From circus skills to managing a budget, Abhijith Subramanian learnt more on the ESU’s Secondary School Exchange than he ever could have imagined
I was completing my A levels at the Bluecoat School in Liverpool when I applied for the ESU’s Secondary School Exchange programme as I was hoping that it would give me a better understanding of the American culture and their education system. I am interested in a career involving diplomacy and I felt I needed a much more in-depth understanding of our transatlantic cousins than a short holiday could ever provide.
I shot off an application and was invited to an interview in London. I felt that the application process was straightforward, but then, I feel part of the ESU community, having participated in the ESU’s Debate Academy and the ESU-Churchill Public Speaking Competition in previous years. I was nervous on my interview day, but it all went well and I duly found that a school called Rabun Gap-Nacoochee in Georgia had accepted me.
I was initially terrified as I had never lived away from home before and as a person of colour, all I had ever heard about the Deep South of the US was what I had read in my A level history textbook, which only really spoke about the Jim Crow legacy and the civil rights struggle in the region. However, when I arrived at the school, located in a beautiful valley in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains, everyone was friendly and I immediately felt welcome. I soon settled down and looking back, I think I will always miss the bright Georgia stars at night.
One of the best things about my time in America was that I got to try new things that I simply would not have considered or had the opportunity to learn back at home. For a non-sporty person like me, a two-hour long compulsory after-school sport activity was uncharacteristic, yet refreshing. My school had expertise in cirque and I learnt to perform gymnastic tricks on a trapeze and aerial silk. It was fun and gave me body confidence, although my friends back home listen to my tales with unbelieving ears! The school also taught me practical skills that were as wide and varied as building a table, tailoring bags or rigging up complex light and sound systems. After a few basic safety demonstrations, they would toss you into the deep end and really encourage you to push yourself out of your comfort zone. It was all quite an empowering experience and I am certain I could not have learnt these skills in a British state school.
Academia was however a different ball game as the American curriculum was significantly less rigorous than the A level system in the UK. My teachers, however, were genuinely lovely, and a lot of them went out of their way to engage with me after class.
Americans are also a very friendly and hospitable people. I was invited to stay at several of my friends’ homes over weekends or breaks. This gave me a much deeper understanding of lots of cultural particularities and the opportunity to experience many American traditions such as Thanksgiving and Black Friday or even visiting a biblical rock concert in a megachurch.
I got to do a lot of travelling during my time in the US. I took the opportunity of my proximity to central America to go backpacking during spring break and I travelled through El Salvador, Guatemala, Belize and Mexico. Though I have travelled a lot with my mother (a single parent) on her work engagements in other countries, it was a wholly different experience to organise, plan and budget to travel on my own with limited funds. It makes the prospect of going to university or of stepping up into adult life a lot less daunting, as the challenge of moving to London seems comparatively easier than traipsing through a continent on your own.
Unfortunately, my stay in America was cut short due to the COVID-19 outbreak and I had to come home after my second term. That aside, I am glad to have managed to make lifelong friends and have had a totally unforgettable experience in the time that I was there. Now that I am back home, I feel better prepared as I embark on the next phase in life – studying International Relations at the London School of Economics.
Three Things I Learned:
- Similarly to Tim Marshall’s description of Russia in Prisoners of Geography, I found America to be ‘vast, vaster, vastest’. Understanding America is a little like understanding Europe. Though I managed to only experience a slice of it, America has hundreds of regional differences and particularities and has lots of interesting and unique cultural experiences.
- No matter how different America is to us, the British, there is so much more which unites us than which could possibly ever divide us.
- In life, you can do a lot more than you ever could conceive. Everyone can adapt to change and be surprisingly resilient in new environments.