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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Muggles Abroad: Alicia DeFonzo Leads Old Dominion Potterphiles to “Hogwarts”

By Tom Robinson

Teaching her study-abroad class on Sherlock Holmes in London the last three years, Old Dominion University English lecturer Alicia DeFonzo found that although her students liked Holmes just fine, they loved a rival literary Englishman: the wizard Harry Potter.

Her first clue: The students enjoyed visiting Holmes landmarks in London. But they consistently clamored to take in such Potter touchstones as magical Platform 9 ¾ at King's Cross Station and the sprawling Warner Brothers Harry Potter Studio Tour.

To DeFonzo, the solution was elementary: create a Potter-themed Maymester class dubbed "The Hogwarts Experience."

"We got 45 applications within a month," DeFonzo said. "We had to cut them off. It was getting out of control."

DeFonzo designed a three-week, interdisciplinary literature class to mimic the curriculum at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry from J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter novels.

Among the course requirements, DeFonzo's students must pass three "OWLS" - Potter-ese for Ordinary Wizarding Levels - from a portfolio that includes: Defense Against the Dark Arts, Muggle Studies, Care of Magical Creatures, Herbology, Potions and History of Magic.

Quizzical? DeFonzo said the Potter texts are full of themes related to those wizardry topics - such as race, class and gender issues, censorship, mythology and animal welfare - that apply to the range of academic majors taking the three-credit class.

In the end, 14 students, only a few of whom are English majors, were chosen from a rigorous application process to receive DeFonzo's wax-sealed acceptance letters, a la Hogwarts.

Beth Parker, ODU's Study Abroad Coordinator, called DeFonzo's Potter proposal "academically foolproof. She has created topics that will reach out to different disciplines, which is brilliant."

In mid-May, the class will meet on campus for two weeks before heading to London for eight days. There, students will visit the British Museum and the British Library, take a guided "Muggle tour" of London and spend a day at Oxford University. Oxford's dining hall at Christ Church was the model for Hogwarts' Great Hall created for the Potter films.

Like all the sets used in the movies, the Great Hall is replicated in the Harry Potter Studio Tour, where DeFonzo and her students will spend a day.

Every student will have read all seven Potter books before the first class, DeFonzo said. Through writing assignments, critical analysis and field reporting in London, DeFonzo's class will "examine the historical, scientific and cultural contexts of the novels as well as study modern and early Britain."

"I've been traveling to Europe for 10 years; I go pretty much every summer," DeFonzo said. "I go to different places and scope things out and think where would I want to do a study-abroad class? They've been very good to me."

Study Abroad director Steve Bell said the program features about 25 to 30 faculty-led programs a year. None has received the vast, immediate response of "The Hogwarts Experience," he said.

Bell said he, Parker and a committee from various departments across campus - including faculty, academic affairs, international programs, risk management and advising -- annually review the faculty-led study abroad program proposals and choose which ones to offer.

The office holds a Study Abroad Fair twice a year to inform students about the menu of options. Students who have returned from study-abroad experiences and faculty who will lead future programs are available to share information.

The next Study Abroad Fair is Tuesday, Feb. 9 from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. in the North Mall in Webb Center.