Fueled by her early success and facility with language, Fitzgerald studied Spanish in high school at a time when, as she remembers, “everyone else was taking French,” and she went on to major in Spanish Literature at Immaculata. Thanks to a dedicated educator, Sister Helen Patricia, IHM, Ph.D., Fitzgerald’s study of the language—in fact, her experience of the world—would turn out to be unlike any other Immaculata student’s up to that point.
“I really have to credit Sister Helen Patricia,” said Fitzgerald. “She was very involved, a great advocate for me. I can’t say enough about her. She really went to bat for me.”
Fitzgerald also credits language instructor Pia Raffaele, whom she remembers as “very demanding, a wonderful teacher. Sister was a ‘cheerleader,’ and Pia was a scholar.”
Fitzgerald knew she was blessed with extraordinary educators and, while she worked diligently as a student and could read and write and conjugate in Spanish, Fitzgerald admits that she “couldn’t really speak it.” It was this fluency she yearned to achieve, and she and her teachers knew there was no better way to develop it than through a total immersion experience.
“My parents were very supportive [of the idea],” said Fitzgerald, “very excited. My dad, obviously, traveled and my mother was a private duty nurse and had also traveled extensively. They both appreciated the value of travel and exposure to other cultures, so they were delighted.”
The only obstacle was that no Immaculata student had ever studied overseas before, and Fitzgerald would need significant help making that dream a reality.
“Sister Helen Patricia knew of another Sister who was studying for her Ph.D. at the University of Madrid, Sister Appolonia, and they were in contact,” said Fitzgerald. Sister Appolonia, IHM, was instrumental in arranging a place for Fitzgerald to live, and it was the advocacy of these two Sisters that made it possible for Fitzgerald to spend the 1962-63 academic year studying in Spain.
With plans finally in place, Fitzgerald sailed from New York Harbor on the U.S. Constitution with “lots of Immaculatans waving me off!” In Spain, she lived in a pension run by two professional women, sisters, who had come up from Valencia to Madrid. Fitzgerald says she was never homesick, and that “total immersion made all the difference. Everything fell into place.
“The course of study at the University of Madrid that Sister Appolonia located for me, a course for foreigners, was remarkable,” said Fitzgerald. There were students from all over the world and the university’s faculty of Arts and Letters provided top-notch instruction as part of a comprehensive and rigorous curriculum. According to Fitzgerald, the university “really put its best faculty forward.”
In addition to a first-rate education, Fitzgerald said, “Living in Spain was remarkable. I was 19 years old with these amazing opportunities, meeting people from so many different countries, being able to just take off and get a Europass and see Europe.” Some of the most important gains Fitzgerald made, she says, “were at the personal level, being able to navigate that year, and navigate it so successfully.”
Not surprisingly, after so much freedom and independence, Fitzgerald found the return to the U.S. and Immaculata to be a challenge initially. She confessed that, if it weren’t for some very dear friends—friends she has to this day—“I probably wouldn’t have been able to make it through my senior year.” There also were some difficulties transferring credit for the work she had done in Spain. “It was actually tough once I returned,” said Fitzgerald. “They didn’t understand the transcripts and it had never been done before.” But, once again, “Sister Helen Patricia went to bat for me.”
Fitzgerald made it through and, in September of the year she graduated, she pioneered another first for the College by being the first Immaculata student to join the Peace Corps. “When we were sophomores, Kennedy came to Philadelphia to speak. Only class officers were invited and our class president came back talking about this Peace Corps idea, and I thought immediately, ‘That’s for me!’”
Fitzgerald applied, was accepted to the Peace Corps, and was sent to Costa Rica as a community development volunteer. “We were assigned to rural areas, working in the field, and it was a great time in the sense of possibilities. We worked with local community groups and the agricultural extension agent, if there was one.
“Costa Rica is a very educated country,” said Fitzgerald. “There is no army and, since 1945, they have dedicated their resources to teachers instead of the military, and to health care. These were wonderful communities, these small agricultural towns.” But, while talent, goodwill and need abounded, Fitzgerald noted that what was lacking was some sort of organization. “We’re a very organized people,” said Fitzgerald, “and I think that’s what I brought to the community there.”
Fitzgerald remained in Costa Rica for three years, living with the same family that she says “are still like family.” She has returned to visit 25 times, and even attended the wedding of a granddaughter “of the sister who was closest to my age.”
For Fitzgerald, the Peace Corps “was a life-changing event.” Many of those with whom she served have stayed in touch over the decades, and they will hold a mini-reunion in Washington, D.C. later this year when the Peace Corps celebrates its 50th anniversary. According to Fitzgerald, “It continues to be clear how much more we gained than we gave. The obligation to bring the world back here, to help us understand other parts of the world, and those who have found themselves in this country—that’s the real challenge.”
Fitzgerald makes her home in California and has worked in adult education and, for the last 25 years, in the field of philanthropy, which has involved lots of travel in Latin America supporting programs in development, social justice, and sustainability. She was with the Greenville Foundation for many years, and most recently with Compton Foundation, finally retiring as of December 31, 2010.
When Fitzgerald looks back on her experiences as a young adult, she is struck by how profoundly they altered, expanded and deepened her worldview. “I have never looked at this country in the same way,” she said. “I don’t interpret the news the same way. I don’t ‘swallow the party line.’ When you have walked in another’s shoes, you have a greater understanding, the realization that there is validity to other realities besides our own.”
On a personal level, Fitzgerald says that studying abroad and then serving in the Peace Corps nurtured in her “a great sense of confidence, of my ability to move in the world, and that is not to be underestimated. To maneuver in new places, foreign lands and languages, and to develop sensitivity to other customs and cultures is just invaluable.
“My gosh, it’s a gift!” said Fitzgerald. “It was a gift that I was sent to Costa Rica to that village. It was a gift that I lived with this incredible family that I’m still close to. My world is so much larger because of it.”
Fitzgerald strongly urges those who would travel to learn a new language (or two). “It will enhance, enrich and deepen any travel or overseas experience you have,” she said. She also supports foreign study, “travel with a purpose,” but insists that, for example, while going overseas in high school for special projects is to be applauded, “it can’t just end there.” As Fitzgerald knows, for such adventures to have meaning and a lasting positive impact, “a conversation has to continue.”