The lost tale of Point Park’s Switzerland campus

Point Park students sit with the Alps behind their backs on Point Park’s Switzerland campus that it leased during the ‘72-’73 school year. Students could spend the semester abroad for the same cost to study in Pittsburgh.

Written By Josh Croup , Co-Sports Editor

Darlene Natale was only a freshman at Point Park in 1973 when she went on the learning adventure of a lifetime.

She took a chance at a new program at the college that moved her to Switzerland for the semester for the same cost to study in Pittsburgh.

She even met her future husband on the satellite campus.

The college’s new program didn’t last more than a year after the university almost closed in 1973 due to financial issues, leaving Switzerland as a footnote in Point Park’s long history.

“It was a real loss,” Natale said. “I think, had they given it a couple years, it would have flourished and attracted the crowd they intended.”

Point Park was nearing the worst financial crisis in its history 45 years ago when it leased the Villa Negroni in Lugano, Switzerland.

Both the United States and Swiss flags flew atop Lawrence Hall as a small portion of the Point Park community began their new venture in the fall of 1972.

Then president Arthur Blum established the campus in an attempt to spark more interest in the college, which was experiencing financial difficulties. The original goal was to attract upwards of 100 students, but the first-year program failed to draw in more than 40 after advertising around the country, including in the New York Times.

Point Park sent its own professors to Switzerland to teach the students enrolled, including eventual president Matthew Simon and Emmett Panzella.

Panzella, who still teaches history and geography at Point Park, taught courses with an emphasis on Italy and Switzerland, including Renaissance and Reformation at Lugano.

It was a family affair for Panzella, who was a new professor at the university with a wife and two young daughters. When the college approved his classes, his family packed their bags and moved to Lugano. One of his daughters eventually learned how to ride her tricycle there.

“For me, for my family, for the students I knew, it was a uniformly wonderful experience,” Panzella said.

He taught during the spring semester of the first and only year of the program. Point Park offered a mini-semester during the months of December to February, and continued offering classes in Lugano during that time.

Education Professor Vincenne Revilla Beltrán was a junior at the college when she took to Lugano for a mini-semester abroad to take literature and art classes.

“It was so unique that you can’t really compare it to any other kind of campus environment,” Revilla said.

The 18th-century villa had a view of the Alps and was near the Switzerland-Italy border. The dorm rooms had antique architectural designs that went beyond the typical college room. Students and faculty would eat together in the dining room with meals prepared by chefs and cooks they got to know.

Students had full course loads, taking upwards of 18 credits. But the class schedule was short, lasting Monday to Wednesday and sometimes Thursdays. The professors had the freedom to teach at night, and often encouraged students to travel.

“You were taking a class, but you were then applying it as you traveled,” Natale said. “You understood what you were seeing.”

Lugano was in an ideal location for travel, giving students opportunities to spend weekends in Milan, Paris, Munich, Rome and several other historic European cities.

Students purchased inexpensive Eurail passes and traveled from city to city at night. They could sleep on pullout seats on the train to avoid hotels.

When she wasn’t traveling, Natale and her friends listened to music in the dorm rooms. One of those friends, Dennis Natale, took her to a couple concerts in the area. The two grew close while in Switzerland and stayed together through college.

Dennis and Darlene Natale married after Darlene graduated in 1976, and have been together since. They have since encouraged their children to travel and study abroad.

Several students wished to return to Lugano for the fall of 1973 and encouraged their peers in Pittsburgh to join.

“It really enhanced the lives of all of those who were there,” Panzella said. “I didn’t hear one person who was disappointed with their experience.”

When Panzella and others returned to Pittsburgh, they received bad news.

“They said, ‘You have to come down and grab your books; they’re closing up the school,’” Panzella said. “I was both shocked and depressed. I had a wife and two small children.”

Natale planned to spend the summer with her friends in Pittsburgh and return to Lugano in the fall, but by time the new semester came around, there was no more Point Park Switzerland.

Edward Hogan was the initial director of the Swiss campus and also taught courses. In a book detailing the first 25 years of Point Park’s history, Hogan described his perspectives of the Lugano experiment.

“As an educational experience I think it was zilch,” Hogan said in the book. “They weren’t even asked to write a paper. They had no resources to write papers.”

Hogan added that some students were afraid to venture outside of the villa, but those who did had a great experience traveling around Europe. Natale said her educational experience was about more than just travel.

“They really synthesized the coursework with what we were going to do as we traveled about,” Natale said.

Revilla credits her experience in Lugano for pushing her to travel internationally as an adult with her family. She has backpacked through Europe, and even completed one of her sabbaticals in Spain.

When she heard of the opportunity to study in Switzerland for the same cost to study in Pittsburgh, her only option was to take advantage of the program.

“Travel has a way of changing you, and broadening your perspectives,” Revilla said. “You can’t really put a price on that.”