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The Beauty Of Friendship: Rotary International's S.J. & Lombardy Group Study Exchange

By: Veronica Dudo

Adventure, knowledge, culture, business, peace, service, and friendship are the core components that define a very unique and special journey thousands of young business professionals have taken part in around the world. This cultural and vocational exchange is one of Rotary International's educational programs aimed to help participants develop new skills to serve their communities while promoting international understanding. The Group Study Exchange (GSE) Program offers selected team members an exciting chance of a lifetime—the opportunity to travel abroad hosted by hospitable Rotarians immersed in the country's culture while visiting key businesses in the region.

Over the years, more than 75-thousand people from around the globe have embarked on these exclusive and extraordinary trips. This year, men and women from the United States and Italy participated in the four week exchange which included an extensive and rigorous itinerary of travel, tours, meetings, presentations and social activities. I am extremely honored to have been recommended by the Rotary Club of Atlantic City and selected to join the South Jersey team in a recent trip to the Lombardy region of Italy; along with fellow team members, Anna Brudnicka, Nathaniel Young, Maria Pinardo and team leader, Ken Landis. The Lombardy team who traveled to S.J. included Daniele Castelli, Elisabetta Colombo, Giacomo Mainetti, Giulia Centonze and team leader Maria Letizia Baldini.

The Rotary Foundation launched GSE in 1965 with the goal of helping young adults develop professional skills and leadership qualities and to date, it has sponsored about 16-thousand GSE teams averaging almost 550 exchanges each year. The teams are made up of a Rotarian leader and four non-Rotarians between the ages of 25 and 40 with the exchanges lasting between four and six weeks. The program encompasses the organization's mission "to enable Rotarians to advance world understanding, goodwill, and peace through the improvement of health, the support of education and the alleviation of poverty."

Currently, there are 1.2 million Rotarians who belong to more than 34-thousand clubs in nearly every country in the world. In Italy, the gracious and welcoming GSE Chair for District 2040 was Gianluca Azario, a member of the Parchi Alto Milanese Rotary Club. He has been involved with the program since 1999 and has worked with 14 exchange groups from around the world.

"The GSE program is unparalleled," Azario explains, "It's a very diverse mix of experiences. It really is like a job because in a short amount of time the members must become acclimated to the lifestyle of their hosting country while visiting firms, factories, non-profit organizations and social entities."
Through the years, Azario has seen firsthand the impact the GSE program has made on the lives of participants and the Rotarians.

"It's an enlightening journey for everyone," he said, "We, the hosting Rotarians, give the participants the opportunity to see how we lead our lives personally and professionally; for us, we get to meet dynamic young individuals interested in our culture who will become the next generation of visionaries and together we all have the chance to sow peace experiences."

The exchange began in April, when S.J. Rotary clubs hosted the Lombardy team. They toured the area; visited local businesses, wineries, wind farms, casinos, and historical landmarks. During their month-long stay in District 7640, the Italian team also visited Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and New York City.

The S.J. team welcomed the Lombardy team in New Jersey presenting a rare opportunity for each team to meet in-person. Since then, both teams have continued to share a special connection that has spanned thousands of miles and continued when the Lombardy team hosted the S.J team.

Adventures in Italy

On May 11 the S.J. team arrived in District 2040, the Lombardy region located in northern Italy for our month-long trip. First, we stayed in Legnano, where we saw a fantastic fireworks show at Castello di Legnano; visited LIUC University; watched an excellent presentation by the students at the Lieco Scientific/Classico Statale; enjoyed a tour of how men's shoes are made at Fratelli Rossetti's factory; tasted coffee made with one of Giorgio Rancilio's coffee machines at the Rancilio factory; met senior citizens at il Melo Health and Social Cooperative; and learned about the AMGA Legnano municipal services company.
Each year, Legnanesi remember the Battle of Legnano, with a special event, the Palio delle contrade. Hundreds of people dressed in medieval costumes with props and animals; processed down the streets for the parade commemorating the historic battle of 1176. I was invited into the press box of the stadium to cover the main event of the Palio, a bareback horse race comprised of the eight districts.

Our Rotarian hosts, Paola Taborelli and Laura Barbera took us to beautiful Lake Como where we climbed to the top of Faro Voltiano di San Maurizio and to Lake Maggiore where we toured Rocca di Angera, Angera e Lago Maggiore, and Eremo di Santa Caterina del Sasso.

Next, we traveled to Livigno, a tourist destination in the Italian Alps boasting long slopes, pristine nature and over 250 shops. We toured the valley of Livigno with Rotarian Fabio Giacomelli and visited the local TV station TeleMonteneve, where we taped a video segment about the GSE program with the Director, Gloria Massera.

In Bormio we indulged in some rest and relaxation at the Bagni Vecchi Spa, famous for their 1st century B.C. Roman baths; the Saint Martin Grotto that leads to a spring in the heart of the mountain and an open air pool with panoramic views of the valley of Bormio and the surrounding Western Dolomite mountains.

We toured the center of Sondrio located in the heart of Valtellina and met with Isabella Pelizzatti who along with her two brothers are fifth generation winemakers and growers at Arpepe, their family's winery.

In Lecco we visited many industrial companies in the area including a chocolate production company, ICAM S.p.a.; and saw how OMET constructs printing presses with Antonio Bartesaghi.

In Bergamo our Rotarian host Nicoletta Silvestri, arranged tours of the chemical group, SIAD; Tenaris, a leading supplier of tubes and related services; Mecatronics and Dynamic Devices; along with Italcementi's research and innovation center, i.lab in the Kilometro Rosso Science & Technology Park.

Rotarian Enrico Cavallini took us to see the Iron Crown of Lombardy; Villa Reale; Giorgetti's furniture showroom and factory; and the Autodromo Nazionale Monza for a Porsche 911 Parade to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the model.

We enjoyed a ferryboat ride on the northern arm of Lake Como with Rotarian Vittorio Polti and made stops in Colico, Bellagio, and Varenna. Our itinerary also led us to Forte Montecchio Nord in Colico, one of the best preserved fortresses of the Great War in Europe.

In Milan, the S.J. team had a busy schedule organized by Baldini, a Rotarian and the GSE Italian team leader. We visited the Milan Cathedral; Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper" mural painting; the Santa Maria delle Grazie Church; Castello Sforzesco; Museo Teatrale alla Scala; the world's oldest shopping mall, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II; the Polytechnic University of Milan; and the Navigli district.

In an effort to connect business professionals, GSE arranged vocational visits for me with journalists at several news organizations. I met with Paolo Zucca from Il Sole 24 Ore; Franco Tagliaferri, Claudia Pensotti and Maurizio Toma, from CNBC Class Television; David Giudici from Gente Motori; Marcello Villani and Vittorio Colombo with La Provincia; Sergio Villa from Bergamo TV and Radio Alta; Marco Taje and Alessandro Marchesin from Legnano News; Rosella del Castello of Bergamo News; and Giovanni Chiodini and Ivan Albarelli with Il Giorno.

In Venice we visited the principal public square, Piazza San Marco; and took a picturesque gondola ride through the famous canals. With my kind and generous Bergamo hosts Paolo Sanguettola, his wife Silvia Bernini and their daughter, Frederica we attended the 50th anniversary mass commemorating the death of Pope Blessed John XXIII at St. Peter's Bascilla in Rome. Pope Francis met with some of the attendees and spoke to the congregation.

Through Rotary International, the GSE participants from both countries met business colleagues while experiencing the culture and lifestyle of the region.

According to Azario, they could even become future Rotarians as they now belong to an extended network of people who share a common bond.

"Rotary's GSE creates opportunities and relationships that can last for a lifetime," he explained, "This program is very enriching and I think it leaves a positive mark on your life that you will never forget."

While the GSE members enjoyed an educational and enlightening trip it was the Rotarian's time, energy, generosity, kindness, and ultimately the beauty of friendship that will be remembered forever.

For more information about Rotary International and its programs or to locate a local Rotary club visit

Veronica Dudo is an award-winning journalist covering everything from breaking news to red carpet celebrity interviews. Follow her on Twitter @VeronicaDudo and Facebook.

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