Harry Potter study abroad program encourages empathy and social justice

Creative commons photo by Flickr user JJSlash04

Creative commons photo by Flickr user JJSlash04

Posted by Natalie Maier on Sunday, Feb. 2 at 5:10 pm.

The large wooden doors swung open and she staggered inside, her feet touching the stone floor. A golden, candlelit hue enveloped her. She stood gaping in wonder as sparkles danced before her eyes. The house tables for Gryffindor, Slytherin, Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff were set. Lifelike mannequins resembling professors Dumbledore, Hagrid and Snape were positioned on the podium in the front of the room.

Not unlike Harry in his Hogwarts debut, Claire Tweedy was aghast as she stood in the Great Hall for the first time as a participant in the University of Oregon’s “Harry Potter in the UK” study abroad program last summer. Though she only stood on the set of the Harry Potter film series in the Warner Brother’s Studio in London, she compared her personal experience to a scene right out of  “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.”

“It was nice as a college student to revisit something that was such a big part of my childhood,” Tweedy said.

Officially named Fantasy on the Fringe, the study abroad program is led by Roger Adkins, associate director of study abroad programs in the Office of International Affairs. It’s a month-long program where students study fantasy literature and pop culture in London and Edinburgh, Scotland. Students go on outings to festivals and marketplaces and on a day trip to Wales to visit J.K. Rowling’s childhood home.

The program, sponsored by UO study abroad organization AHA, was first started in 2011. This will be the third summer the session will be offered.

Sam Bethel, AHA campus and partner relations coordinator, said this program deepens students’ empathy by immersing them in a foreign atmosphere where fantasy is more prevalent in the culture.

“(Students) are going to be exploring different themes within London and that’s something that really can’t happen just from a classroom in Eugene,” Bethel said.

As an anthropology major, Tweedy has found that the education she received abroad last summer has helped further her understanding of human nature in society.

Adkins believes that because many students grew up with Harry Potter books and films, they are able to relate and identify with the struggles of the characters and the “powerful sense of social justice” which sums up the series.

“I’ve begun to realize how foundational the (‘Harry Potter’ book series) is,” Adkins said. “Things people grow up reading kind of set a generational ethos. You can say something from ‘Harry Potter’ to (a peer) and it carries an enormous amount of meaning and reference that’s special to that generation.”

In addition to Harry Potter enriching our knowledge of society and culture, the series has also helped to popularize the fantasy genre, Tweedy said.

“I think (the Harry Potter series) really brought fantasy literature to the forefront,” Tweedy said. “I think (Harry Potter) made (fantasy literature) very accessible to everyone and made it more normal — a little less on the fringe of what we consider normal.”

The deadline to apply for Fantasy on the Fringe is March 1. The priority deadline is Feb. 1.