Outlook

Once upon a time I lived in a castle and it changed my life forever

Monday, April 3, 2006

Alnwick Castle in Northumberland, EnglandThe British Studies Program housed in Alnwick Castle has had a profound influence on nearly 2,000 students transformed by new adventures and friendships, rich learning experiences and the grandeur and history of their surroundings.

"Our minds were open and our spirits were filled with adventure," said Jean (Weber) Gentile '84, Grayslake, Ill., of her study-abroad experience at Alnwick. "These were some of the happiest days of my life and their memories will always fill a very special place in my heart."

Thirty years ago 50 SCSU students made the first venture to northern England for what pioneering alumnus Neil Lageson, Savage, aptly termed "The Alnwick Experiment." Five years later the University signed a contract with the 10th Duke of Northumberland, establishing in 1981 an official study-abroad partnership with the duke's ancestral home, Alnwick Castle, and launching life-altering learning experiences, travels, friendships, romance and adventure.

Lageson, who returned to finish his degree in 2002, still enjoys the decades-long friendships he made during that first trip to the centuries-old English castle. But another satisfying "Alnwick moment" came during the winter of 2004, when he returned with his wife to visit daughter Meghan during her own Alnwick study-abroad experience.

Those who shared their memories expressed a deep appreciation for the people and places who touched them for a lifetime, and many have returned for another encounter with that magical place. "The British Studies program was a totally thrilling experience," said Mary Beth (Johnson) Wangwai '87, Round Rock, Texas. "It was being in another country while still feeling at home – and what a home it was. Alnwick Castle was enchanting from beginning to end."

The castle, a massive stone edifice surrounded by lush grounds, is a site so quintessentially regal that it's been the backdrop for several movies, including "Elizabeth," "Robin Hood" and, most recently, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," shot in 2001 with Alnwick students on hand. When the movie was released, the storm of publicity included photos of the flying broom scene in Time Magazine and in a USA Today feature that included this description:

Students from the British Studies Program"Many of the scenes of students riding brooms and playing Quidditch, the airborne game played on broomsticks, were filmed at the Duke of Northumberland's ancestral home in Alnwick (pronounced 'annick'), a charming stone village not far from the Scottish border. The perfectly preserved site is every child's fantasy of what a castle should be."

Those students have felt a tremendous impact from their time within the castle walls. Erica Dornfeld '05, Bloomington, said, "I learned to appreciate people who were completely unlike me and how to get along with them. Alnwick introduced me to a new way of thinking and contributed to who I am today."

Most students left Alnwick with an enhanced global perspective. "The most valuable learning I took away from this experience is truly how much more there is to the world, a true sense of self and enhanced confidence," said Ryan Fahrmann '00, North Branch. "The program immerses the students not only in a different country, but also a community. Alnwick was a 24/7 classroom and an experience I will cherish for the rest of my life."

"I am forever changed," said Stephanie Atkinson '01, Lake City. "This program, this experience, this opportunity helped to shape my life and, in the end, quite possibly helped to save it." Following a year when she lost her father, a friend, her boyfriend and a cousin to death, she went back to Alnwick to work with the program and a chance to rediscover herself as she guided others "along a path of experiencing new things, cultures, people, history and love," an adventure that was "utterly priceless."

Susan Sworski Massmann "89, Kimball, agreed. "The memories are with me forever and, after 19 years, some things seem like they were just yesterday. The setting, of course, is most spectacular. To live in a castle is far beyond some people's imaginations."

Ellen Dosdall '79, Edina, said that while her group learned English traditions, they also enjoyed exposing their British colleagues to American rituals like a festival that culminated in the crowning of the king and queen of Groundhog Day.

"I look back to this experience as the first and most significant turning point in my life, evolving into a life-long academic journey and a fulfilling career in public service," Dosdall said. "And one more great achievement – I married the Groundhog Day king."

In preparation for their reunion Aug. 11-12, alumni of the Alnwick, England, study-abroad program were invited to submit favorite memories and photos from their experience.

This story reflects some of the comments included in the dozens of enthusiastic responses from participants eager to reminisce about their transcendent coming-of-age experience at "The Castle." Although there is not room on these pages to include all of the stories and photos, all are published in their entirety at www.stcloudstate.edu/studyabroad/alumni.

- Marsha Shoemaker

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