When it came time to choose his major at ASU, Jeff Root looked to his deeply-rooted Italian heritage for guidance. When Root began at SILC, he was encouraged by his professors to push his abilities further, both through the study abroad program and the study of literature. Plus, Root said, a 16th century quote from an Emperor also helped affirm his decision to pursue a future in Italian: “I speak French to the King, Spanish to God and German to horses – but I speak Italian to women.”
How did you land the job at De Cecco Pasta?
I was working for a foodservice sales brokerage firm as the Italian Food Specialist representing a tomato company, a cheese company and olive oil company. The firm was looking for an imported dry pasta line to fill out its portfolio so I reached out to De Cecco Pasta in Italy through email. During my 3 year stay in Italy, I used De Cecco Pasta regularly in both of the restaurants I was working. I wrote an email to De Cecco headquarters - in formal Italian - explaining what the firm does for the foodservice sales industry and what we believed we could do for De Cecco Pasta in the Arizona market. They awarded us the opportunity to represent them in the Arizona market and over time I demonstrated to them my knowledge and passion for the product. I was then asked to come to work for De Cecco directly as the Regional Foodservice Sales Manager for the western half of the United States. I also am the key point of contact for national business opportunities in the chain restaurant segment.
How does language and culture help you succeed in your career?
Italian language and culture are critically important in my every day work with De Cecco Pasta. Although we have our headquarters, entire production facility and international marketing office in Italy, we do have a logistic and sales support office here in the U.S. located in New York City. We are a small group of about 20 people; I am the only American-born foodservice sales manager in the U.S. so my communication throughout the day is almost entirely in Italian with both my boss and my colleagues. Measurements and vernacular relating to pasta, production, sales, marketing, point of sale, travel expenses, product training…it’s all done in Italian. I also am a key point of reference for translating material from Italian to English. The skills I use in my job came directly from my education at ASU and from my experience on the Study Abroad Program in Italy. If it were not for my Italian language and culture proficiency, there is no doubt I would not be working for De Cecco Pasta. The “Made in Italy” aspect is so fundamental to the strength of the De Cecco brand, and many of the distributors and chefs we call on are native Italian as well. Business relationships tend to thrive in an environment of trust and confidence and our clientele prefer sales people who speak Italian well. I travel to Italy for meetings and occasionally take large customers to Italy for tours of our facilities. There are also several international trade shows here in the US where we showcase our product line.
Can you speak more about your study abroad experience?
I went on the Study Abroad Program in Florence when I was 25. I arrived about 10 days before the start of the program to stay with my Italian family in Gaggio Montano – located in the Appenine mountains about 90 minutes northeast of Florence. No one in the town spoke any English, so for 10 days my Italian grew minute by minute exponentially. By the time I arrived in Florence I felt like I had learned more in 10 days than I had studying it in the previous 2 years in the U.S. When classes began in Florence I already had crafted a plan: I was going to excel linguistically, head back up to Gaggio Montano every single weekend throughout the summer and then return home to graduate in December…then buy a one-way ticket to move back!
I returned up to see my relatives every weekend. As soon as class ended on Thursday I was on a train back up the mountain. My language skills erupted as I became more expressive, infinitely more confident and relaxed with all facets of the Italian language. All of the grammar I was taught at ASU suddenly seemed to fall into place so effortlessly. I was also working at my family’s bed and breakfast in Gaggio Montano, so I was introduced to a myriad of settings where I constantly picked up new vocabulary. This experience shifted my life in an entirely different direction. After graduation, I sold my belongings, my car and packed the only 3 suitcases I owned. I bought a one-way ticket and I was back on a plane to Italy where I would spend almost the next 3 years. Without this experience I would most certainly not be engaged in two of my life’s deepest passions: Italian food and Italian language.
How did ASU and the language program prepare you for your future?
The department was very vibrant and active. Professors Baldini, Candela and Vitullo were instrumental in my development both linguistically and scholastically. Vitullo and Candela were paramount in my foundation as a future scholar in Medieval and Renaissance Italian literature, as to how to construct arguments and how to read texts for meaning. Baldini convinced me to go study abroad which ultimately changed my career in the most positive way. I think the most helpful part of the program was the introduction to so many important classical Italian literary texts. From Dante to Petrarca, an in-depth cinema course and an Italian business writing course furnished me a very solid literary foundation for my eventual entrance into graduate studies.
Any advice for current language studies students?
Don’t lose faith. The process is long and it takes what it takes. Discover the length you’re willing to go to be successful – do you want to be content or do you want to be fulfilled? Some make it, some do not. Those who make it have a story to tell and it’s usually filled with moments where he or she could have taken the easy way, or even given up, but instead they chose to engage. Find out what you want to do with the language and literature and then pursue it aggressively and with purpose. You can’t expect results if you’re not willing to put in the work. If you go on the Study Abroad Program, don’t spend $5000 getting drunk every night and speaking English at that Irish Pub in Florence only to then skip classes. You can do that here in the US. If you decide to go then make the absolute most of it; Don’t eat at McDonald’s. Go grocery shopping. Experiment with recipes and food. Get out of the center of the city and go where there is no English spoken. Go out of your way to network and build up opportunities that could bring you back for an extended period of time.
Every setting in life is a classroom and you’re always receiving information. It’s your choice what to do with the information. Prior to getting on the plane to go study abroad, my Italian language proficiency was on life-support – and today I am at native-fluency level. Anything is possible!