Local students to walk in Roger Williams’ footsteps

RWU freshmen travel to England to learn what shaped their school’s namesake

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Instead of walking on the beach in some tropical locale this spring break, a group of local college students will head to the decidedly cooler climate of England to walk in the footsteps of Roger Williams.

The Roger Williams University students are traveling to London, Cambridge and Essex, England, to experience life as it was once lived by the university’s namesake and founder of the state of Rhode Island. “Retracing Roger’s Footsteps” will take the 15 local students into Williams’ old neighborhood, traveling back in time to discover how he lived in the 17th century before traveling to America, and learn what shaped his belief system he would later employ as a fierce advocate of religious freedom and separation of church and state.

“I want them to get a sense of what his life was like before he came here,” said Professor Charlotte Carrington-Farmer, a native of England who attended Cambridge University. “We will be literally retracing Roger’s steps.”

Those steps will take the students from Williams’ childhood home to his high school in the Smithfield section of London, a walk that likely played a big role in shaping the man Williams would become.

“We will walk past the spot where religious heretics were regularly put to death,” Ms. Carrington-Farmer said. “He saw where religion and state intertwined. And people died.”

Ms. Carrington-Farmer and National Park Service Ranger John McNiff, who works at the Roger Williams National Memorial in Providence, will guide the students through London’s neighborhoods where Williams grew up; Essex, where he first worked and was married; and Cambridge, where he went to school at Pembroke College. They’ll learn about his mentor, Sir Edward Coke, and how his experiences shaped his life.

The trip is part of the Roger Seminar, a class for first-year RWU students to learn about Mr. Williams himself, as well as the university’s and town of Bristol’s history. The group is scheduled to leave Friday afternoon, returning Saturday, March 18.

“My hope is that the students will take what they’ve learned in the Roger Seminar into this new environment and think about how issues like freedom of conscience, critical thought and tolerance find their relevance over time,” Associate Dean Jason Jacobs said in a release. “The main objective of the trip is to ‘retrace Roger,’ meaning to learn more about where he came from and how it was possible historically for his point of view to take shape.”

The students have been doing that throughout the school year, they said Tuesday during a planning meeting for the trip. They have retraced his steps in Rhode Island, visiting historic sites in Providence and Rumford.

“It’ll be good to go to England and really connect with what we’ve seen here,” said student Meghan Rodenhiser, a freshman from Wilmington, Mass.

“Before, he was just a name,” said freshman Axel Ruiz, from Worcester. “It’s good to learn that these types of thoughts were around back then - religious freedom, sanctuary.”

The trip will take students to such sites as the Tower of London, Cambridge University, and many others. They’ll also get a taste of everyday life in England, and see Shakespeare’s “Othello” at the famed Globe Theatre.

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A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.