By Pete Kennedy
It’s important to ask for help when you need it. That’s what Francesca Bruno tells high school students in Philadelphia as she guides them on the path to college degrees.
“When I first enrolled at the University of Houston, I really didn’t know what I was doing,” said Bruno, who came to the United States as a college student in 2003. “In Italy, there’s less of a stigma around asking for help. So I was absolutely unafraid to find resources and go to teachers and say, ‘Can you help me with this?’”
Bruno, 37, is a site director for 12PLUS, a college-access nonprofit serving students in underserved communities. Born in Rome,
Italy, she and her brother were the first generation in their family to go to college. Earlier this year, she became Dr. Bruno, as she completed her Ph.D. at Cornell University.
Her journey would not have been possible without the support of countless people along the way, she said, starting with her family.
Bruno, who now lives in Philadelphia, grew up in a neighborhood called Aurelio, just a few subway stops from the Vatican.
“It is pretty centrally located, but it does not look anything like a postcard,” she said. “Outside of my small but sweet apartment there’s a busy road, and I’d hear cars all day and night long.”
Bruno’s mother stayed at home to care for her and her brother. Her father worked long hours to support the family. During the day, he worked for a telecom company, and on the side he operated a printing business with his brother, making custom T-shirts, patches and stickers.
As a teenager, Bruno attended a classical lyceum — Liceo Classico — a type of five-year secondary school focused on the humanities. The curriculum concentrated on Greek and Latin language for the first two years, then literature, history and philosophy during the final three.
After graduating, she enrolled at La Sapienza, a university in Rome founded in 1303, to study philosophy. But she grew restless in classes where philosophy was delivered in a historical context — via lectures and notes — rather than as a discussion of deep ideas.
“I was feisty as a teenager,” she said.
While visiting friends at the University of Houston, she was able to sit in on some of the philosophy classes there.
“I saw young professors, and they were vibrant and asking you questions. They wanted to know what you think,” she said. “That, for me, was really exciting. I went from learning about philosophy to actually seeing philosophy in action. They were interested in generating and understanding concepts like, ‘Are we free?’ and ‘What is free will?’”
She decided to transfer to the University of Houston and went on to earn her bachelor’s degree summa cum laude in 2007, followed by a master’s in 2009.
While pursuing her doctorate, she began working with students in underserved communities as an AmeriCorps member, and through programs like Upward Bound Math Science at the University of Pennsylvania and Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America during their summer program at Princeton University.
Bruno, who speaks Italian, English and a bit of French, often reads philosophical texts in their original Latin or ancient Greek. In recent years, she has tried to expand her studies beyond the cast of characters commonly found in textbooks, including through a more feminist and less Eurocentric lens.
“There’s a narrative of: Philosophy started at some point in Greek culture, then you move on from pre-Socratic philosophers to Aristotle, then Hellenistic philosophy, and Descartes and Kant. This is one narrative, though. It’s a narrative that includes some and excludes others,” she said. “Often women don’t figure in at all, or in some minor role.”
Even today, she said, it can be difficult for women philosophers to rise to prominent roles in the academic world, which makes her all the more appreciative of the support she has received on her journey, and the women who paved the way before her.
“My attitude is one of gratitude,” she said.
Now that she has finished defending her dissertation — titled “The Extension Debate in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe: A Question at the Intersection of Metaphysics, Physics, and Theology” — she has been spending more time relaxing at home with her husband, Matt, and their dog, Tessie. She also enjoys reading, biking, rock climbing, and corresponding with her friends in Italy and across the United States.
“Also — I’m not ashamed — the Nintendo Switch. I love to play video games with Matt. My favorite game right now is Hollow Knight. But there’s also Zelda,” she said. “Zelda is this kind of open-ended adventure. You go across this world, and you choose where to go.” IAH