A sliver of pages in my high school World History textbook—that is all that separates me from the Holocaust. A scrap of history on paper—that is all, chronologically, that stands between me and the Reconstruction, the slave trade, the Enlightenment, and Leonardo Da Vinci. I remember the chills I felt after I finished AP World History. What is beyond this flimsy back cover? It is up to us. What is beyond the pomp and circumstance of my high school diploma? It is up to me. Here I am, staring with wonderment into what seems to be an abyss of uncertainty. If I’ve ever had an existential moment, closing that textbook for the last time and opening my high school diploma for the first time, was that moment. Here I am, facing the uncertainty of my future, of society’s future.
But uncertainty is not such a bad place to be. I promised myself that I would take advantage of the ripest opportunities that came my way. During summer 2011, in the form of a Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) Summer Honors Program, was my newest, ripest opportunity, just begging me to peel it in order to see what was under its skin. Two West Chester Honors students were chosen to partake in the academic, cultural, historical, and archaeological adventures of the Atlantic world along with two honors colleagues from each of the 14 state universities. Alicia Vandermark and I were selected to represent West Chester in the Atlantic World in the Age of Revolution program at Millersville University, which involved studying abroad in Bermuda.
As we considered the triangular (if grossly unequal in terms of advantages and disadvantages) relationship between Europe, Africa, and the Americas, I wanted to immerse myself in a living knowledge of topics I have only read about: trade, colonization, slavery, sugar, rum, spices, pirates, white beaches, native Caribbean religions, explorers, Christianity in the region, revolts, and more.
The PASSHE Summer Honors Program has proven to me even further, the value of state education in Pennsylvania. Programming and instruction were top notch. Every day, Dr. Clarence Maxwell of Millersville University offered us privileged students the gifts of his deep historical knowledge. Every day he would gaze wistfully into a time when sloops roamed the seas and remind us with nothing but true native Bermudian pride that the Bermuda Sloop was a masterpiece of engineering—the fastest, most agile ship of its time—and the reason why 19th century Bermudians were the greatest and most daring smugglers ever to have lived. If we learned nothing else, it was that smuggling was the lifeblood of Bermuda’s economy.
Dr. Timothy Trussell’s agenda was geared toward making a discovery. We were tasked with uncovering evidence of the existence of a “settler’s cabin” by digging shovel test pits, sifting through the earth, and analyzing our findings. If the artifacts we dug up led to a period before 1711 we might be onto verifying the oldest property in Lancaster county. Dr. Trussell put us all at ease during the process, which most of us went into knowing little about. He was so enthusiastic that even in the rain, it was a joy to find artifacts. We extracted bone china with Rococo design, both hand-wrought and machine-cut nails, brick fragments, slag, redware, and much more.
Besides the academic, Alicia and I took part in Bermuda culture, including the Bermuda Day festivities (the English-owned island’s analogous 4 of July-style national patriotic holiday), dancing in the streets, fishing, sipping high tea, and enjoying the gorgeous beaches, some of which have pink sand as a result of very small pieces of ground pink and red coral. In particular, I was inspired by the Bermuda day parade during which Bermudians celebrated the pillars of their community—teachers, artists, volunteers, and others. I was also impressed by the island’s freshwater management techniques. It seems most of the buildings include a white roof used to collect and deposit water into a limestone cistern—a natural water-purifier. We explored smuggling storage sites hidden in rock faces and dense overgrowth as well as the British Royal Navy Dockyard, where the British military, the enemies of all smugglers and pirates in the Caribbean, lived and trained. The architecture came to life. The sea sparkled like a jewel, its beauty veiling its treachery. Shakespeare based The Tempest on the crash of the Sea Venture on Bermuda’s reefs in the mid-1600s, when the English settlers meaning to land on the shores of Virginia found themselves in paradise after a harrowing night in the stormy Atlantic. There are over 400 shipwrecks surrounding Bermuda. Luckily, we took a plane.
The trip was a blessing. The entire program was smoothly run, coordinated and laid back. We had no snags, no safety emergencies. The success of the program is due, in no small part, to Dr. Downey, director of the Honors College at Millersville University, and a professor of history himself. He is to be commended for sharing his passions with us and for his meticulous planning.
The new friends Alicia and I connected with were integral to our positive Bermudian experience. I wish I could have these new fellow scholars around me most days because together we are a community of leadership, a community of skills, talents, and gifts–and we certainly have diverse personalities and offerings. I enjoyed listening to tales of honors programs in other state schools and their differing academic focuses, student groups, and events.
The friendliness of the people of Bermuda, their islands’ rich history, the crystal blue water everywhere, the whistling tree frogs at night, and the feelings of independence on our adventures abroad has my heart pleading with me to return.
Ben Chadwell is a third-year student majoring in liberal studies with minors in Spanish, biology and international buisness. He can be reached at BC721103@wcupa.edu.