Finding strength and opportunity in historic England

| Judy Berthiaume

After changing his major to history-liberal arts late in his college career, senior Ryan Mikula was anxious to quickly immerse himself in his new area of study while also stretching his wings in ways he had not yet done during his time at UW-Eau Claire.

Ryan found the opportunity he was looking for through the Public History in England summer immersion program, a monthlong class that took him out of his comfort zone — and out of North America for the first time — while giving him opportunities to explore firsthand the historic places he was studying.

Ryan and several other Blugolds traveled with history professors Dr. Kate Lang and Dr. John Mann to England, where they studied at Harlaxton College while exploring public history at museums and historical sites throughout England.

Now back on UW-Eau Claire’s campus, the Shell Lake native took a few minutes to reflect on his journey and its lasting impact on him.

 

What inspired you to enroll in this immersion class?

I had recently decided to change my major to history so I was anxious to get more experience within the field. The trip would take me to England, which sounded perfect. I figured they spoke English like me (turns out that isn’t always the case); the trip would only last a month, which was perfect since I had never even been on an airplane before; and it involved studying history, which is a subject I love. Six months after learning about the class, I was flying across the Atlantic Ocean!

As much as I loved growing up in Shell Lake, there weren’t many opportunities like this; the only time a student got to travel for school was for sports or band. And, aside from going to Canada for a couple family trips, my feet had walked on Minnesota and Wisconsin ground exclusively. I wanted to change that and this was the perfect opportunity.

What was the highlight of your immersion experience?

 

For me, the highlight was my personal growth.

I had never navigated an airport before so when I landed in England I encountered some problems. I tried to take money out of my account so I could get to my hotel but I got a message from the ATM saying that my account had been locked. For two hours I ran around asking every worker there if they could help me. I couldn’t hear any them because my ears were still adjusting to the pressure change, and I was completely fatigued. None of them could really help me, and because of the time-zone difference, my bank was closed. I could not use my phone over there and had limited Wi-Fi in the airport. Eventually, I was able to call the bank and solve the problem. Then I had to figure out the underground system and find my hotel.

Basically, I was a non-traveler completely out of my comfort zone.

But oddly enough, looking back on it, that day was one of my favorite days of the trip because I made it — I had overcome the problems and made it through my first day.

What impressed you most about the class itself?

 

My class was led by two excellent professors, Dr. Kate Lang and Dr. John Mann.

We went to historical sites that varied in status, which may be a subtle detail but it’s incredibly important to view as many different perspectives as one can during historical analysis, which was the central tenant to the trip.

Harlaxton in of itself has to be the highlight. We spent two weeks at this magnificent manor house, and we had plenty of free time to roam around its grounds. Sure, there was work to do (it is a class after all!), but the professors gave us time to ourselves to explore.

How did this class enhance your overall learning experience?

 

As of right this second, I’m a history-liberal arts major. However, because of this trip, I will almost certainly change to public history (barring delays to my graduation).

To study public history, I have to work to understand how to get people to engage with history. That was the main goal of the summer class, along with getting an overview of British history.

The professors took us to places such as Durham Cathedral, the British Museum, the International Slavery Museum, the Liverpool Museum, the Winchester Mill and York Minster. During the visits, they would ask us to critically analyze the museums by asking ourselves, “What is this site trying to do?”  “How are they engaging the past with the audience?”  “Are they effective?”  “Where and how do they attain funding?’  “Are they being historically accurate and authentic?”  “What do these sites say about the British class structure?” 

Also, it struck me while I was abroad just how incredible it is that such a small island (in comparison with the rest of the world) could have once had control over so much of the world. In just a handful of hours, you can take the train across the entire country — it’s similar in size to Wisconsin — and yet it has this rich and vast history.

By being abroad, I was able to see tangible evidence of this history. I walked into a thousand-year-old cathedral and I touched the walls of a still-standing Roman wall in Winchester.

I was grateful to come back to America after being away from everything I knew for a month, but then I began to think about the fact that I’ve now been to another part of the planet. And that is powerful.

How did the experience change you?

 

The entire class is a dream for anyone, even for people like me who aren’t comfortable with new experiences. I was not comfortable with new experiences before the trip and I am still not.

However, when people tell you that going abroad is a life-changing experience they are right — it is.  Sure, I was ecstatic when I finally stepped foot on American soil again and laid back down in my comfortable bed at home. But I go back to England in my head at least every other day.