Wroxton Abbey and its grounds in all their grandeur. (Photo by Harry Rhodes)
A World of Difference: Wroxton Turns 50
By Angelo Carfagna

When you’re talking about a building that has parts dating back to 1217, 50 years is not that long a time. But when you’re talking about its contribution to Fairleigh Dickinson University’s mission, growth and range of opportunities available and its profound impact on students’ lives, a half-century of Wroxton College has made a world of difference.

“It’s a wonderful milestone,” says University President Sheldon Drucker. “We were visionaries when we became the first American university to own a campus in England. Since 1965, Wroxton has provided students unforgettable experiences and incredible opportunities to see the world through the eyes of others.”

“Wroxton’s birthday represents 50 years of proof of the success of FDU’s mission of global education,” Wroxton College Dean Nicholas Baldwin says. “It is a remarkable place, and we’ve been able to build an extraordinary program for our students.”

Storied History

Wroxton Abbey has a history going back far longer than 50 years. The original Augustinian priory was built in the 13th century under a charter from King John. It flourished for 300 years until being virtually destroyed by the soldiers of Henry VIII, as part of the king’s dissolution of all monasteries. The honey-colored mansion that today is the nucleus of the campus was built in 1618 by Sir William Pope.

Various additions were made through the centuries, and the mansion became the home of the North family, including Lord Frederick North, England’s prime minister during the American Revolution; then a warehouse during World War II; private apartments; and finally an international college campus of an American university.

Over the years, distinguished visitors have included royalty: Kings Charles I, George IV and William IV and Edward, Prince of Wales; writers: Horace Walpole and Henry James; actors: Dame Judi Dench and Peter O’Toole; and statesmen: Prime Minister Harold Wilson and U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt.

Opening Ceremonies: The 1965 celebration of the opening of FDU’s Wroxton College included this procession from Wroxton Abbey to the Church of All Saints in Wroxton village. Leading the procession are the campus’s first dean, Loyd Haberly, with mace, and Professor of History Heinz Mackensen holding the campus banner. (Photo courtesy of FDU Archives)

FDU bought Wroxton College from Oxford University’s Trinity College in 1963 and, after very careful restoration and modernization, opened the college in 1965. FDU’s founder and then-President Peter Sammartino saw the unique opportunity the University had with this property. “Literally, we didn’t know where to start,” he recalled in his book Of Castles and Colleges, “but start we did … who would ever have thought that we would be putting an English Abbey into shape? We were filled with a sense of English history and almost a childish glee in feeling that as Americans we were re-establishing the grandeur of the castle.”

“… We were filled with a sense of English history and almost a childish glee in feeling that as Americans we were re-establishing the grandeur of the castle.”
Peter Sammartino

The Abbey is a Grade 1 listed historic monument, the highest grade there is in England, so permission is needed to renovate or change almost anything. And FDU has had work to do over the years. For example, when Baldwin arrived in 1984, the Abbey had 40 bedrooms and eight bathrooms. Today, the Abbey has 45 bedrooms, each with its own bathroom, and there is Wi-Fi throughout the building.

A sampling of trinkets collected over Wroxton College’s 50-year history. (Photo by Dennis Connor)

The educational programs have grown just as well. In the early 1980s, Wroxton had four academic programs given over 34 weeks each year. In the academic year 2013­–2014, there were 27 academic programs offered, and a variety of conferences on campus, and students and guests were in residence 47 weeks of the year.

Altogether, more than 10,000 students have studied at Wroxton in the last half-century. And while many of those students have hailed from FDU, students from more than 250 other colleges have studied at Wroxton too.

(Photo by Dennis Connor)
Experiential Learning At Its Finest

Baldwin describes the Wroxton environment, where “the past permeates the atmosphere and reaches out across the ages and generations through to the students of today.”

The intimate nature of the environment facilitates a strong collegial mindset, and the courses very much encourage personal, focused hands-on learning with the British tutorial method employed.

The campus is located in the village of Wroxton, just a couple of miles away from Banbury and not much further from Stratford-upon-Avon. Oxford is 26 miles to the south, and London is just a 90-minute car ride away. Such a strategic location provides multiple opportunities for field trips and travel programs, including visits to Oxford University, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Parliament and many other important places. Weekend trips and travel breaks also enable students to venture into places like Scotland, France and Italy.

British Method: Students spend much of their class time in small tutorial sessions. (Photo by Mike Malone)

The idea of Wroxton, says Baldwin, is to “open students’ eyes to something more than New Jersey, something more than the United States.” He says, there is an “extra dimension” provided by experiences such as witnessing the House of Commons in action and discussing how the political system operates with a former deputy prime minister and seeing Shakespeare’s plays performed in Stratford-upon-Avon and meeting with the director to discuss the play’s context.

Students also visit the BBC with Charles Garrity, a tutor-in-residence and lecturer in psychology and communication, who says that all of the trips have a huge impact. “The students see personally how Britain lives and quickly come to understand that we have a different perspective on life.”

Further, he adds, the college’s intimate nature and the British tutorial method “provide more focus on the students as individuals and, as a consequence, I think they raise their game a little bit once they are here.”

Angela Morris, a tutor and lecturer in social policy and history, agrees that the tutorial method is an important part of the process. “Students look at topics in much more depth and, in doing so, gain more confidence in their ability to analyze and understand the material.”

(Photo by Dennis Connor)
The Wroxton Experience

The sum of the above adds up to the “Wroxton Experience.” As Baldwin says, “The students at Wroxton get a genuine understanding of a different culture, a different way of life and a different perspective. Overwhelmingly, they say it was one of the best decisions they ever made and something they will carry with them for the rest of their lives.”

Morris says there is much to learn and get used to, but students have a fantastic support system. “I think all of the staff and faculty see our students as a family, and we do everything we can to support them.”

Those bonds generally don’t fade away when the program ends. “Many of the students who have come through Wroxton have become lifelong friends,” Baldwin says. “And I’m still in touch with students from 30 years ago.”

The students, Garrity adds, do so much over a short span of time that they undergo a rapid transition. “One of the biggest things I see is the maturity level changes as they progress through the program.”

“I think the experience at Wroxton gives students a great deal of confidence for life after Wroxton.” — Angela Morris

“I think the experience at Wroxton gives students a great deal of confidence for life after Wroxton,” Morris says. “I remember a father visiting and saying that he couldn’t believe the change in his daughter. She is so much more confident; she’s really grown.

And I think the experience of coming here and doing everything they do lets them know that, if they can manage that, they can take on a great deal more when they return to the United States.”

(Photo by Dennis Connor)
The Future

The success of the Wroxton Experience and the growing importance of developing global perspectives point to many more birthdays for Wroxton.

“You only have to look around you and see what is going on globally to realize that having insight into other cultures will be good for the leaders of the future.”
— Charles Garrity

“I think there is a bright future for Wroxton,” Garrity says. “You only have to look around you and see what is going on globally to realize that having insight into other cultures will be good for the leaders of the future. And most of the students here will go into leadership roles somewhere.”

Baldwin believes there is even more potential for the college. “I would like to see the college continue to expand,” he says. “There are opportunities to develop more programs and welcome more students,” he says.

After nearly three decades at the helm of Wroxton, Baldwin remains as enthusiastic as ever. “It takes me all of a minute to walk to work, and I find that I’m pinching myself as I walk down the drive and see the building each day. It’s a wonderful institution.”

The Dovecote: Once used to house messenger pigeons, this is an iconic structure on the grounds of Wroxton College. (Photo by Art Petrosemolo)

Ed. note: This article first appeared in the Winter/Spring 2015 edition of FDU Magazine.