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February  04, 2009

Augustana abroad: what students see below the surface

(Editor's note: This article originally was written for the Field Notes section of the campus newsletter Acknowledge. Field Notes illustrates different kinds of experiential learning that take us places off campus. In this issue, Peter Kivisto speaks on students' experience of the richly historical and diverse city of London during the 2008 fall term in Europe. )

Peter Kivisto

When Augustana's students settled in London for a five-week stay during the most recent iteration of the college's oldest and largest international study program, they found themselves residing in Kensington, a wealthy neighborhood in the western end of the city center-a bastion of the Tory party. It's a borough of the city rich with history. As the abundance of blue plaques on buildings attests, it was the former home of many of its luminaries.

To give some sense of the felt presence of that history, as students headed out of class each day, they passed the former home of John Stuart Mill, and as they turned the corner, they walked by the flat once occupied by T.S. Eliot. When they made their pilgrimage to Portobello Market in the adjoining Notting Hill, they not only saw George Orwell's old home, but savored the irony of a CCTV camera located right outside of it.

London, home to around 14 million, is at once a global city and a city of neighborhoods. Getting students out of the tourist orbit, that part of city that could be the theme park satirized in Julian Barnes' England, England, and into some of the city's neighborhoods is part of the goal of our program. To that end, equipped with some background of various places and spaces, students were sent out to explore a number of localities: Brixton, Southall, Golders Green and Dalston Market.

One of the favorites is Brick Lane, home these days to the Bangladeshi community. Though still a poor locality, the area has become something akin to Chinatown, as Balti restaurants do a brisk trade with denizens of the city at large. Indeed, the place has become so trendy that a large entrance sign proclaims you are entering the hip environs of "Banglatown."

However, when students pay attention, they see quite another world beneath that glitter. They see it when they watch men of all ages entering and leaving the mosque at the corner of Fournier Street and Brick Lane. They see it when they observe veiled women briskly escorting children to school or to some after-school activity. They see it in the eyes of merchants struggling to make a living selling leather goods. If really attentive, they might see people that remind them of the principal characters in Monica Ali's novel, Brick Lane. Dig deeper and they begin to see that before Bangladeshis moved into the area, it was home to earlier waves of immigrants-more recently Jews and before them the Huguenots, including those who lived and operated their weaving machines at 19 Princelet Street, now a museum celebrating the diversity of the place.

-- Peter Kivisto