School of Architecture Alumnus to teach Spring 2022 students in Rome

Author: Costanza Montanari

Melissa Slavin 2
Melissa Slavin in Rome in 2001

Melissa Slavin Di Cesare is a School of Architecture (SoA) graduate who after completing the Rome studies abroad program 20 years ago, is back at the University of Notre Dame Rome Global Gateway now as a faculty member. This semester, Spring 2022, she is teaching a section of undergraduate design studio to third-year architecture students in Rome.

Similarly to her current students, Slavin first came to Rome in her third year as an architecture undergraduate student in 2001. At the time, the University of Notre Dame was located at Via Monterone close to the Pantheon. She instantly fell in love with the city and everything about it. Upon completion of her year in the Rome Studies Program, Slavin remained in Rome during her summer break to teach English before returning to the U.S. When in South Bend, within a short time of being home, she unexpectedly started to feel “Rome sick”. But her connection to Italy remained strong, and she took several opportunities to return while improving her knowledge of the Italian language and culture.

One of Melissa's first encounters with the Italian language was  Prof. Giovanna Lenzi’s, Director of Relations for SoA Rome Studies Program, pre-Rome course 'Italian for Architects.’ The course was designed to help architects prepare in their second year for their third year in Rome.  Lenzi recalls Slavin’s ‘decidedly determined desire to learn the language and the culture.’ Slavin’s trips to Rome in the intervening years, between her Rome year and subsequently settling in the city,  involved the guidance of Prof. Lenzi with whom she never lost touch. 

During her fourth year, Slavin added a minor in Italian, and pursued it in parallel to her architecture degree. She also applied for the Ravarino Family Italian Scholars Summer Travel Grant to study mosaics in Italy, in preparation for her fifth year thesis. 

The award provided the perfect opportunity the following summer for Slavin to deepen her Italian studies and return to Rome. She had kept in touch with her professor of drawing and watercolor, Richard Piccolo (who has been an institution for third year arkies during much of the Program's history) as well as Ettore Mazzola and other faculty and staff, so that when she returned to Rome, Slavin had an established network of friends and colleagues to turn to. 

After the completion of her Architecture degree, Slavin's professional career flourished in Washington D.C. She worked for two different firms and eventually settled in the city, although that “Rome sickness” persisted. She took every opportunity to introduce her love of Italian into her day to day - she even bought a Vespa! In 2007 two of her Notre Dame Architecture classmates got married in Rome and she jumped at the opportunity to go back. During an extended trip to the city Slavin met her future husband at a dinner organized by her local friends.

From that moment, she became more determined to find a way to live in the eternal city. An opportunity arose when Prof. Mazzola introduced her to a Masters Program in Restauro e recupero della bellezza dei centri storici (Restoration and recovery of the beauty of historic centers) at the Università Roma Tre. She enrolled in her first Italian academic experience and officially moved to Italy in 2008. 

Slavin is now married and has two daughters. She holds the position of Adjunct Assistant Teaching Professor in Rome while also teaching secondary visual arts at the American Overseas School of Rome.

“It’s amazing to be working with students who are experiencing the same path that I completed 20 years ago,” comments Slavin. “I hope to share a unique perspective with them, having done the program, and taken the learnings back to the US, to use in both my degree and architecture practice. The Notre Dame architecture program is extraordinary, and it’s a real privilege to be able to relate to my students as someone who can bring a practical perspective and even applied knowledge, to the experience of historic Rome that they are exposed to here.”

Slavin In Studio
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Slavin says that a lot has changed since her days as a student but it strikes her that the mission, and the unique value of the Rome Studies program remains the same. Technology plans a more prominent role in the curriculum and students have access to more advanced tools that enable them to maximize their time and produce very high level results. The spirit of camaraderie that is built in the shared experience of the Eternal City remains strong. More importantly the first hand, in person exposure to the foundational aspects of classical architecture and western architecture, for the matter remains at the center of the Rome experience. “It really doesn't matter when you were in Rome, how old you are, where you are at in your career,” Slavin adds, “there is a cross generational bond born of an extraordinary shared experience, that all Notre Dame architecture students share.” 

“Every day I teach my students, I reminisce a little bit about my year in Rome. I am teaching alongside professors that I also had, like Richard Piccolo, Ettore Mazzola, Rev Richard Bullene and Giovanna Lenzi Sandusky, all icons to every SoA student.”

Slavin sees in current students a strong awareness of how important the Rome year experience is, and will be, for them. After a very intense sophomore year on campus each School of Architecture student is awarded with a once in a lifetime opportunity of living and studying in Rome.  It is an unforgettable experience that influences each of their lives, each in their own unique way. The profound influence the Rome year has had on Melissa Slavin Di Cesare's life is testimony to its importance.