Faculty and Teaching Staff Stories

Joseph Formaggio

  Joseph Formaggio photo

Associate Professor of Physics
Division Head, Experimental Nuclear and Particle Physics

Both my parents were Italian immigrants. My father, who had been raised primarily by his grandfather on a farm in Sicily before moving to the US, met my mother during a visit to Italy. They soon married and moved to America, where I was born, in Flushing, New York. After six years away from her family, my mother's homesickness was too great and so we all moved to Italy, where I spent the next five years growing up downstairs from my maternal grandparents in a small apartment in the large city of Catania.

It was clear to me, even at my young age, that my dad regretted moving back. Maintaining a business in Sicily was nearly impossible in those days. Though he never let us go a day hungry, we were always living hand to mouth. My school, too, left much to be desired. I distinctly remember as a 5th grader being left "in charge" of the class while the teacher spent hours smoking in the teachers' lounge. I wish that was not a true story.

My dad was always a strong advocate for my education and knew that staying in Sicily was doing me no good. I was ravenous for learning new things, things that my school simply could not provide. There were no public libraries in Catania, so I would just borrow any book I could get my hands on. I read everything—comic books, science fiction, gardening, physics. One of the best presents I ever got as a child was a space encyclopedia set from my father. That's still in our house, closely treasured.

Little by little, my father saved enough money to go back to the US. He returned alone at first, then, saving more money, flew my mother and me back to New York. There isn't a manual labor job that my father hasn’t done: he was a piano tuner; he worked in the garment district; he delivered pizzas; he was a welder. At his job, his nickname was "the ant" since he was only 5'1" but could lift 3 times his weight.

Going to college wasn't really a question for me, fortunately. Both my parents valued a good education, even if they themselves never benefited from it. As a young adult, I realized how fortunate I truly was to have parents who sacrificed so much for my education and general well-being. I hope to be an equally strong advocate for my own two children. The circumstances of their childhood are certainly very different from mine, but already I can see that hunger for learning. That's a good sign.