Royal Mile, Edinburgh, Scotland

4,139 miles. That's the distance between Tupelo, Miss., and Edinburgh, Scotland.

Before she embarked on the 2015 study-abroad program through the Ina E. Gordy Honors College, Tupelo was as far north as Petal native Kimberly Heath had ever been. “And here I am in Scotland,” the junior culinary arts major mused on the last day of the month-long program that immersed 17 students in the history, literature and culture of a country that has, in many ways, influenced our own.

Free Church of Scotland
Free Church of Scotland, where classes were held, and adjacent flats.

For these W students, study abroad involved academic coursework, written papers, a journal and a final presentation on a research project, as well as exploration of another country. But perhaps as importantly, it involved the expansion of psychological, as well as geographic, boundaries. Some, like Heath, had never explored beyond the familiar scenes of their home state. Finding themselves in a major European city, digging deeply into its rich past and exploring its present, was for each a life-changing experience. They saw themselves—and their Scotland experiences—through new eyes. They began to put themselves into the context of a much larger world.

“Coming here has given me a lot of perspective on where I’ve come from, as well as perspective on how big the world is and how many people are beyond our little American bubble,” said Cassidy DeGreen, an interdisciplinary studies/ religious studies major. “I’ve loved running into so many different cultures.”

By the end of the month-long stay, The W students had embraced Scotland. They were experts at navigating public transit that took them from the heart of Old Town Edinburgh to locations throughout the city, and, in fact, to destinations as far as Paris or London. They knew where to shop, where the best local restaurants (and desserts) were, and how to be comfortable in a city of nearly 500,000. They’d eaten haggis, meat pies and blood pudding. And they’d come to feel at home.

To prepare for their overseas experience, each student read book-length assignments that provided historical, cultural and sociological contexts for Scotland, as well as Edinburgh landmarks. They also read a novel by one of Scotland’s most famous contemporary writers, Ian Rankin. “The Falls,” a popular Detective Rebus mystery, is set in many Edinburgh locales they later explored.

The Borders, Scotland
Grey Mare's Tail Nature Reserve, The Borders

Dr. Bridget Pieschel, chair of the Department of Languages, Literature, and Philosophy, served as the faculty instructor for two-hour Honors seminars, building in part on a course in British literature she had taught the same students a semester earlier. A particularly meaningful discovery for many was learning more about Robert Louis Stevenson, whose works such as “Treasure Island” they often recalled from childhood.

“I wanted them to understand the connection between their childhood memories of Treasure Island and the huge infl uence Stevenson had in Scotland,” Pieschel said. “In novels such as ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,’ Stevenson is moving from the 19th to the 20th centuries and exploring deeper psychological and scientific themes. He’s a writer for both children and adults.”

As part of their studies, the Honors group made a pilgrimage to the place where Stevenson spent much of his youth. Students were able to see his childhood home, the church he attended, and the environment that shaped the writer. They also began to understand how deeply his contributions are revered in his native country, Pieschel said. “It gave an entirely new perspective to the works they’d read.” There were other British poets and novelists—WWI poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, the folk poet Robert Burns, the iconic novelist and poet Sir Walter Scott—whose works were placed in the context of a very real geography the students were experiencing, Pieschel said. “We saw the hospital where Owen and Sassoon recuperated and wrote,” she noted. “It really made an impact on the students. We talked about what it means to heal the mind. What part does art play?”

Meanwhile, students were also immersed in the history, archaeology, geology and sociology of a city that dates back to the 11th century. Each had selected a particular location for intense research and study, with the assignment of producing a culminating paper and an on-site presentation for the rest of their colleagues. They applied for library cards at the National Library of Scotland, which gave them access to original research sources and allowed them to become scholars handling one-of-a-kind materials.

“Their assignment was to uncover the political, social and historical significance of a place,” Pieschel said. “The location—whether it was ancient or more modern—had to be important to the city.” The students, a diverse group of academic majors, chose locations ranging from the geological (Arthur’s Seat and Calton Hill) to the commercial (Jenner’s Department Store) and the sacred (St. Giles Cathedral).

Two chose sports venues for rival football (soccer) teams, the Hearts and the Hibernians. Their work revealed a broad spectrum of Edinburgh’s historical and contemporary importance, as well as a wide variety of their own interests. “In their papers and their presentations, students showed the benefits of a lot of research and perception,” Pieschel said. “They really had to dig into their topics, uncovering layers of information as they researched. They learned to draw conclusions.”

Kimberly Heath
Kimberly Heath

Heath, who grew up in a community of approximately 10,000, found inspiration in Edinburgh’s early urban planning experiments. James Court, a collection of stone buildings located in the heart of Old Town Edinburgh, dates to 1725, when James Brownhill began construction. At its height, it was home to some of Edinburgh’s literary and intellectual elites, including philosopher David Hume and biographer James Boswell. Over succeeding centuries, it transitioned as the city grew and expanded, ultimately becoming a home to some of the city’s poorest citizens. Revitalized in the 19th century, it became an anchor for the resurgence of Old Town through the work of visionary planner Patrick Geddes.

Through her research, Heath uncovered layer after layer of James Court history, discovering gems of information that became the basis for her presentation and final paper. “James Court tells many stories—stories of wealth and poverty; stories of industry and transition; stories of enlightenment, destruction, then renewal,” she concludes in her paper.

“James Court has taught me that every person has an obligation to learn the history of their place and to pass it on. That way, each city remains a way to transmit our inheritance from generation to generation.”

Colin Damms
Colin Damms

For Colin Damms, a history major, the research yielded an entirely new approach to scholarship. “My project was the Hibernian football club,” he explained. “There were not a lot of academic sources, so I knew I had to find a different direction. I decided to look at the cultural importance of sports, specifically football, in Britain and post-War Europe.”

A lot of his eventual sources were fans and natives who grew up attending games, and from them he drew a sense of the football culture and its impact on their lives. “I think this helped me learn how to find new angles of how to study history, because asking a research question in history is much different than asking a question as a science major,” Damms said. “This definitely helped me learn ways to form questions in research.”

In a different part of the city, Elizabeth King, a speechlanguage pathology major, became fascinated with the history of a former mill village. Dean Village, a part of New Town, is located along the Waters of Leith, and, dating back to the 12th century, provided meal for the baxters (bakers) of the city. The waters provided natural mill power, and by the 16th century, there were 11 grain mills in operation.

King’s research led her to explore the history of the mills and their contemporary remnants, which she shared with Honors students in her on-site presentation. She pointed out St. Bernard’s Well, which was thought to have healing properties, a former mill site that is now residential fl ats, and Dean Bridge, built using hollow piers to reduce the bridge’s weight. Still historically significant, Dean Village today houses approximately 900 households.

Elizabeth King
Elizabeth King

“From its unique origins under the Baxters of Dean to its unique character maintained by its residents today, the Village of Dean is its own city within a city,” King wrote in her final paper. “It is a gem hidden within the midst of Edinburgh which refl ects the ability of the Scots to live in the modern present without compromising the history of the location in which they live.”

Other students made similar discoveries. For Ashley Upton, it was the history of the beautiful Lauriston Castle on the Firth of Forth. For Cassidy DeGreen, it was the centuries of stories behind historic Calton Hill. Asia Duren, a passionate shopper, was instinctively drawn to the history of Jenner’s Department Store, dating to the early 1800s. On a lark, Winnie Clegg, a music major, researched Edinburgh landmark Arthur’s Seat, which she described as looking “like a sleeping elephant.” Not surprisingly, she became increasingly interested in the songs, arts and culture that surround the geological icon.

Kevin Barkman, a theater major, explored the drama and intrigue surrounding a tax collector and two smugglers during 1736-37 events in the Grassmarket area. Allie Burt, a culinary arts major, focused on the myth and history of Holyrood Castle, beginning with the apocryphal history of its name. Christina Lemmerman took her classmates to St. Giles Cathedral and explored its connection to the beginnings of Presbyterianism, as well as the reasons for its display of literary busts.

Some students, such as Gabriella Yray, were drawn to the mysteries of Edinburgh. Her discussion focused on the South Bridge Vaults and the famous ghost stories associated with them. For music major Brittney Noble, the mystery was why the beautiful St. Cecila’s Hall, the oldest concert hall in Edinburgh, had over the years been allowed to deteriorate. Now being restored, it houses a museum of some of the oldest musical instruments in Scotland. A former convent, St. Catherine’s Place, was the focus of research by Katie Murphree, a nursing major. Dating to the 1300s, St. Catherine’s was known for taking care of the sick during the Black Plague. “I chose the topic because it showed the importance of women in Edinburgh,” she said.

Also drawn to the medical, Sarah Kennedy, a pre-med biology major, researched the impressive history of Surgeon’s Hall and the contributions made by the Royal College of Surgeons to medical practice we know today. Finally, nursing major Tyler Cutrer, as a counterpoint to one of the first presentations, ended two days of historical presentations with a visit to Tynecastle Stadium, home of the Hearts of Midlothian Football Club. With the lush green field in the background, he shared the team’s journey from its early days in the mid-1850s, disbanding in the late 1870s, losing key players in WWI, resurgence and present-day rivalry with the Hibs.

W Students in Scotland
Atop Calton Hill, with Edinburgh and the Firth of Forth in the background, W students proudly display their flag. L-R Asia Duren, Elizabeth King, Katie Murphree, Kimberly Heath, Sarah Kennedy, Allie Burt, Cassie Chehab, Georgie McDaniel, Ashley Upton, Gabriella Yray, Christina Lemmerman, Kevin Barkman, Cassidy DeGreen, Tyler Cutrer, Brittney Noble and Colin Damms.

In the end, the journey for the 2015 Honors students could be measured in far more than miles. They had deepened their knowledge and understanding not only of Edinburgh’s rich historical significance but of its contemporary personality, a mixture of old and new. In the process, they had developed new confidence, broader world views and a deeper understanding of themselves. Georgie McDaniel, a 2015 biology graduate who served as a peer mentor for the students, summed it up: “You see these students change when they’re here. Traveling and living in a different country, they become different people.”

“Just go for it,” urged Burt to other students considering travel abroad. “Submerge yourself into the culture as much as possible and do as much as possible. It’s going to feel like you’re really tired all the time, but at the end of the day, it’s worth the experiences. You learn, meet new people and garner the life experiences that you’ll hold on to forever.”