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Semester in London's 30 years of exploration

Celebrating the study abroad experience in one of the world's great cities
By Harry Atwood ('87)
Harry Atwood ran JMU's London home, Madison House, with his wife Robin ('87, '89M). For 10 years they witnessed the transformative magic of Study Abroad.

Harry Atwood ('87) and his wife Robin ('87, '89M) ran JMU's London home, Madison House, for 10 years.

Harry Atwood ('87) and his wife Robin ('87, '89M) ran JMU's London home, Madison House, for 10 years.

In 1979 there was no such thing as a Study Abroad program at JMU. And then Semester in London happened. Today JMU's Office of International Programs boasts a veritable fleet of international programs, sending nearly a thousand students all across the globe each year to some 95 nations — from England to Vietnam; from Ghana to Peru; from Qatar to Malta.

Doing something new is often risky. But taking risks can pay great dividends. Semester in London is proof that the adventurous are often rewarded greatly.

Some of Madison's Semester in London adventurers (directors, professors, alumni, administrators, friends and benefactors) were in attendance at the Stonewall Jackson Hotel in Staunton in November 2009 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the London program.

During the celebration, I asked a number of former participants what made Semester in London the experience they so cherished. The answers varied, but it all seemed to come down to the simple idea of "relocating" oneself. By leaving the comforts of the JMU campus and choosing to live in the heart of one of the world's great cities, students found they had opened a door to a banquet of experiences.

As any serious traveler will tell you, "relocating" yourself brings you into frequent contact with the unknown and unfamiliar. That's practically the definition of education — to seek, engage and learn from things new to us. The unknown and unfamiliar are offered copiously in cities like London, Florence, Salamanca or Antwerp (to name the four jewels in the JMU Study Abroad crown).

Lee Sternberger, on stage at the Blackfriars Theater, welcomes Semester in London alumni and reunion revelers at the 30th anniversary of the inaugural JMU Study Abroad program.

Director of JMU's international programs Lee Sternberger, on stage at the Blackfriars Theater, welcomes Semester in London alumni and reunion revelers at the 30th anniversary of the inaugural JMU Study Abroad program.

The difference between being a tourist and being a student abroad is an important distinction, too. Doug Kehlenbrink, one of the four Semester in London directors, insists that London is a perfect laboratory for learning. "There's an aspect of co-discovery," he says. "The joy for me was to watch students turn corners that I didn't turn down. It's a delight as a teacher when a new experience is in front of you all the time."

As longtime observers of this magic, my wife, Robin ('87, '89M), and I witnessed hundreds of students undergo fundamental changes in how they viewed and carried themselves and how they squared their new experiences with previously held beliefs. The kids who lugged their suitcases into Madison House at the beginning of each term were not the same kids who lugged them back out the door three months later. "I loved watching students transform from American citizens to citizens of the world over the course of a semester," Robin says.

In the end, the value of Study Abroad cannot be quantified. The closest I can come to defining its magic is embodied in the notion that the unexpected things in life are often the most meaningful.

Condensed from Spring/Summer 2010 Madison.

About the Author
Perhaps of all people associated with the Semester in London Program, Harry Atwood ('87) can lay claim to having experienced and witnessed more than anyone else the magic of JMU's Study Abroad experience. He first took part in a May session in 1985 and later as a member of the spring 1986 group. Three years later, he and his wife, Robin, took the job of running Madison House (JMU's second London home). They stayed for 10 years.