Faculty Profile: Paola Sensi-Isolani

By Erin Hallissy
Photography by Nicolo Sertorio

A Global Perspective

Paola Sensi-Isolani lived in three countries by the time she was in college — Italy, where she was born; England, where her mother moved after a divorce; and America, where she went to the University of Redlands. So it may not be surprising that she would eventually specialize in social and cultural anthropology, which she says fit her goal to find a field that “could connect me with real people.”

“You can’t teach anthropology without having a global perspective,” she says. “I was interested in crossing cultural barriers. Anthropology has history, humanities, sociology and culture.”

She ticks off classes she has taught to show the breadth of the discipline: childhood and society, food in the global marketplace, world cultures, cross-cultural sexuality, kinship, and marriage and family. She says students are fascinated to learn about other cultures and find answers to questions like, “What does it mean to be an Indian in a village in India or a drug dealer in New York?”

“It’s fascinating to learn about other cultures and values. It makes you understand what’s happening with the world now,” the professor says.

Dana Herrera ’97, now an anthropology professor at Saint Mary’s, says Sensi-Isolani is a mentor and friend.

“Paola was the first person to help me understand the potential of anthropology to provide insight into the human condition,” says Herrera, who recalls taking a freshman course of hers. “Over the course of the semester her passion for the subject ignited my own.”

It’s also not surprising that Sensi-Isolani would teach, given the role models she had in the nuns of the Holy Family at her convent school in England.

“They had high expectations,” Sensi-Isolani recalls. “They set a pattern for teaching and thinking about the underprivileged.”
Sensi-Isolani received job offers in 1977 from the University of the Pacific and Saint Mary’s, and chose Saint Mary’s “because it is a Catholic college. I felt that culturally I had so much more in common with it.”

She never regretted her choice.

“I’ve been able to teach a wide variety of classes,” she says, noting that at a big university she would have had to specialize in a narrow field.

She also enjoys teaching Seminar and says the grounding SMC students receive in Western literature and class participation enriches her anthropology courses. For instance, in sexuality courses she can refer to Saint Augustine, knowing her students are familiar with his writing, “because he shaped Catholic ideas of sexuality.”

Sensi-Isolani has a particular interest in Italians, and she has recently researched Italian immigrants in Sonoma County, particularly in the wine industry. In 2006, she curated an exhibit, “Planting Roots, Reaping the Harvest: The Contribution of Italian Immigrants and their Descendents to the Napa and Sonoma Wine Industry,” which opened at the Museo Italo-Americano in San Francisco. It has since been shown in Reno and is headed to Italy.

The first Italian farmer in Sonoma County showed up in 1867, and others followed, planting grape vines for their own table wine.

“Before Prohibition, the Italian farmers weren’t a dominant group, but they had land,” she says. After Prohibition, they dominated commercial winemaking, with families like Pedroncelli, Seghesio, Sattui, Sbragia and Sebastiani running successful wineries.

As much as she enjoys her research, she doesn’t want to become a winemaker herself.

“It’s hard work making wine,” she says. “I can buy good wine.”