International Travel Spotlight

My Italian adventure:
Food, farms, culture, and revered veterinarians

by Jimmy Shatt

Group of students and Dr. Pelzer posing next to a Gelato stand. Owner stands nearby in a gelato-themed hat.

Dr. Jacque Pelzer (far left), director of admissions and student services, led 12 veterinary students on an 18-day study abroad experience in Italy. Pictured here, they visit their first gelato stand in Turino.

Jimmy Shatt of Baltimore, Maryland, is a second-year veterinary student at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, where he is pursuing the small animal track. In 2013, Shatt graduated with a bachelor’s degree in animal and poultry sciences from Virginia Tech. He is now vice president of the student chapter of the Maryland Veterinary Medical Association, treasurer of Alpha Psi, and a student ambassador at the college. In his spare time, he enjoys hiking, camping, and spending time with his two Labrador retrievers. Earlier this summer, Shatt joined other veterinary students on an annual cultural and academic tour of Italy led by the college’s director of admissions and student services, Dr. Jacque Pelzer.

Like most students, when I entered my undergraduate career, I made a bucket list of everything I wanted to accomplish prior to graduation and entering “the real world.” At the very top of this list were getting accepted into the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine and traveling abroad. While one of these aspirations just required perseverance, a leap of faith, and a lot of hard work, the latter required all of the above and most importantly a large monetary, up-front deposit.

Every summer, Dr. Jacque Pelzer, the college’s director of admissions and student services, takes a group of rising second- and third-year veterinary students on an 18-day study abroad experience in Italy. As a whole this experience serves as a fast-paced academic and cultural tour of Italy, including visits to local veterinary schools, farms, wineries, art galleries, and agriturismos—farmhouse resorts open to guests throughout the countryside. In addition, veterinary students act as mentors to undergraduate students from Oklahoma State University who also attend the trip.

Four people posing in front of cattle

Jimmy Shatt (left) and two other veterinary students pose with the owner (second from right) of a Piedmontese cattle operation in Saluzzo.

Before I knew it, it was that fateful evening: the start of a journey leading to academic, cultural, and self-discovery. At 1:30 a.m. on May 22, after a plane malfunction, and a 2.5-hour delay, we departed from northern Virginia’s Dulles International Airport for Milan, Italy! Up to this point, I considered myself a fairly experienced traveler; however, this opinion quickly changed after sitting down for my first international flight. On this daunting journey I experienced some language barriers, as well as the true meaning of a “Kosher meal.” However, at every turn I was comforted and supported by the other six veterinary students traveling with me.

Finally, after about a full 24 hours of traveling, with a connection in Turkey, I became excited as I stood in the city streets of Milan. I expected to be surrounded by lavish stores and art since Milan is one of the fashion capitals of the world. Instead, my journey began at a bus stop on a side street in the “slums” outside of city center. From this point our group of seven traveled to our hostel to rest before heading to Torino to meet Dr. Jacque Pelzer, the remaining veterinary students, and the undergraduate group from Oklahoma State University.

Once together, our 28 person group began our shotgun tour of all Italy could offer including visits to Italy’s Eiffel Tower, a Swiss chocolate factory, Michelangelo’s Statue of David, the Venetian Canal Royale, the street markets of Florence, the Trevi Fountain, and the Sistine Chapel, not to mention the countless museums, art galleries, and wineries. But what I enjoyed the most about my experience abroad was the opportunities to meet and tour local farms and production facilities, including a Piedmontese beef cattle farm, a goat cheese producer, a pig farm/salami producer, a parmesan cheese factory, balsamic vinegar facility, and an olive grove, just to name a few.

Four students on a balcony overlooking rolling hills

A few of the study abroad participants enjoy a trip to a winery in Barolo.

One amazing aspect of Italian food and culture alike is that Italians truly know what goes into the food they eat. Nowhere else have I ever seen such embodiment of the “farm-to-fork” ideology. To Italians, farming and agriculture is more than just a job or hobby, rather it is a lifestyle filled with rich history and family tradition passed down through many generations. Producers were thrilled to show us their hard work, sharing not only the fruits of their labors, but stories of change and rich family history as well. I was also amazed at how fresh the food was at every meal. That is, pasta was made fresh each day using recipes passed through the ages, each cut of meat came from a local farm and was processed by the local butcher, and the fruit and vegetables were so fresh it was as though I was experiencing some for the first time all over again.

Another part of the Italian way of life, which I enjoyed, was how revered veterinarians are within Italian culture. Rather, than being simply a “doctor of sick animals,” veterinarians are very much a necessary and integral part to an Italian community. Unlike the United States, there is practically a veterinary school within every major region and city of Italy. As a result, there is a much larger pool of veterinarians. By Italian standards, veterinarians are much more than doctors—they serve as herd health specialists, nutritional consultants, meat inspectors/ butchers, reproduction specialists, and the list goes on.

As a whole, veterinarians are indeed a revered part of any and every Italian community. It was inspiring to see how passionate each was about the work he or she performed each and every day. I even asked one veterinarian why he chose to become a veterinarian, and he responded that it was the one job that he felt had the potential to change and impact his community the most, not to mention his love for animals and food alike.

Now that my Italian journey has ended, all I can do is reflect on all that I have learned, be thankful for all of the new friends and people I have met, and dream about the day I can visit this amazing country once more.

Students at the Altare dell Patria monument

Veterinary students from VA-MD Vet Med and undergraduate students from Oklahoma State University visit the Altare della Patria public monument in Rome.