Students learn about origins, history of organized crime during Italy trip

19 PSU-LV CRIMJ students visiting Italy during summer 2023

Nineteen Penn State Lehigh Valley criminal justice students visited Palermo and Rome, Italy, during summer 2023 to study the history of global, organized crime.

Credit: Deb Dreisbach

CENTER VALLEY, Pa. — Films like “The Godfather” and “Goodfellas” have created indelible stereotypes about those involved in organized crime. This summer, 19 Penn State students learned the real history behind the Mafia during “Organized Crime in Film and Society,“ a three-week course taught on site in different locations in Palermo and Rome, Italy. 

Debra Dreisbach, assistant teaching professor and criminal justice program coordinator at Penn State Lehigh Valley, organized and led the students on an immersive journey through Palermo and Rome into the fascinating underworld of organized crime. As organized crime can trace its roots to Palermo in the 19th century, the city was a natural starting point for the students’ immersive experience.

“We had classroom space at the University of Palermo and Temple Rome. It gave the students a really different perspective, and really more of a global perspective, on organized crime,” Dreisbach said. 

Students were required to watch American Mafia films, do scene analyses and discussion, and applied the content they learned and how the Mafia is depicted in American film to the reality of these crime figures. Dreisbach found an expert in both American and Italian film who came in to speak to the class.  

Dreisbach originally planned the class in 2019, but travel restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic put the trip on hold.

“Penn State Global graciously sent me to Italy so I could plan this — setting up appointments, scheduling the tours,” Dreisbach said. “All the partners stayed with me for four years. I had Italian professors teaching, so that was really interesting.”

Highlights of the trip included a three-hour walking tour of Palermo. Among many significant moments in the city’s history, Palermo was the site of a student-led protest against organized crime nearly 40 years ago.

“Businesses have to pay protection money to keep their doors open,” Dreisbach said. “We went on a walking tour of the city to learn how that arrangement came to be.”

Touring the U.S. Embassy in Rome was another once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“I had done protection work, so I’d been to the embassy, but it had moved,” Dreisbach said. “It was probably one of the best tours we took. They explained what they do there [at the embassy], what the special agents do, and even each piece of Italian art that hangs there.”

The group also was present for the annual commemoration of two Italian judges, Borcelino and Falconi. The two were assassinated by the Mafia and are considered heroes in many parts of Italy. Their tragic end is recognized and honored each year.   

Students attended classes from 8 a.m. until noon each day; the afternoons and evenings were free.

“I thought it was important to immerse them in the culture,” Dreisbach said. “The students were finding things I hadn’t known of. They navigated the bus and train systems by themselves, they looked things up. They were great at talking to people.”  

Besides history, students learned about different cultural norms.

“Italians by nature are much more affectionate, less aware of personal space, and our students had to learn how to handle that,” Dreisbach said. “It developed their problem-solving skills — if you don’t like something like that, how do you express it in a professional manner?” 

Dreisbach’s goal was to bring the course content alive for the students.

“I tried to bring it to life and get them out to experience things rather than have them sit in a classroom all the time,” she said. For example, the group met with an agency that only does anti-Mafia investigations. “I tried to find experiences for them they wouldn’t normally have.” 

The students captured each day on GoPro cameras to create a memento of their experiences.

“We have great video footage with titles and music, and the students would write a blog about their day,” Dreisbach said. “It was nice for the parents back home to see, and it will be a nice remembrance for the students when they look back on their time at Penn State.” 

Afterward, some of the students continued to travel in Europe before returning to the U.S. The students were required to write a reflection after their experience in Italy.

“I got some cards from the students,” Dreisbach said. “Some said it was the best thing they’d ever done.”  

For those interested in being part of the next course, Dreisbach is holding an information session for the spring 2024 session and its travel component, which will run from mid-May through early June 2024,  from 12:15 to 1:30 p.m. on Nov. 9 in Room 320 at Penn State Lehigh Valley, as well as streamed via Zoom. 

For more information, contact Dreisbach at [email protected].