Updated: Mar 2, 2021
Phoebe Forlenza immediately strikes one as an easy-going and friendly person. She credits her parents with teaching her to show “respect and empathy” towards people from all walks of life, a lesson she embodies in each day. After she graduates from Barnard in May, Forlenza intends to work for at least two years and then—if it should prove necessary in her mission to help the global community—obtain a law degree.
Forlenza transferred to Barnard College as a sophomore in the fall of 2016, seeking a university and city that could provide her with more opportunities to engage with political activism. She briefly joined the student government, working to help other transfer and international students on campus, as well as the Columbia Democrats. In the spring of her junior year, she traveled to Milan where she helped people at the Comune di Milano’s Center of World Cultures, creating lasting change in the lives of refugees, and migrants who benefitted from her Italian translation skills, as well as her dedication to personalized support.
Illustration by Helen Becker
Early on, by virtue of growing up with an Italian father and an American mother, Forlenza developed a global world view; but whereas before she had always evaluated herself “in the context of American social equities,” her experience in Milan placed her “in a kind of a realm of migration” that challenged her to consider practical solutions for those who did not have the same advantage of being white, financially secure, or American.
Her job at the center revolved mainly around helping migrants explain their situations to the Italian social workers, as well as explaining the visa application process and their housing situation to the migrants themselves. While fluent in Italian, Forlenza occasionally struggled with technical words, accents, and communicating with migrants who spoke neither Italian nor English. The immense responsibility of her job—at times, her translation was a determining factor in whether a migrant could stay in Italy— was an additional layer of stress and difficulty. Yet she never let it deter her from returning to work.
One particular case stands out for Forlenza: that of a Nigerian migrant seeking asylum in Italy. The man ended up departing the center in open frustration and anger, leaving Forlenza disheartened. She explained, however, that this “absolutely stressful” exchange served not only to deepen her appreciation for her work, but to reveal the “dynamic” complexities of social justice. The poor outcome, she further clarified, was not the single fault of the social worker, the migrant, herself, or even the Italian government: “It was a crazy combination of all those things,” creating a mess for which she struggles, even now, to think of a solution. Since learning to accept the rarity of “simple solutions," Forlenza remains no less committed to contributing to the global community. She envisions a robust career working alongside politicians and advocacy groups to help protect the vulnerable.
Near the end of our interview, Forlenza offers one final piece for her fellow students, particularly those studying abroad: “I would say try to push yourself out of your comfort zone in every way you can. Although it’s easy, and it seems fun to just fall in with the rest of the crowd…. Meet new people. Go places. Go to new cities. Go to new places on the weekends, but also find your own outlet. Find something, whether it’s service learning, volunteering, or anything else that gives you the opportunity to grow.”