An unsolicited brochure, which easily could have been dismissed as junk mail, launched a journey that landed Mike and Suellen Funk at the University of Oxford in England for three weeks this summer.
The Springfield couple, an accountant and a nursing instructor, had never been to Europe and admitted they didn't know what to expect from the experience they now describe as an academic and cultural immersion.
The program, Oxford/Berkeley Summer School, is a partnership between Oxford and the University of California at Berkeley geared toward "intellectually curious adults" looking for "a scholarly adventure within the hallowed walls of one of the world's oldest universities," according to the website.
The Funks, who share a love of history, took a chance on the trip, in part because they trusted the two institutions, and the pair couldn't be happier with the experience.
During the three-week trip, they lived on campus and attended classes just as traditional Oxford students would. They stayed in a two-bedroom suite with a private bathroom, which had no television or air conditioning. Initially, they were uncomfortable, but the weather changed quickly and was soon cool enough for sweaters.
The college course "Home Sweet Home: The Fabric, Social Structure and Culture of the Victorian and Edwardian Home," was one of 10 offered this summer. The course required extensive reading, a 1,500-word paper and various field trips to expose students to the architectural and social trappings of Victorian England.
"Merton College is Oxford's oldest. It's a very distinguished environment, rich with culture," Mike said. "It was fabulous to be immersed in the experience, to live at Oxford and have the privileges that go along with being a student there, including access to one of best libraries in the world."
The couple also toured four houses that have been restored to authentically replicate life in the 1800s. For Suellen, 200-year-old history came to life through the hands-on opportunities to learn about the different classes - lower, middle and aristocratic.
"It was fascinating to see how people lived back then. As a nurse, I've seen poverty, but this was Dickensian poverty - very primitive," Suellen said. "The experience exceeded anything we could've imagined."
She said she came home thrilled to share with her nursing students at Lincoln Land Community College what she learned about Florence Nightingale.
"We felt deeply immersed in the culture, and it was a great life experience, an experiential trip, a learning vacation," Mike said.
The Funks considered taking a course again next summer, but no topics grabbed their interest for 2011, and the Olympics will be there in 2012.
"It might be three years before we do it again, but we'll definitely do it again. We loved every minute of it. We have absolutely no regrets - only wish we had more time," Suellen said.
Mike and Suellen Funk created a blog about their Oxford experience as a fun way for friends and family to keep track of their adventures - a 21st century postcard of sorts.
Read more about their journey at OxfordExperience.Wordpress.com.
Story published Friday, January 7, 2011 ( Volume 5, Number 8 )