Ross, the program’s director, asked donors why they chose to support the program having never met the students, their responses were almost a unanimous reflection to their own similar experiences.

“I had the opportunity to live in Germany, and it was life-changing,” said Susan Epps, a donor to the program. “I know prior to this experience, some of these students had never been beyond Knoxville or in an airplane—and now they’re in Rome! My contribution was only a tiny piece but it brings tears to my eyes to meet them today and hear about their experiences.”

“I was in the first Rome class,” said Peggy Campbell, another donor. “I knew what it felt like to receive so I wanted to give.”

Alongside the luncheon’s student and donor speakers was ETSU President Brian Noland, who stressed the growing importance of study abroad education in a globalized society.

“We are recognizing the transformation of students who have expanded their horizons, changed their conceptualization of the present and redefined themselves,” Noland said. “Rome was a three-week period that changed my life, and I’m sure it changed each of [the students’] lives as well.”

Noland’s efforts to increase ETSU’s international footprint and study abroad participation have concerned both sending current students abroad and bringing new international students to campus. Last year over $265,000 was awarded in study abroad scholarships to ETSU students and in 2012, the university set a goal to double its international student enrollment – a goal that will be met this fall.

“We are in the Reece Museum, a historical site for our university,” Noland said. “About 50 yards from where I am standing right now is where our university was founded in 1911, with the mission of transforming the region of Northeast Tennessee. This epitomizes that mission.”

After hearing his advice, Sharkey and other Rome scholars urged fellow students to take advantage of opportunities to study abroad while at ETSU. She said there is no way to prepare for an experience like it, and she would do it again it a heartbeat.

“When in Rome, I was able to adapt and appreciate every bit of it, even the challenges,” she said. “I didn’t worry if I forgot something at the apartment or got rained on and was soaked for the rest of the day because I was just glad to be there. Out there and living life!”