Foundation provided student Cambridge study opportunity

Published 1:47 am Saturday, October 11, 2008

Editor’s note: When Murray Findley established the Murray and Clare Findley study abroad scholarship through the Class of ‘48 Foundation, one of the requirements for the recipient was to write an essay about his or her study-abroad experience.

Exa Johnston received the first scholarship last spring. The University of Alabama theater major chose an opportunity at Cambridge University. Her essay about the experience follows:

After squishing my carry-on into the small overhead compartment of the cramped commuter plane that would take me from Birmingham to Atlanta, I finally had to admit to myself that I was a little scared. During the long months I had awaited my trip to England, my excitement had overwhelmed the anxiety of traveling to another country alone. Nevertheless, my nerves set in as the blonde woman from San Francisco sat beside me telling how brave I was to travel by myself. I smiled and nodded politely, hoping it would get better.

By the time I boarded the plane from Atlanta to London’s Gatwick Airport, it had gotten better. I reminded myself that I was a big girl, had done plenty of research, and could always call or email home if I needed. It also helped that this plane was much larger than the previous one had been; so my feelings of claustrophobia had subsided. My excitement returned.

After arriving in Gatwick, I phoned my friend Nick to meet me at King’s Cross train station. I’ve gone to school with Nick in Tuscaloosa for three years, and he was staying in Oxford for the summer. We met, and Nick showed me around London. While there, we saw Buckingham Palace, the Tate and Tate Modern Museums, Big Ben, the London Bridge, and made a visit to Herrod’s (the largest department store in the world). To my dismay, we had to save Westminster Abbey for our second trip. Because it was Sunday, no visitation was allowed.

Nick then accompanied me to Cambridge, where I checked in and found my room at St. Catherine’s College. I was surprised to find that colleges are set up very differently there from the way they are in the States. Here, colleges are set up by course of study, i.e., the College of Arts and Sciences, College of Education, etc. In England, a college is set up under a name, for example: St. Catherine’s College. The college contains several residence halls, a formal dining room, a bar, a laundry room, a chapel, a porter’s lodge, and a library. Also, there is no centralized campus; the campus is actually spread over most of the city and contains several sites (grouped areas of academic buildings).

After escorting Nick back to the train station, I attended the welcome ceremony for the Shakespeare and Medieval summer schools on the lawn of St. Catherine’s. Trying to remember which fork went first, I enjoyed a three-course meal in the dining hall and tried to meet the people I’d be studying with for the next three weeks. This was no easy task, considering that the Shakespeare school alone housed students from 27 different countries. As one of the girls from Beijing stared awkwardly at her swordfish steak, I broke the ice with, “So what’s the food like where you’re from?” After that, everyone at the table joined in the conversation. After all, everyone can relate to food.

Because I had studied my Cambridge information packet religiously, I knew that most of the museums were free, and nothing beats free! So, after I had finished my classes Monday, I visited the Museum of Zoology and Archaeology, home to some of Darwin’s original findings in the study of evolution. While there, I learned that Darwin’s apartment was in the vicinity of the Sedgwick Site, where I’d had my classes earlier. I talked one of the graduate students working at the museum to show me the apartment when he got off work. I’m glad he agreed to lead me to it, because I would have never found the tiny brick that marked the past home of the Father of Evolution.

That was my first adventure in Cambridge, but certainly not my last. Every day, I took a different path home from school. I saw the Botanical Gardens, Whimple Gardens, the Cambridge Folk Museum, Newnam College, the Eagle, the open-air market, the Museum of Technology, King’s College, Queen’s College, the Anchor, the Cambridge Chop House, and my favorite of all, the Fitzwilliam Museum (home to one of the most extensive exhibits on Ancient Egyptian Archaeology).

But my adventures were not confined to Cambridge. The second weekend I was there, Nick and I decided to go to Dublin, Ireland. We ran into a little trouble when the ferry service was late and ended up spending a while in Holyhead, Wales, a small town on the Irish Sea where we found the best dining of our entire trip. It also housed the oldest church in Wales, which was originally the site of a Roman fort. After arriving in Dublin, we set out to see as much as we could in a weekend. Our stops included St. Patrick’s Cathedral, St. Stephan’s Green, Temple Bar, and a ride on a horse-drawn carriage to the Guinness Storehouse.

Between all my adventures, it seems that I didn’t have time for anything else. However, the prime reason I was in Cambridge was to study Shakespeare. And study Shakespeare I did! My two first-term classes were “Shakespeare’s Sources” and “the Language of Shakespeare,” with a plenary lecture entitled, “Shakespeare’s Skills,” and a guest lecturer almost every evening. My second-term classes were the ones I was really excited about, “Text to Performance: the Tragedies,” and “Text to Performance: the Comedies,” acting classes taught by Vivien Heilbron, an actor/director with past credits at The Globe in London and The Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford. The icing on the cake of my Shakespeare study had to be making a trip to Stratford-upon-Avon to pay homage to the Bard himself and see Hamlet, starring David Tennett and Patrick Stewart, at the Swan Theatre of the RSC.

When sitting down to write this essay, I felt a lot like I did when I boarded that cramped commuter plane in Birmingham, nervous. I didn’t think there was any way I could get all of my experiences from the three-week stay in Cambridge, England, and transfer them to simple ink and paper in Tuscaloosa, Ala. And the truth is, this doesn’t even begin to describe my journey; I could write a novel. (Maybe I will.) What my attempt to describe it does portray is the generosity of a gift. There is no way I would have been able to take this adventure at this point in my life without the gift of the Class of ’48 Scholarship Committee. Not only have they provided the finances for this endeavor, as well as for a large portion of my college career, they also provided the emotional support and the confidence I needed that allowed me to make it as far as I have.

Class of 1948, this is my special thank-you, to you above all, for believing in Andalusia students of the past, present, and future, and for believing in me. Thank you! It was a blast!