Clarksville, TN – The students followed Dr. Mickey Wadia, Austin Peay State University (APSU) professor of languages and literature, down a stone staircase into the shadowy crypt beneath the Gothic church that is Canterbury Cathedral in England. No one spoke.
“Come here, all of you, come here,” Wadia whispered, motioning for his students to gather around a column that supported the ancient church above. “Lay your hands on this pillar and close your eyes.”
“You’re now touching the Middle Ages. This pillar is older than America. Let that set in.”
That morning, Wadia was teaching a class, which included some discussion on “The Canterbury Tales,” Geoffrey Chaucer’s 14th century masterwork, and to make the book’s 700-year-old stories relatable to his students, Wadia insisted they visit the medieval church to which the pilgrims traveled as they told their tales.
This participatory instruction is the result of a teaching strategy he’s perfected after more than 20 trips to England.
“When I first went by myself, I thought ‘Why am I seeing this alone?’” Wadia said. “I wanted others to see what I was seeing because it was amazing. I needed to share this. Studying Abroad is an academic infusion into your soul.”
For years, Wadia has served as Austin Peay State University’s campus representative for the Cooperative Center for Study Abroad (CCSA) – “a non-profit consortium of schools focused on providing study abroad experiences in English speaking countries” – which has allowed him to guide hundreds of students through the physical worlds of Chaucer, William Shakespeare and Jane Austen. Then, in March 2020, a global pandemic brought all international travel to a sudden halt.
“In our fractured 21st century society, study abroad can be a bridge of understanding and empathy among people of the world,” Wadia said. “While it is critical that we resume our study abroad programs that were disrupted by the global pandemic, we must do it safely following CDC and State Department recommendations. The availability of a vaccine for the public to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 is certainly welcome news and will contribute to a gradual return to normalcy and the resumption of international travel, which includes study abroad and exchange programs.
“International education promotes an acceptance of other values, beliefs, and customs.”
Wadia should know. He’s been traveling the world most of his professional life.
‘The rest is history.’
Wadia, a native of Kolkata, India, first arrived at Austin Peay in 1993 as an assistant professor, and in his first three years, he stayed close to Clarksville while daydreaming about visiting London again someday. Then, one afternoon in 1996, he stopped by a colleague’s office in Harned Hall and saw a poster listing the many kings and queens of England.
“I said the famous words – ‘That’d be a cool teaching tool to show my students. Where did you get that?’” Wadia said. His colleague told him she bought the poster in England, while on a study abroad trip.
“What’s study abroad?” he asked. “Who studies abroad?”
Wadia was told to talk with Joe Filippo, a theatre professor who oversaw Austin Peay State University’s CCSA efforts at the time. He eventually tracked Filippo down at a holiday reception hosted by the University’s president.
For years, the United Kingdom was the No. 1 study abroad destination for Austin Peay State University students. Once Filippo and Wadia teamed up, the University’s participation in CCSA trips steadily increased.
“Dr. Filippo was very generous because he invited me to be a co-teacher in a winter class he was leading,” Wadia said. “It was the first of many pairings. He brought a very powerful theatre perspective and I brought the literature perspective. It couldn’t be better.”
‘This is the place to be.’
London is the perfect place for a professor who teaches English literature and drama. The city’s West End is home to more than 100 professional theatres, including the nearly 400-year-old Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and then there’s Shakespeare’s Globe, located near the site of the Bard’s original 16th century theatre. If you take the train about two hours northwest, you can visit Shakespeare’s home in Stratford-upon-Avon, or you can go two hours southeast to Canterbury.
“We’ve taken students to Warwick Castle, one of the best medieval castles you can see,” Wadia said. “You’ve got the mighty Thames River flowing through London. Sometimes we take students on cruises. We pass under the Tower Bridge, next to the Tower of London. There’s the Victoria and Albert Museum, one of the great museums of the world. Sometimes we go to Stonehenge, to Dover, to Bath.”
And with London as the trip’s home base, Wadia has taken students to see world-class plays starring luminaries such as Dame Maggie Smith, the late Alan Rickman, David Tennant and Sir Ian McKellen.
“It’s a complete immersion,” Wadia said. “If you’re into theatre, into literature, language arts, this is the place to be.”
That’s why he keeps coming back. During his career, Wadia has also taught classes in Ireland, and Australia, and he’s led an alumni tour leader throughout Europe. But he prefers London, emerging from the Tube to see Big Ben in the distance or watching the London Eye spew fireworks on New Year’s Eve.
“If I want to go to London 500 times I’ll go 500 times because there’s still a lot I haven’t seen,” he said. Wadia paused and then, with a smile stretching beneath his graying beard, he quoted the famous 18th Century English writer Samuel Johnson. “‘When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.’ I am never tired of London.”
Wadia’s last international trip took place a year ago, when he visited family in India for a month. He returned to the U.S. in January, with his mind already looking forward to a late spring trip to England. Then, on March 8, Austin Peay issued a moratorium on University-related international travel, canceling all study abroad trips. The COVID-19 pandemic effectively shut down the world.
“We are hopeful that international borders will reopen in the spring of 2021,” Wadia said. “The promise of the COVID-19 vaccine will encourage the resurgence of travel for tourism, work and education in the friendly skies. I will always encourage anyone to study abroad once the pandemic is over, and the world slowly regains some semblance of normal activity.
“The opportunities are endless, and we need global understanding and cooperation among the peoples of the world more than ever. For the sake of future generations, I encourage students to leave the comfort and safety of their American bubble.”
Wadia, now that he’s unable to visit his adopted home of London, likes to reference an American writer over England’s Samuel Johnson. Thinking of Mark Twain, he quoted, “‘Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor, catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”