It’s not exactly the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, but Harlaxton College in the beautiful English countryside an hour north of London is about as close to the fictional world of young wizard Harry Potter as most Florida Gulf Coast University students are going to get.
That’s why for Chandler Burwell and Kaliegh McFadden — two FGCU students who grew up following the fantastical adventures of British author J.K. Rowling’s young good wizard and his friends in their battles against evil wizard Lord Voldemort — the chance to spend a semester studying in England was almost a childhood fantasy come alive.
“As an avid Harry Potter fan, the thought of being able to practically live in Hogwarts while I explored England and Europe was like a dream come true for me,” said Burwell, a Clearwater Beach resident who spent spring 2018 at Harlaxton.
McFadden, a Naples native who went there during fall 2017, said she has “wanted to study abroad in England since I was a child, courtesy of my love for the Harry Potter series.”
But once Burwell and McFadden spent a few months studying at Harlaxton in a 100-room Victorian manor house and got fully immersed in British culture, their study abroad experience turned out to be a lot more meaningful than a magical literary escape.
The experience these students realized takes place on the British campus of the University of Evansville (Indiana). Harlaxton College has been operating for more than 40 years, and the program is designed to give American college students an intensive study abroad experience in England. About 75 American students from 20 different partner schools — including FGCU — attend Harlaxton each semester.
The program is one semester or one summer term, and students take a full 12 or 15 credit hours of classes, six hours of which are a British Studies core class taught by British faculty. That intensive, team-taught, interdisciplinary course — which Harlaxton calls the program’s “centerpiece” — focuses on the history, culture, arts, economics and politics of England presented through a combination of lectures, seminars and travel. Also, a variety of humanities and social-science courses are offered each semester so students can progress toward graduation in their respective majors.
As Clay Motley, the director of FGCU’s Honors College who pushed to get FGCU involved in the program, put it, “Students have the unique opportunity to intensely study England while living in England.”
“I wanted to make sure that FGCU students had the opportunity to study at Harlaxton and have life-changing experiences like I had seen other students have,” said Motley, who coordinated the Harlaxton program at his previous university, Western Kentucky, before coming to FGCU in 2015 to lead what was then called the Honors Program.
Motley said he has “probably spent collectively about two months of my life living at Harlaxton,” and that almost every student who takes part in the program has what he calls an “amazing academic and personal experience.”
“Through all of these activities, I was able to get to know Harlaxton’s administration, faculty and staff very well,” Motley said. “They are a very impressive and committed group of people who provide an extraordinary academic experience for American students.”
But we don’t just have to take Motley’s word on that. Consider the personal experiences of students Burwell and McFadden.
Elementary education major Burwell, who is minoring in art, was lured to the educational adventure by FGCU’s Study Abroad Fair when she was a freshman, “captivated by the beautiful picture of Harlaxton Manor.”
“Once they told me that people who join the program get to live in the manor, I was instantly hooked and started doing some serious research into the program,” said Burwell, now a junior.
The manor, built in 1837, is considered unique among remaining Jacobethan-architecture estates as it combines elements of that style and Elizabethan style with symmetrical Baroque massing. Besides a higher-education shrine, it’s a popular film location.
Senior psychology major McFadden, a Naples resident who minors in creative writing, said taking classes in the manor was her favorite part of the academic experience. “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to top having lessons in The Great Hall,” she said.
While some students might naturally be intimidated going overseas to study, these FGCU students found it to be welcoming, enriching and rewarding. “Culturally, my favorite part of the experience was coming into England feeling like a cultural outsider, and slowly learning about and adapting to British culture over the semester,” Burwell said. “I didn’t realize just how much British culture I picked up until I came home.”
McFadden said she was “pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to adjust to the independence of moving across an ocean for three months. Of course, it was difficult at times, but it was also a very eye-opening experience in being an independent individual as well as a student.”
For Burwell, part of what McFadden calls being “independent” was “participating in the Meet-A-Family program, where every Wednesday I would have dinner with a local family near Harlaxton,” she said. “The families that volunteer for the program are so sweet and really make you feel at home. I had some great times with my family, and we keep in touch through Facebook.”
So, what advice would these more-worldly students give to peers considering a semester at Harlaxton?
“The way this program is set up is incredibly unique,” McFadden said. “The four-day school week and three-day weekend provide the opportunity to take trips either with the school or on your own. While I recommend taking every chance to travel, I also warn that it might be difficult to balance these trips with schoolwork, so plan accordingly.”
Burwell cited her reasons for embarking on the adventure: “Harlaxton credits transfer easily to FGCU credits, the program has lots of preplanned travel options, having all my classes in one place, and having a college experience that is similar to an American college while still being able to immerse myself in British culture.”
It sounds like these Eagles are grateful for the experience. You could even say they followed the wizardly advice they first learned about in childhood, a signature line from “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”: It does not do well to dwell on dreams and forget to live.