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The birth of W’International: How a small school opened students’ eyes to the world

Wingate had been a four-year school for only a couple of years when it began offering an experience of a lifetime: 10 days in London, free of charge. W'International, which started in December of 1978, has spread far beyond England in the intervening years but continues to expand minds and change lives.

It was December of 1978, and, as a freak snowstorm bore down on the British Isles, a few hundred college students from North Carolina boarded two chartered jets bound for the United Kingdom.

Jetlagged Wingate College students, many of whom had never left the Carolinas before, spent several gray, chilly, sometimes snowy days groggily exploring London, marveling at the carrousel of sights they knew from Bond movies and PBS, all as part of a new program called “Winternational.” They hailed black cabs, rode the Tube – learning to “mind the gap” as they boarded – and double-decker buses, visited the Tower of London and Westminster Abbey, and quickly learned to look to their right before stepping out into the street. Some took day trips to Abbey Road or Wimbledon or a stroll across the Tower Bridge. They ate fish and chips in cozy pubs and ogled the punk rockers along Tottenham Court Road.

For 10 days these trailblazing students, the bulk of whom grew up a stone’s throw from the Wingate campus, were in a vastly different world from sleepy Union County.

“The grandeur was quite impressive – all the castles, Buckingham Palace, the guards,” says Marilyn Smith Vaughn ’80. “The double-decker buses – that was quite an experience. All the transportation was quite new to me. I’d never been in a pub before. It was kind of an eating-at-the-bar-type thing. Shepherd’s Pie. It was awesome.”

Just in case the Wingate contingent wasn’t soaking up enough culture, fate decided to introduce one group to a more modern British institution: the National Health Service.

“Health care is not something you need to know about until you need to know about it,” says Polly Griffin, the first director of international programs at Wingate.

Jerry Surratt and students during the first W'International trip

One day, Dr. Jerry Surratt '57, a longtime history professor at Wingate, took his group of 20 students on an outing to the Tower of London, minus one student who had been complaining of an upset stomach since the evening before. Surratt spent the day learning about ravens and beheadings from the Beefeaters, admiring the crown jewels and even snapping a forbidden photo, prompting a stern warning from one of the guards.

Once back at the hotel, he found out that the achy student had been taken to the hospital, where he had his appendix removed. It was more than a little harrowing. He rushed to the student’s bedside, only to find him happy and smiling – the NHS having shown the visitor the ultimate in hospitality.

Not only did the surgery go well, but no one from Wingate had to pay as much as a pence for it. The entire episode was a serious introduction to the potential perils of international travel for college students.

“This was our first year,” Surratt says. “We were all wet behind the ears, didn’t know what we were doing and had to learn on the fly.”

Students celebrated New Year’s Eve in a local pub, then emerged to find several inches of snow on the ground. That led to a running snowball fight all the way back to the hotel. By daylight, London and even southern England had a foot of snow.

It all could have spelled disaster. But Wingate’s not-quite-English Bulldogs weathered the storm, so to speak, and laid the foundation for a fledgling program that is now 40 years old and a cornerstone of a Wingate education.

“Even the appendectomy was reassuring,” says Griffin, now the registrar at Princeton University. “The student got fabulous care.”

The next year, Wingate chartered another flight to England, and before long the program expanded to other European countries.

This year, W’International (the apostrophe was added in 1992) celebrates middle age with a typical slate of 10-day visits to a variety of countries: Ireland, Denmark, Estonia, Greece, Italy, Japan and, yes, England. In past years, W’International experiences have taken place in South Korea, Brazil, Cuba, Costa Rica, Cambodia, Egypt and many other countries. It’s a truly international program.

But it got its start in the UK, thanks to the vision of one man: Tom Corts.

No education like study abroad

Dr. Budd Smith presided over Wingate Junior College for 21 years. A keen botanist who cultivated the land at Northwood, the presidential residence at the time, Smith cultivated the College as well, by courting deep-pocketed philanthropists, such as Charles Cannon, and by expanding students’ learning opportunities. During his tenure, more and more students from a variety of countries came to study at Wingate: When Smith retired in 1974, the campus was much more multicultural than when he began his tenure in 1953. But although students were coming from abroad to study at Wingate Junior College, Wingate students weren’t yet leaving campus to travel overseas.

Smith’s replacement, Dr. Thomas E. Corts, wasted little time before he dropped a bombshell on the College community. Seeing the changes occurring in higher education, Corts knew that Wingate’s best bet for continued growth was to expand from a two-year course of study to four years. In 1976, Wingate dropped the “Junior” from its name. The first baccalaureate degrees were conferred in 1979.

Members of the Wingate contingent wait on the Tube

The change was monumental: Wingate had offered associate degrees for 50 of its 80 years in existence and, as Surratt says, was “the best two-year institution in the state.” But times change, and Corts could see the writing on the wall.

A byproduct of the move was greater revenue. Although new dormitories and other buildings needed to be constructed, economies of scale meant that revenue would increase above and beyond that. At the same time, Corts and Surratt, the academic dean at the time, were looking for something to make Wingate stand out in the new senior-college landscape to which Corts had transported the school.

Corts, who died in 2009, thought international travel, which was a pipe dream for most Wingate students, was just the ticket. His idea was to use the extra money to send students overseas – free of charge. He felt that his own life had been changed by traveling to other countries, and he wanted students at the newly minted senior college to have a similar mind-expanding experience.

“Tom’s idea was that there’s no educational experience like travel abroad, like seeing for the first time, nonjudgmentally, another culture,” Griffin says.

Garry Hoagland ’81, a Wingate sophomore in December of 1978 who was part of that first W’International program, couldn’t agree more.

“You can really grow culturally as a person if you just see different things, experience different things all over the world,” he says.

Bulldogs invade Britain

Initially, W’International’s founders felt that the easiest way to give students firsthand experience with another culture was to take them to London. It was relatively accessible and affordable, and language wasn’t a barrier. Back in 1978, few students had even traveled much in the United States, much less abroad. Getting around a major city could be a challenge; doing so in an English-speaking country made the process much easier.

Surratt, who ultimately helped formulate plans for W’International, was a little skeptical, telling Corts: “I don’t really know whether we can do this or not, with all the other needs that we have. We’ve got to strengthen our academic faculty – more doctorates to meet accreditation standards with this new four-year program that we’ve got here.”

“I played devil’s advocate a little bit,” he says.

"When you understand that the world is a lot bigger than the little, teeny piece that you inhabit, it changes your hopes for yourself. It changes your understanding of your impact."

Corts had figured out how to make it work, but let’s just say that pennies had to be pinched. The program was to be offered annually to sophomores as an enticement to get them to remain at Wingate, but in that first year administrators decided to also give juniors and seniors the opportunity to go, since otherwise they would miss out entirely.

And it was free for students. This was a unique twist on student travel overseas. Other schools had study-abroad programs, but providing the experience at no cost was something special.

A free trip to Europe? It was hard to pass up, and the offering proved immensely popular, with close to 500 students signing up. “I was one of the first people in the door,” Hoagland says. “I was ready to go. If I’m not mistaken, I was one of the first 15 or 20 people to sign up.”

Griffin, fresh out of grad school and in her first job, as assistant to the president, was handed the task of figuring how to transport nearly 500 students from Charlotte to London, house and feed them, move them from place to place, and get them back home safely. She turned out to be perfect for the job. “She was a go-getter – very aggressive, but a wonderful person,” Surratt says. “Aggressive in the sense of, ‘Hey, let’s get on this and see what we can do.’”

Griffin, who was Polly Winfrey when W’International started, did most of the legwork. Corts had already looked into the cost of chartered flights, and the school wound up chartering two DC-8s, from Capitol Air. Most W’International travelers in the 80s and on into the 90s flew KLM, with whom Wingate had an arrangement for over a decade, but the first two years the flights were chartered in planes Surratt describes as “adequate” but “a little rattley.”

If students were to travel at no cost, then “adequate” was to be expected. Each student was given $7 a day for meals – in addition to breakfast, which was included with the lodging fee. Students found that, in the late 70s, seven bucks, even when converted to pounds (at about a two-dollars-to-the-pound rate), could get them a pub lunch and a nutritious dinner, as long they economized.

Corts didn’t want students staying in a Holiday Inn or other familiar hotel, so Griffin enlisted a London-based travel agent, Jack Coronna with JAC Travel, to find affordable lodging with a real English feel.

The result was something akin to British-style dorms: houses converted into hotels, with bathrooms down the hall providing at best lukewarm water.

“The accommodations were quite different,” Vaughn says. “The motels we stayed in had radiator heaters, and we had no hot water. There was no type of refrigerator.”

“These were not hostels,” Griffin says, “but they were related to hostels.”

For Vaughn, the accommodations mattered little. “I was like a little country bumpkin who had never left home and gets to go on this amazing, exciting trip,” she says.

Changing lives

Of the 500-plus people who went on the first W’International trip, 20 were faculty members. Once in London, they spread out across the city and took coaches to the countryside and other towns and cities to bring Chaucer, Shakespeare, Turner and Becket to life.

W’International was an academic experience from the start, with students receiving two credit hours for participating – one for the semester-long seminar that accompanied each trip, and another for the overseas experience itself. The setup remains similar today: Faculty members decide on a destination and a topic to study, type up a detailed proposal and submit it to the W’International committee. If their proposal is selected, they meet with students throughout the semester and require the completion of some sort of project after the group returns to Wingate.

Students pose along the Thames during the first W'International

In 1978, seminar topics included politics, history, literature, business, advertising, art, the legal system, medicine, theater, music, religion and even ghost stories.

Surratt was determined to go on the inaugural trip. He’d helped shape the program, so with 20 slots available, he was probably a shoo-in anyway. But he played it safe. “I submitted two proposals” he says. “I wanted to make sure I got approved.”

Surratt taught a seminar called “Conscience and the Kings,” which discussed the careers of Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury, and Sir Thomas More, chancellor to the king. Both men lost their lives because they chose their religious convictions over royal authority.

Surratt’s students had to read biographies and participate in class discussions, and in England they reinforced what they learned in class with visits to sites associated with Becket and More. When they returned, they had to submit a final paper.

Seeing Canterbury Cathedral, where Becket was murdered, or Lincoln’s Inn, where More practiced law, made their biographies seem more real to the students. But the more important aspect of that initial W’International experience was probably cultural.

“I think that it spurred students to think differently about the world that we’re in,” Surratt says.

W’International is now a program for juniors, rather than sophomores. But it was set as a sophomore-level program initially because Corts wanted the experience to influence a substantial portion of their college careers – and those of their peers.

“Tom said, ‘We don’t want these people to have this experience and not bring something back to the campus,’” Surratt says.

The program paid immediate dividends.

“There’s no doubt about it,” Griffin says. “As soon as on the way home, many people, it changed their direction. When you understand that the world is a lot bigger than the little, teeny piece that you inhabit, it changes your hopes for yourself. It changes your understanding of your impact. It absolutely changed lives.”

“It makes you appreciate people outside of your country,” says Hoagland, who added that he believes that, the U.S. being a country of immigrants, Americans should be more accepting of people from other cultures. “That’s how I was brought up by my parents, but after going there and seeing things, you appreciate it more.

“College prepares you for your professional life, but it prepares you for life in general, and people forget that.”