December 8, 2021

Cortland native embraces Italian culture

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Nigel van der Woude, a former Cortand resident, is teaching English in Italy through a Fulbright scholarship.

He’s still adjusting to the view of the Mediterranean Sea outside his window, but for Cortland native Nigel van der Woude, Sicily feels like home.

“I still wake up every morning and look outside and think, ‘Wait, I actually applied for a year to do this and be here,’” van der Woude said this week. “It’s hard to believe it’s finally happening.”

Van der Woude, 22, is stationed in the western coastal town of Marsala on a Fulbright scholarship until July.

He arrived Oct. 25 and starting Friday, he will be teaching English to high schoolers and introducing them to a slice of American culture. He also hopes to help with a refugee program while there, all in the hopes of one day fulfilling his dream to become an ambassador to Italy.

Van der Woude is one of about 1,600 Fulbright scholars. His award is for English teaching, rather than research. He applied through Cornell University, from which he graduated last spring.

Cornell endorsed the application and sent it to the Fulbright program, which then sent his information to Italy. Italy assigned him to Marsala because of his interest in linguistics and the need to teach English there.

Van der Woude, a linguistics major, speaks five languages besides English fluently: French, German, Dutch, Spanish and Italian. He can read and write in another five. At Cornell he studied French, Italian, German, Spanish, Dutch, Hebrew, ancient Egyptian and Latin.

He describes the application process to get into the Fulbright Program as contradictory: simple, but difficult.
It’s a shot in the dark chance to stand out and give your best piece of writing possible, he said.

He spent all of the summer of 2016 writing two one-page application essays. He thinks a few things helped him stand out
“One thing is my natural ability for learning languages and my enthusiasm for teaching them,” van der Woude said. He also noted his interest in using language to help refugees.

“Italy has a major problem with refugees, there are hundreds of thousands of refugees coming to Italy,” he said. “They’re having trouble integrating into society and there are a couple of refugee centers in Marsala I’d like to volunteer with to see if I can offer teaching skills — so refugees are more settled in.”

Van der Woude’s passion for languages started as a toddler when he heard his father’s family speaking Dutch, and at age 10, when he would steal his older siblings’ French textbooks.

“I would ask them, ‘How do you say this,’ then I’d just steal their textbooks and study it on my own,” said van der Woude.

At 5 years old, van der Woude could recite a piano piece just by hearing his teacher play it, said Peter van der Woude, Nigel’s father. His teacher was frustrated, said van der Woude, because Nigel hadn’t learned how to read the music, he just played it by ear.

“He is the first Cornellian in 20 years to earn any sort of Fulbright,” Peter van der Woude he said, and the first ever to go to Italy on an English-teaching award.

“As parents, all our children are gifts,” said Peter van der Woude. “In particular, Nigel, all the gifts he had, it was just a joy and pleasure to raise him.”

Nigel Van der Woude said he was always interested in the idea of having a secret language you could speak with someone, that others couldn’t understand.

He studied French for 12 years, from his elementary years at St. Mary’s School in Cortland through to college.
“And along the way I saw they were offering German so I thought why not,” van der Woude said. “Whenever a new language came about, I decided to take it on.”

Despite being in a foreign land, surrounded by people who don’t speak English, van der Woude feels like Marsala is similar to his hometown. It’s a small town where everyone knows each other, he said. He has to allow 15 minutes to get anywhere because of the people he’s bound to talk to along the way. He’s found other musicians to play guitar with. And since he grew up surrounded by Italian immigrants, much of the culture is familiar — the pace of life, sense of humor, the food.

And his foray into Italy brings him closer to his mother’s side of the family. His maternal grandparents came from Italy and van der Woude recalls discovering letters they had written to relatives in Italy that dated back about 100 years.

“I wanted to know what they were saying, so that’s why I learned Italian,” he said. He happened upon the letters in his grandmother’s attic when he was a sophomore in college.

“I discovered this beautiful country they were talking about, this wonderful culture, and emphasis on family and living ‘la dolce vita’ (the sweet life) and I began to get interested in this country.”