Despite Knox case, Italy still draws Seattle students



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Posted on December 3, 2009 at 12:40 AM

PERUGIA, Italy - Perugia is an ancient walled city in central Italy, but beyond its cultural and economic importance as regional capitol of Umbria it is essentially a college town.

Of Perugia’s 166,000 residents, some 40,000 are students. While few people from the Pacific Northwest had ever heard of Perugia before the Knox case, the city has long been a magnet for students from all over the world, including Seattle.

Amanda Knox and Meredith Kercher were both exchange students at the University for Foreigners in Perugia, a prestigious school specializing in languages.

"The reputation is very high" says Flavia Bonifacio, an Italian student who spent last summer in Seattle.

Bonifacio and her friends don’t like the negative publicity the University and Perugia have received in the two years since Kercher was found murdered and Knox arrested as one of her alleged killers. They say they are tired of the case and ready for a verdict.

"I really hope she is innocent, because she’s just a girl of my age," said Bonifacio.

But her friend and fellow student Ilaria Caloisi said "I think that she (Knox) is probably guilty."

Knox was one of 16 students from the University of Washington studying in Perugia in the fall of 2007.

This year there are only two. Still, the University of Washington does not consider student exchange programs between the two cities to be in jeopardy.

"I think the warm feelings between the two cities is still very, very strong. This case is an unfortunate case," said Stephen Hanson, UW Vice Provost for the Office of Global Affairs.

Perugia is a tolerant city. Social plans and sometimes drug deals are made on the steps of the cathedral and in the town’s famous pedestrian walkway, Corso Vannucci. But increasingly, the Knox case is putting the student lifestyle on trial.

"The style of life of the students, you know, they are using drugs and many things," says one visiting student who thinks Knox is probably guilty.

Knox’s arrest and two-year ordeal in the Italian courts have made some parents skittish about sending their kids to Italy. But Bonifacio says she does not believe people should be afraid to send their children to Perugia to study.

"No, no, no," she said. "I mean it’s up to the students, up to the kids to stay out of the troubles."

Since Knox went to Perugia virtually unsupervised two years ago, the UW has tightened rules for students traveling abroad. Now, the department chair must sign off on the program and there’s more oversight and communication with students. The UW also has a travel security and information officer working to oversee emergency response.