Zimbardo’s foundation gives hope to Sicilian students

Courtesy of Philip Zimbardo Stanford's Philip Zimbardo with Cammarata students

Stanford professor emeritus Philip Zimbardo is surrounded by students of Cammarata at their first meeting after announcing the scholarship program funded by his foundation.

Courtesy of Philip Zimbardo Cammarata, Sicily

Cammarata, Sicily, is about 40 miles from Palermo.

Whenever Philip Zimbardo asked his Italian grandfather where his family came from, the answer was vague—a little village outside Palermo.

That small burg, however, was to have a major impact on the emeritus psychology professor’s life. His effect on his ancestral village has been just as big. With his new Philip G. Zimbardo Educational Foundation, he hopes to shift the educational landscape for many Sicilian students.

Zimbardo is a name well known in the world of psychology. Most people know Zimbardo as the author of the Stanford Prison Experiment. Others know him for his Shyness Clinic. The average American, of course, remembers him for his PBS series, Discovering Psychology, now used in high schools and colleges nationwide. For generations of students, he has been a popular mentor and teacher.

But when a television interview was broadcast throughout Italy in 2005, his sense of identity shifted. For one small village, he was first and foremost a Zimbardo.

“I started getting e-mails and letters from people in a town called Cammarata. People were saying, ‘You must be connected to us, because there are a hundred Zimbardos in this village,’” he recalled.

“They said, ‘How come you haven’t contacted us?’ Well, I didn’t know you existed.”

On his visit to Cammarata, about 40 minutes outside Palermo, he learned he was already a star. He still becomes animated when he describes the experience: “In every store window, bars and restaurants, there’s a big poster of the Statue of Liberty, and it says, ‘From America: The world’s most famous psychologist is a son of Cammarata.’ And the mayor greets me in a red-white-and-green sash, and everybody’s out hugging and kissing. We go to the church and the priest takes out the old records and sure, there’s my grandfather there.

“It’s three or four hours to eat one meal and with wine, and family, and fun, and it was great. And the kids were all over.”

For Zimbardo, however, Cammarata foreshadowed the themes that were to become central to his 2008 book, The Time Paradox: The New Psychology of Time That Will Change Your Life (coauthored with John Boyd), which explores the need to balance the past, present and future.

That day in Cammarata, Zimbardo went to the local high school with a translator and told the student assembly that had gathered to see him: “You’re so lucky, because you have this wonderful rich, vibrant past.” Praising the households where extended families were all living together, he noted the community also has a healthy dose of “present hedonism, with good food, good wine and, given all the kids, probably good sex as well.”

In need of a future

“The only thing you’re missing is a future,” he said. “Unemployment is 41 percent in this town, and that means it’s going to be very hard to get a job, unless you get a college education, you have computer skills, you learn English, you travel outside of Sicily. You have to discover a marketable skill. What is it that you can do that your town needs, that people will pay for?”

He arranged to have the chief executive officer of Overstock.com, Stanford alumnus Patrick Byrne, ship 20 new PCs to the school; prior to that, the school had only one computer. Soliciting funds from colleagues and friends along with his own contributions, Zimbardo founded the Philip G. Zimbardo Educational Foundation, providing scholarships for eight students a year (four boys and four girls). Scholarships for local colleges are 1,000 Euros each, based on merit, grades and all-round performance. An additional scholarship is offered for a high school graduate who has had to overcome adversity—either a physical, psychological or familial difficulty. Every other year, the foundation arranges for several students to visit Zimbardo and his family and colleagues in America.

“It’s only a small number, but essentially it creates a sense of hope,” said Zimbardo. “Things could get better, things could change.”

Moreover, the foundation, which is not yet fully endowed, arranges and funds annual conferences of scientific and cultural exchanges in the twin towns of Cammarata and San Giovanni Gemini and also donates funds to a local nonprofit organization for children with physical and mental disabilities.

“Thanks to Professor Philip Zimbardo, we have been promoting in both the towns a new culture based on hope and sense of future, characteristics that were almost absent among our children,” said Pasquale Marino, Sicilian director of the foundation. “A new spirit is developing here, and to my surprise, it seems to be contagious even in other towns near Cammarata and San Giovanni Gemini.”

Beyond Cammarata

It has been contagious on this side of the Atlantic as well: The chief executive officer of Seagate Technology, Stanford alumnus Steve Luczo, contacted Zimbardo to discuss his own Italian roots in the city made famous by The Godfather.

Luczo’s grandmother emigrated from Corleone when she was barely old enough to remember it. “My grandmother always spoke of her home and the lush fruit orchards and vineyards, based on the stories her mom told her,” he said.

“She always said in her Sicilian-accented English: ‘She shoulda never left dat place … dat land was beautiful.’”

Within a year after their first conversation and with a major donation from Luczo, Zimbardo had recruited the mayor of Corleone as an ally, and the foundation gave its first 10 scholarships to its students in early June this year.

The “talented, ambitious and grateful students” were “amazed that their family from America had remembered them,” said Luczo.

Zimbardo, a man who has had many missions over a lifetime, now has a new one: “For me, it’s really been transformative—to connect deeply to my roots,” he said.

“I’m somebody who is anchored or embedded in a cultural heritage as well as the heritage of my lineage over time. It’s really been enlightening and enriching,” he said.

“The more I think about it, there are a lot of Sicilian Americans who have some money to try to do this in all these little small towns,” he said. “Most kids live at home, so a relatively small scholarship goes a really long way.

“For me, it’s one of the most exciting things I’ve done, and it also gives me an excuse to go to Sicily every year.”

Luczo would agree: “To see and smell and dig in the dirt that my Grandma had so often talked about was beyond description,” he said.

“And it was as beautiful as she said.”


Cynthia Haven, News Service: (650) 724-6184, cynthia.haven@stanford.edu