Battered but unbowed, L'Aquila abides

Devastating earthquake has not dimmed university spirit, says rector. Diana Garrisi reports

June 2, 2011

On 6 April 2009 an earthquake of magnitude 5.9 hit L'Aquila, an ancient university town in central Italy, killing more than 300 people.

Many of the buildings belonging to the University of L'Aquila were destroyed and a large number of students were among the dead.

In the days and weeks after the disaster, there were fears that the earthquake could mark the end of the oldest university in the Abruzzo region, which was founded in 1596 as the Aquilanum Collegium.

Two years on, however, its rector, Ferdinando di Orio, said the university was battered but unbowed, slowly starting to recover from the initial drop in student numbers that followed the disaster.

"Just after the earthquake the entire university was unfit for use, but we maintained academic life either by adapting to makeshift facilities in town or moving to other places nearby," Professor di Orio said in an interview with Times Higher Education.

"After a while, we began to provide students and staff with other facilities - renting industrial warehouses, for example. These are the conditions in which we are still working. They are not ideal, but given the tragedy we experienced, the word 'ideal' is no longer applicable in any circumstance here."

Just as teaching and research continue, but in very different circumstances, so do other aspects of student life.

Before the earthquake, students were used to attending lectures in historical buildings and meeting in the old town after class to enjoy a thriving social scene.

They were surrounded by religious architecture, ancient fountains and historical palaces - beauty only augmented by the region's mountain views. The mountains remain, but much else has changed.

"There is no historical centre any more. The main (focus) has been lost and now students meet at a shopping centre instead," Professor di Orio said.

Despite the changes, he added, there was much to celebrate in the way that the university had responded to such a devastating event.

"Our main target was to inaugurate the 2009-10 academic year, and we did so, on 19 October. It was an important achievement for us," he said.

The number of students that year fell by a fifth, from ,168 to 21,463, but last year it began to climb again, rising to about 23,000.

Looking to the future, Professor di Orio said that the most pressing problem was the lack of student facilities.

There is not enough accommodation available locally, with the result that most students live outside the city and have to travel long distances, sometimes several hours each day, to reach the university's makeshift lecture halls.

The dearth of recreational and social activities also remains a matter of concern.

"This is the most serious problem, as the students can't limit their lives to study alone," Professor di Orio said.

Yet despite the challenges, the rector said he was upbeat about the university's future.

"Since the earthquake, we have had to fend for ourselves; we are still here despite the difficulties," he added.

"The university is alive but work (to repair the damage) is still in progress. It will be like that for many years to come."

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