Lean in Moments: Joanne Dynak in Venice, Italy

2009-05-07 23.11.10

With a youth unemployment rate of 36% and climbing in a  culture stagnant in its brilliant history, Italian youth are increasingly forced to leave the country in pursuit of a better, stable life. This summer, I found myself  among a collection of youth venturing back to one of the most quintessentially Italian cities – Venice – in pursuit of understanding both its  current economic state, and the future of our global generation.

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Venice is a special place. In a brief two months, I’d had countless rides on the waterbuses around the city (the equivalent of a subway system, boat-wise); consumed a shameless amount of gelato, Nutella, cappuccinos, and fried fish; I was taught the skilled ways of Venetian rowing from a hardy group of singing Voga captains (think crew, but standing gondolier-style); I’d shared lunches of tagliatelle and scallops with Communist dock workers; huddled canal-side with friends in awe of the firework tsunami that initiated the Redentore festival; and explored the city-wide biannual international modern art exhibition known as Biennale, the exhibits of which lay sprinkled between Crusade-era churches, hidden courtyard gardens, and dark, winding walkways that opened to small city squares.

But all these unique bits of Venetian life were welcome additions to the real reason I was there. For six weeks, I took courses in Italian language and Keynesian economic theory through the Harvard Summer School collaboration with the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice.  We studied alongside Italian students from Ca’ Foscari, many of them already doing graduate work.

Why travel all the way to one of the cultural, artistic, and historical epicenters of the world to take a macroeconomic theory class? Wouldn’t it make more sense to use my time there to embrace the rich history around me? These answers lie not so much in my own perspective as in that of my Italian classmates.

IMG_0231When we weren’t decoding Keynesian prose from The General Theory or explaining how in the world the serendipitous equilibrium moved from E to E’ (what? I know), we chatted over vending machine espressos (they have those) and prodded each other about our lives on the other side of the pond. While we relished in our similarities as young adults and students, what may have drawn us closer was the understanding of our different perceptions of our own futures.

One of my personal and academic passions lies in education reform. Coming to Harvard from an underprivileged background and attending a small, financially struggling high school, I know just how crucial access to quality education is at every level in determining our nation’s future. But as we come back to the individual level, what does having an education mean beyond being in school, upon entering the “real world?”

Although employment conditions are less than optimal in the States, it’s difficult to argue that the consequent blossoming of innovation and entrepreneurial optimism is anything less than booming. Students, employers, and even the political sphere all seem to be embracing the brink of technology and new ideologies in open and applicable ways to increase efficiency and collaboration. Times are changing, and people of all ages and backgrounds grow and change with them. However, in places like Venice and throughout Italy and Europe, the case isn’t necessarily so. Italy’s labor market often proves unfair and restrictive as it protects older generations with permanent contracts, leaving little room for oncoming waves of graduates and young adults to enter the professional sphere – let alone make measurable differences within it. This leaves many young adults in Italy facing the decision to either stay (likely with their parents) and cope with the current system, or become one of the 60,000 youth this year to leave this country for another where their skills and vision have a chance to flourish. I remember. This is the question my classmates face – at a time when their country needs them most.

IMG_7570In order to make education reform across the globe an even stronger cause to fight for, we need to examine the economies in which we endeavor to enact these reforms.  In studying the nature of labor markets at the macroeconomic level, I’ve come to connect the many nuances between individual preparation to contribute to society, and the frustration of a system that prevents these contributions from happening – and consequently preventing the economy and the nation from stability, peace, and growth. The Italian students I spoke with are enthusiastic businessmen, activists, writers, programmers, mathematicians, marketers, and overall inspiring visionaries. But all of them saw beyond the beauty of the Venetian exterior into its inextricable ties with the past, its ties to former generations, which overshadowed the rising generations searching for the resources and opportunity necessary to advance the nation.

As fellow students, it is our obligation to reach beyond our borders and help our generation harness its time before it passes. We need to find ways to open the pathways to both education and application thereof if we want to make economic stability and prosperity at the global level a feasible ideal. And it starts with us. Lean in to new perspectives and don’t be afraid to form connections between ongoing problems. Immerse yourself in the unfamiliar to discover the fundamental. Reach out to others with the potential to make a movement. Be critical, be compassionate. And if you ever have a chance, check out Nico’s Gelati along Canal Giudecca – best chocolate chip gelato in Venice!

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