Students rub shoulders with Ivy Leaguers at Cambridge

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Summer is supposed to be about sunshine, freedom and a much needed break, but for 36 BYU students it’s about thick books, long lectures and intense discussions.

They’re not just taking summer classes; they are enrolled in the prestigious and demanding Pembroke-King’s College program at Cambridge University. Students live in Cambridge housing during the eight week program and receive upper division honors credit for undertaking “Cambridge style” classes in a variety of disciplines, alongside peers from such institutions as Yale, Harvard and Brown.

If it sounds intimidating, it’s because it was designed with Ivy Leaguers in mind, said Paul Kerry, an associate professor in the Department of History, and program adviser for BYU.

“We were just fortunate we got in the ground level,” said Kerry, who was a visiting fellow at Cambridge in 2006, when the University’s Pembroke and King’s colleges collaborated to create the fun but academically challenging summer study option.

Seeing in the program a fantastic opportunity for BYU students to learn from world class professors in a completely different environment and to see for themselves how their education stacks up against those from the country’s leading institutions of higher learning, Kerry vowed to get BYU involved.

Helped by his background, which includes fellowships at such big name institutions as Princeton and Oxford, Kerry ingratiated himself and made the case for BYU.

Initially BYU was somewhat limited in the number of participants it could bring, but after six years of demonstrated performance, Cougars now make up the same proportion of total participants as any of the Ivy League schools, Kerry said.

“We have had Gates scholars and Rhodes finalists, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “In the short time we’ve participated in the program, the productivity level is what shows. The scholarship of the students and their character were the things that carried them.”

According to Kerry, BYU students’ comportment, including how they interact with others, from the beggars and porters to the faculty and college staff at all levels, has been repeatedly recognized and commented on.

The faculty also appreciates the unique skills of BYU students, often in language, Kerry said, offering the example of one student this year who is using Bulgarian records for his individual research.

Matthew McDonald is one of many who opt to participate in a supervision, in which individual students work directly with a professor in their major subject area on research papers, like an Honors thesis, Kerry said.

“Our students are very motivated to work one-on-one with the faculty,” he said, noting that BYU has the leading number of students who choose this option.

As of last year, the program has also grown to include top-tier students from outside the United States, providing even more value for BYU participants like Lauren Noorda, a senior from Las Vegas studying political science.

“It seems like no matter where you turn, you strike up a conversation with someone,” she said. “You end up talking about philosophy or something, and you get a brand new perspective.”

No stranger to study abroad programs, Noorda has traveled with other BYU programs for the England literature program, and to the Jerusalem Center, and agrees with Kerry’s assessment that this “isn’t your run of the mill study abroad program.”

“It’s been a very different experience,” Noorda said. “It’s not a BYU structure, these aren’t BYU classes, and the people with me are, for the most part, not BYU students.”

Making up just a tenth of the 350 program participants, students largely live on their honor as a minority, said Kerry.

“It’s a different dynamic here,” he said, adding that the program is also unique in that it draws an interestingly high percentage of male students and married couples.

“Many men at BYU have been on missions, often to other countries, so they wonder what its worth for them to study abroad,” Kerry explained. “This program, being academically intense, provides that value. Then, we also have married students, which is almost unheard of in study abroad programs.”

This year, one of the couples even has a child. Kerry said Cambridge’s willingness to accommodate demonstrates the strength of its relationship to BYU.

“There is hardly any married accommodation for married Cambridge students, but they create it for us because they understand that’s part of our culture,” he said. “It really shows the graciousness of the institution as it reaches out to our reaching out to them.”

Jordan Harmer, an economics major from Bountiful, and his wife Katie, a senior in print journalism, are one of five married couples participating this year. For him, the greatest surprise has been how quickly everyone set to work.

“This program is very sink or swim,” Harmer said. “There is not a lot of introduction involved, like at BYU. You’re just expected to be mature and proactive, and accountable to the professors you’re working with.”

While just being thrown into things is somewhat jarring, the overall experience is fun and beneficial, said Katie Harmer.

“I’ve been in contact with people at the Cambridge University library because I’m looking at book conservation as a master program, and they have one of the best conservatories in the world,” she said. “There are 8 million books in the library! It’s nice that there are so many opportunities here … to form a network and explore more routes that you can possibly go.”

Those connections are crucial, said Annie Grow, a humanities major from Provo.

“It’s a very intimate setting for learning,” she said. “Those relationships help with applications and opportunities for grad school.”

Billed as an Honors program, the Cambridge direct enrollment is actually open to all students, Kerry emphasized, noting that the BYU Honors program takes an egalitarian approach, offering some form of funding to all students, regardless of whether they are in the program.

Some may feel intimidated by the program, said Kerry, admitting that it does require students to be self motivated.

“It is scholarship led, and they are here to work,” he said, but even if it’s not travel study, there are plenty of opportunities for fun and exploration.

Cambridge students act as program assistants, planning social events and outings in town, and there are two program excursions, to Edinburgh and London. Participants also have their weekends to make their own travel plans and many take advantage to explore various European cities.

More information about the Cambridge Honors Direct Enrollment program can be found under the International Study Programs tab at kennedy.byu.edu.

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