THE SPIRIT OF GIVING BACK
In 1973, James Scruby spent a year on the ESU’s Secondary School Exchange at Belmont Hill School outside Cambridge, Massachusetts. ‘I was very, very shy at that age and the experience changed me enormously,’ he says. ‘Back then, people weren’t able to travel as much as they do now – I remember having to apply to the Bank of England to take more than £50 out of the country – and to be able to go into this sort of semi-protected environment allowed me to transition to being much more independent and more confident in myself. It was a tremendous growing up.’
His memories are nothing but good, from studying courses much broader than he had been able to at A level – poetry, creative writing, law – to sailing, watching ice-hockey for the first time and skiing (so badly that, to this day, a particularly sharp bend on one of the slopes is still known as ‘Nosebleed Corner’ after one of James’s accidents). ‘I never spent a single weekend at the school, I was always invited to go and do something with someone,’ says James. ‘People had cars and we went off all over the place; it was definitely not the life of a 17/18 year old in the UK at that time.’
The year allowed him to travel further afield, too, journeying from New York to Los Angeles on a Greyhound bus and staying with ESU America members in Palm Beach and on a farm in Sacramento. ‘People were just enormously generous and inclusive, in a way that I hadn’t experienced in the UK.’
It was memories of these happy times and the warm welcome he received that prompted James to reconnect with the English-Speaking Union many years later.
There is a great spirit in the US of giving back, making a contribution to those things that you’ve had enjoyment or education from. So when I received a letter from the ESU asking alumni to get involved again, I got in touch.
James learnt about our education work and kindly agreed to organise the Public Speaking Competition for the Colchester branch of which he became a part. ‘I find it totally absorbing, watching young people battle with their nerves and challenging themselves because they know the ability to communicate orally is going to be so useful,’ he says.
It’s a skill James wishes he’d had the chance to acquire while he was younger. ‘When eventually I found myself being asked to give presentations and speeches in my career, sometimes in front of quite large numbers of people, it was absolutely terrifying,’ he says. ‘I had to get professional coaching and I have no doubt that, had I had the opportunity to develop my speaking confidence at a younger age, it would have been a huge help in my career, too.’
When asked what he has learnt about dealing with people, James’s answers hark back to his Secondary School Exchange experiences. ‘As well as giving a very valuable perspective on your own country, and an extended family, many of whom I’m still in touch with, I think spending time abroad has helped me to learn to listen to people’s concerns and to address those directly. It’s an artificial distinction to see other countries as ‘different’, with different sets of beliefs. Really we all just deal with people, and if we can find that personal interaction, that’s the secret.’
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If, like James, you’ve benefited from one of the ESU’s programmes and you’d like to help other young people progress in their lives, we’d love to hear from you. There are many ways in which you can help, from becoming a member to volunteering. If your time is short, donations are another way of showing your support and helping young people reach their full potential.