The words read like heartfelt letters to an old friend.
For 50 years, Lawrence University students have been trekking to the London Centre for a term or two of study in one of the world’s most iconic cities. Launched in 1970, it has stood as part of the Lawrence experience for five decades, an extension of the Appleton campus that continues to make London the No. 1 destination for the university’s study abroad program. Lawrentians have studied at London Centre with British and visiting professors, soaked in London’s rich history, forged new friendships, and explored Europe in a myriad of ways.
So, we wondered aloud if that London experience — 50 years ago or as recently as last year or any of the years between — continues to impact and inform the lives of our alumni. Does the love endure? Spoiler alert: It does.
“I fell in love with everything — the museums, the people, and the classes that introduced me to famous monuments and hidden gems,” said Nicole Witmer ’19, who spent the spring terms of 2018 and 2019 in London. “I loved it so much that I decided to spend my last term at Lawrence at the London Centre, this time pursuing an internship at a publishing house. That internship led me to my first career out of school, and now I’m back in London pursuing my master’s.”
Sounds familiar, say those who came before. Digging through memories from five decades earlier, the first of the Lawrentians to study at London Centre, now in their 70s and mostly retired, speak with similar reverence.
It was, they said, love at first sight.
“Was not sure what to expect,” said Doug Kohrt ’71, who studied in Arden Hotel with the first cadre of London Centre students in the summer and fall of 1970. “It was hotel living with a shared bath down the hall and no eating facilities in the room. We were furnished breakfast but we were otherwise on our own. This was the time before computers and we had to rent typewriters to write term papers. But travel was inexpensive and student airline tickets were used for weekend trips throughout Europe. Many of our group spent nights taking in West End plays, musicals, concerts and days studying or exploring London. … My London experience was a life-changing event.”
Same for Kevin Fenner ’72, who went a year later, spending the summer and fall of 1971 at the London Centre, the first time he had left the United States. “It was the best experience of my young life,” he said. “It was an experience that could never be repeated. The London Centre changed my life.”
Sense a theme?
The dozens of alumni who responded to our effort to mark the 50th anniversary of London Centre spoke of following the trails of literary heroes and theater icons, of visiting grand museums and historic halls, of studying European history on the very streets where it all happened, of exploring British cuisine and taste, of chasing adventures across Europe, and of redirecting in so many ways their global focus.
Many spoke of their London memories, no matter how distant, as being among the fondest of their lifetimes, whether their London home was in Arden Hotel (1970-80) or 7 Brechin Place (1994-2009) or the current location on Great Russell Street in the heart of Bloomsbury (2018 to present) or any of a number of other locations that housed the London Centre through the years.
Find more information on Lawrence’s London Centre here.
Lezlie Weber, director of off-campus programs at Lawrence, said reaching the 50-year milestone is no small thing. It speaks to Lawrence’s commitment to international study.
“Study abroad tends to be a transformative part of a student’s experience at Lawrence,” she said. “Alumni mention the London Centre as a defining part of their undergraduate years, building their confidence and contributing to their career paths. The London Centre allows students to use London itself as a classroom for experiential learning and academic coursework.”
On average, the London Centre draws between 30 and 50 Lawrence students per year spread over three terms, some spending one term there and others two terms. It operates as a closed academic program for Lawrence, much of it focused on the history and culture of England. Lawrence students in their second year and beyond are eligible for the London program, and in recent years internship opportunities have become plentiful.
The COVID-19 pandemic has put in-person studies at London Centre temporarily on pause, although five courses were offered virtually during Fall Term. The most recent group of students were there in Winter Term, when concerns about the spread of the virus in Europe resulted in hectic exits in early March.
London Centre instructor Christine Hoenigs taught two virtual theater courses, Diversity on the London Stage and Shakespeare in London. While theater students would normally visit a theater and see a production each week, she used high quality recordings of shows in London and Stratford-upon-Avon, as well as Q&As and interviews, to bring students closer to the vibrant London theater scene.
“I thoroughly enjoy working with students in smaller groups this term,” Hoenigs said. “Although, like all of my colleagues, we miss having students in London and wish we could work with them here. But I am hopeful that students will be returning to the London Centre next year and we can show them what this beautiful, indestructible city has to offer.”
Friendship and community
The current London Centre location encompasses several buildings in the Bloomsbury neighborhood, with easy access to Covent Garden, the West End, and Soho. The living quarters, equipped with modern amenities and shared spaces, may be a bit more spacious then some early London Centre students recall, but the communal nature of the experience remains the same — friendships and adventures will happen here.
“I grew very close to the other Lawrence students at the Centre as all seven of us lived in one flat,” said Sarah Wells ’20, who spent the spring of 2019 in London. “Some days we would be teaching each other how to cook. Other days we would go exploring for food together in the Bloomsbury neighborhood or at a street market.”
“The faculty and staff at the London Centre really encouraged a strong sense of community in the house, and living in London with its diverse history and culture was a positive way to get a new perspective on life,” said Katie Brown ’04, who arrived in London in need of a new outlook and found it at 7 Brechin Place. “This experience really helped me through a difficult time and was very influential on who I have become.”
Lawrence announced in late 1969 the coming launch of London Centre. A news release hailed it as an expansion of the Lawrence experience. Lawrence students were all in from the get-go, and the momentum quickly grew.
No matter which location housed London Centre at the time, the alumni spoke of the value that comes with experiencing the surroundings. The original location was literally in a hotel. Located in the Earls Court neighborhood, Arden Hotel included a private classroom but residential spaces had students mingled amid the hotel guests. Despite its limitations, it proved to be a worthy home for the program’s first 10 years.
“A terrific group of students, many of whom are among my closest friends today,” recalled Dave Mitchell ’71, who was part of the first wave in the summer and fall of 1970. “Vivid memories of our group huddled in front of the black and white TV on Sunday evenings watching ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus.’ … Shepherd’s pie and warm ale for lunch at the Devonshire Arms.”
“The semester was packed with things to do,” said George Stalle ’75, who studied in London in Fall Term of 1974. “Concerts at the South Bank Concert Halls, a Proms concert at Royal Albert Hall and singing ‘God Save the Queen.’ … Not enough time in the day to enjoy everything.”
Chasing history, dropping names
For many Lawrentians, the London experience means crossing paths with historical figures in a way that can’t be replicated in books or in Google searches. It’s being immersed in a theater scene that brings you inside historic performance spaces and lets you soak in the wonder and power of the arts in Europe. It’s seeing and touching traditions that date back centuries.
Lawrence faculty come to London as visiting professors, providing a chance to teach in a new locale, immerse themselves in the London experience, and forge bonds with students that resonate well beyond the classroom. Alumni decades removed from their London studies still speak glowingly of those relationships.
“One of our assignments in Professor (William) Chaney’s London class was to pick a town and try to write up the history of it, but without going to a library,” said Christopher Lynch ’89, who studied in London in fall 1986. “Chaney said if one really wanted to learn the history of a place, then talk with the ladies that put the flowers on the altar of the local church. Of course, he was right. … Chaney’s genius was to get students out into the community, meeting English people and experiencing their society.”
With legendary performance spaces aplenty, name dropping is not out of the question. Alumni recalling special moments referenced performers they saw live in London who either were or would go on to become household names — Anthony Hopkins, Elton John, Geraldine James, Aaron Copland, and Dustin Hoffman, among them.
It’s the opportunity to experience it all in a very sensory way that resonates, the alumni said.
“I encountered my literary heroes both in London and on super cheap Ryanair weekend excursions,” said Melody Moberg ’10, an English and religious studies major who studied at the London Centre in the fall of 2009. “Sometimes I sought out sacred English literature sights, such as the Keats-Shelley house in Rome, which brims with the looping script of Romantic poets, first editions, and creepy relics. More often, I stumbled upon sacred sites. For example, the church in London where my internship’s fundraiser was held happened to be William Blake’s congregation. In London, deep history is woven into the fabric of the city. I loved wandering through the city and discovering treasures everywhere.”
Susan Carter Ruskell ’91 studied in London in spring 1989 and came away awed by what was so close and available. “Twenty-one theatrical productions in 10 weeks, including performances by Geraldine James, Alec Guiness, Anthony Hopkins, Dustin Hoffman, and many others,” she said.
“Fringe Theatre of London was a highlight for me,” said Chuck Demler ’11, who spent Winter Term 2009 at London Centre. “It was just two of us, Emily May ’10 and me in the class with Ginny Schiele. We would attend a play each week and then review it. Ginny would give us free tickets or tell us about other performances in the city. I think I ended up seeing 25 plays during that term. It really changed the way that I think about theater and art of all kinds.”
For Charlie Seraphin ’72, it was the show he missed during Winter Term 1970 that still haunts. He passed on joining his fellow students at a small venue near London Centre. “After the show, they raved about the small venue — less than 200 people — and the awesome performance by a soon-to-be-superstar — Elton John. Oops!”
Cheryl Wilson Kopecky ’72 still looks at the journal she kept during a Summer Term in 1971. “I’m amazed at the number music and theater ‘starts’ we saw in just one term. Traveling around Great Britain and other countries, finding a B&B when arriving in a new village or city, and researching a history topic where it happened (Battle of Stamford Bridge, 1066) were all new accomplishments. I recall thinking at the time, ‘This is one of the highpoints of my life,’ and that sentiment still remains true.”
A taste for London and the world
Food and drink also land on the front burner when alumni talk of their London Centre adventures. As does travel. No surprise there. Exploring not only England but elsewhere in Europe has long been part of the draw.
Richard Zimman ’73 took a liking to London in the winter and spring of 1971 and never looked back. “Life at the London Centre changed my life by introducing me to three passions that continue to this day — international travel, live theater, and British beer,” he said.
“My London term was one of my best memories from college and the experiences I had there have helped fuel a lifetime of travel, curiosity, and adventure,” said Kurtiss Wolf ’93, who studied in London in Winter Term 1993. “… Having that sort of immersive international experience early in life has definitely made me a better global citizen.”
“I can vividly remember the Earls Court tube stop, the Hot Pot restaurant, Kensington Gardens, the double-decker buses, and exploring the streets and shops,” said Rick Chandler ’74. “I loved the opportunities to travel. I met lots of interesting people and learned that markets, pubs, youth hostels, footpaths, trains, and bicycle trips are more memorable than castles and cathedrals.”
“Still remember studying in the round pond at Hyde Park, as our residence was very close,” said K K (Brian) Tse ’81, a London Centre student in Fall Term 1980. “Watching many plays and going to so many good museums, hitchhiking by myself to Ireland; what a memorable term at the age of 20.”
Chris Porter ’74, who spent the Winter and Spring terms of 1972 at London Centre, continues to return time and again. “Many years after the fact, I told my dad that my six months in London had been life-changing due to the exposure we had to other peoples and cultures and the travel opportunities it provided,” he said. “… I’ve been back to London at least 60 times since 1972; every time I go, I go in search of the London of 1972, which has largely disappeared, mostly for the better, but some for the worse.”
Alison Ames Galstad ’82 was there in Spring Term 1980. “Where to start? The iconic Arden Hotel, favorite pub Devonshire Arms, travels to Germany and a trip down the Rhine with my dear friend and roommate Elizabeth Carter Wills, hitchhiking to Dover and camping on the White Cliffs with my friend Greg Zlevor, travels through Wales and a hike up Mt. Snowdon with my dear and forever friend Catherine Biggs Dempsey, seeing Yul Brynner not once but twice in ‘The King and I’ at the London Palladium and getting his autograph backstage. … And there was the hostage crisis, the Iranian Embassy siege in London, and the failed hostage rescue in Iran — tensions were high, and there were a few days through which we all were certain we’d be sent home given the political climate. Living and studying abroad was an immensely enriching experience for all of us.”
For 50 years, London Centre has been home to academic adventures and life-defining experiences for Lawrence students. Here’s to 50 more.