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A Midsummer Term's Dream

Living and learning in the land of Shakespeare

By Jane Harrigan

Photos by Tracy Aldrich '00

See also: Americans Abroad: UNH students study abroad in a dozen countries

Courtyard of Gonville and Gaius
Courtyard of Gonville and Gaius College

The dim basement of the Red Cow pulsates with heat and sound. It is, as the Brits say, heaving--so packed with partyers that you can't tell which arms and legs connect to which bodies. Scattered in clumps around the pub, the students of the UNH Cambridge Summer Program celebrate the final night of their six weeks in England by plotting to seize control of the karaoke machine. Then the music stops, and J.J. Jeong pushes through the crowd and changes everything.

"Hey, Jude," he sings into the microphone, the notes rising effortlessly above the clamor. He stands with his eyes closed, absorbed in the moment, pouring out his heart in a voice his fellow students have never heard before. The voice is not hesitant, not Korean-accented, not the shy/funny mix they've come to associate with J.J. This voice sounds adult, professional; it glows with something that can only be joy. Here is a man who has come to Cambridge University to study poetry and Shakespeare, to read plays and discuss sonnets in a language he has been speaking for only two years. He has studied so hard that he has never before gone pubbing with the group, and at first the others stand stunned at the sound of his happiness.

Then, from all around the room, the students of the UNH program start to move. By the time J.J. launches into the rising chorus of "better, better, better, better, better, better," they have engulfed him, waiting to scream that famous "AAAHHH!" And when they reach the endless "na-na-na-nas," they are one big, heaving unit, singing and crying and clutching one another as if hugs could stop the summer in its tracks.

J.J. Jeong
J.J. Jeong

Six weeks before, they were 56 strangers. On a gray July afternoon they found their way, one by one, to a small opening in a dark stone wall on a narrow cobbled street. Within days the entrance to Gonville and Caius (pronounced Keys) College would look like home. That first day, however, it looked like its name: the Gate of Humility. Lost and jet-lagged, wrestling their overstuffed luggage through the cold rain, the humble students arrived for the 22nd summer of the UNH Cambridge program. Although 30 of them went to school in Durham, few had more than one acquaintance in the group. Most knew no one. As they stated their names in timid voices, their shared thought hung in the air like a cartoon balloon: "What am I doing here?"

They emerged, blinking, into Tree Court--perfect emerald grass, lush fig trees, bright flowers glowing even in the gloom. They saw the stone towers and spiral staircases of the college buildings, heard organ music drifting from the 14th-century chapel, explored the eccentric, no-two-alike rooms they'd have all to themselves, with views of bustling streets and soaring spires. Like Dorothy opening the door to the shock of Oz, they began to understand: They had landed in a different world.

Anyone who has been there can testify: The best thing about the UNH Cambridge program is Cambridge. "Just to live there," says Sarah Quinn '99, who studied in the program in 1998, "it's . . ." she trails off dreamily. "Idyllic," says Susan Reed '91, who went in 1990. "Ageless," says Carole Kadlec Matthews '91, who shared that summer with Reed. "Camelot," says Joy Winston, the program's administrative assistant. "A place out of old storybooks," says Alyssa Abraham '02, who dwelled like Rapunzel last summer in a storybook tower at Caius. From her balcony she could watch all the action on King's Parade, the city's main street, and hear the bells of a dozen churches toll overlapping versions of the hour.

Tracy Aldrich '00
Tracy Aldrich '00

"England is a world we've seen and understood since fairy tales, and yet to be there means so much more," says UNH English professor Margaret-Love Denman, who is looking forward to her sixth summer in Cambridge. Each year she watches as students experience academic epiphanies, moments when "the history and the literature begin to merge, and they understand the landscape where it all took place." It might happen when a student is banging on the closed Caius gate late at night, trying to wake a porter, and suddenly realizes what the porter scene in Macbeth was about. Or when someone wanders along the south bank of the Thames in London and realizes he's looking at the tavern where Chaucer's pilgrims started their journey.

Living in Cambridge is the catalyst that allows such discoveries. The city itself never seems to change: Books sit on the same shelves they've occupied for 500 years; undergraduates study in the same rooms where Sir Isaac Newton, John Milton and Charles Darwin thought their monumental thoughts. Even Gonville and Caius founder John Caius is still in town, a cast of his skull in a glass case in the library and his body in a crypt in the chapel, behind the stone wall where statues of Caius and Edmund Gonville maintain their centuries-long vigil over King's Parade. "There's something comforting in feeling that they did it so right in the first place that there's no reason to change anything," Kadlec Matthews says. Yet somehow a city ruled by tradition not only encourages but almost requires its long-term visitors to change. And while they're changing alone, they're growing together.


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