Oscar Houseago reflects on his time at The Stony Brook School, New York, on the ESU’s Secondary School Exchange
I come from a small, rural community. I live with my mum and, having attended the local community primary school of only 26 kids, I spent the seven years of my secondary education at Wymondham College, a state boarding school in Norfolk.
This transformed me from a nervous and shy 11 year old to a confident student leader. I became Deputy Head Boy, completed Gold D of E and was awarded the schools most prestigious award – the College Lion. I have a passion for politics, having done a lot of work experience in the political field, and strive towards this career both internationally and in our very own Houses of Parliament.
My mum had travelled the world by her mid-twenties, and I wanted to follow in her footsteps. It would’ve been December of Year 13 when I heard about the ESU’s Secondary School Exchange – an opportunity to spend a year in the United States where I would live, learn and explore the cultural identity of what it was like to be a Senior in the American high school system, something which I was intrigued and excited by, yet also a bit unsure of. After careful consideration, I applied but, knowing the competitive nature of the scheme, I didn’t think too much about it.
I was eventually invited down to London for an interview and a small debate session. I left confident and positive about the process, recognising that if I wasn’t successful, at least I now had good interview experience under my belt. After about a month, an email arrived telling me I was going to The Stony Brook School (SBS) in New York, an academically competitive, Christian boarding school. Feelings of both joy and nervousness set but as preparations began immediately, I had no time to dwell. I needed a medical overview with vaccinations, an interview for my visa, and had a lot of shopping to do! Before I knew it, I was boarding the early morning flight to New York.
The first time driving up to campus, I was met with lots of signs reading ‘Welcome to Stony Brook!’ accompanied by lots of students who I later found out to be part of the admissions council. I was greeted by very friendly staff, shown the boarding residence (or dorm) that I would call home for the coming months, and then taken to the award-covered sports hall which gave me my first taste of SBS life and all the societies I could sign up for. I was known as the ‘British guy’ for those who I hadn’t met yet, with everyone wanting to know the mysterious guy with the funny accent! I was confident in myself, although meeting new people is always a bit strange when you’ve lived in a different culture and society for your entire lives. Yet the most important part of any experience followed – dinner. The food was exceptional for a school, and I was truly impressed by the quality.
The first day, weeks even, was a whirlwind. A completely overwhelming culture shock, but something which I fell in love with straight away. The craving to get away from my rural village had been satisfied many times over, so much so that I was just in awe. I wanted to get stuck into everything. After the first month, I got onto the Mental Health Council, was part of the Men’s Strength and Conditioning team and Mock Trial Team (in later months), all while quickly becoming a big personality in the dorm because of the interest people took in the only ‘British lad’ on campus.
I loved every second of my Stony Brook experience, and although I was devastated to have it cut short due to COVID, I came home with many treasured memories of the life-long friends I made there, with the boys in the dorm who came from places like Nigeria, Brazil and Germany, but also with many of the people across campus who primarily lived in New York, or in nearby states such as Pennsylvania. Highlights of the school year were the adventures I had with my companions in New York City where we got lost while surfing the subway, climbing the narrow staircase which led inside ‘Lady Liberty’s’ crown or feasting in a small, Italian pizzeria with slices of pizza the size of my head! A Worship Weekend which took us into a snowy Massachusetts, where we rode tubs down icy hills, while also embracing each other as brothers through worship and song also stands out, along with my own personal adventure, trekking down to Washington DC where I explored the city’s many outstanding museums, and toured the stunning Capitol building.
I feel lucky to have met so many different people from various cultures and walks of life, from my Brazilian friend who lives on the hot, verdant coastline, with cocktails left, right and centre accompanied by varying degrees of political unrest, to another friend from Nigeria with whom I talked for hours about Britain’s colonial impact on his homeland. I not only educated myself from these people, but they allowed me some perspective into their own cultures and societies, whether that be an exciting and bustling Thanksgiving table with a 33lb turkey, accompanied by too many vegetables to count and the smell of fresh banana bread from the oven, or spending time in the home of a first-generation Indian-American, giving me insight into how their ethnicity and immigration status affects their everyday life, from shopping in the street, to the community they live in. Stony Brook offered an educational process which heavily emphasised religion and philosophy, providing an enlightening learning experience. Stony Brook is a place which I now describe as a second home, with many of the faculty becoming friends, with whom I will stay on my return. Without such an experience, I would have a huge deficit of cultural experience and a lack of character. I’d have also missed out on the privilege of having international friends who have opened my mind and provided me with many ‘homes-away-from-home’ around the globe.
Because of these people, I have been able to understand the person I want to be. My mind has been opened, and I have been truly inspired to be the best version of myself. I’m completely grateful for this life-changing opportunity, something which I’ll never be able to explain in full.
Three things I learned:
- Never overlook culture. Always approach opportunities with an open mind, without preconceptions of cultures and countries you really don’t understand, appreciating the people and culture as you learn from them.
- It’s easy for outsiders to talk about issues which don’t affect them, like gun rights. When dealing with people who live and breathe in the fragile society of the US, diplomacy is an important skill to adopt when debating with educated young adults.
- Put yourself out there. Try to engage as much as you can in the extra-curricular activities, try to make lots of friends, and think positively as much as you can. In this way, you will make the most of your experience, giving you the best memories!