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Home > News and views > ‘I came back much more independent and confident in myself’

‘I came back much more independent and confident in myself’

In 1955, Sheila Fowler-Watt (née Beynon) was the first girl to go on an ESU Secondary School Exchange to America. Since then, hundreds have followed in her footsteps, including her daughter, Susie, in 1986. Natasha Goodfellow hears their story  

SHEILA 
‘I heard about the exchange, then called the Isabel Carden Griffin Memorial Scholarship, from my school. My headmistress was a bit damning about my chances, but she said I’d be free to go as I wasn’t going to university; I was planning to go into nursing instead. I thought it would be quite a challenge and my parents encouraged me, although they became rather apprehensive as my departure date approached. They arranged for me to have a chaperone on the voyage, and Brigadier Jack Treadwell (Vice-President of the English-Speaking Union of America) and his wife Susan had visited us at home and offered to be my guardians for the year, which was reassuring. But still, my mother cried – the first time I’d ever seen her do so – when she came to wave me off on the Queen Mary. The journey took five or six days and I suddenly realised I was going to be very cut off from home. I’d been placed at the Masters School, in Dobbs Ferry, New York State, and was very homesick at first. Letters took a long time and we didn’t make international phone calls in those days, but I soon made friends. Annie, Tica and Joanna, an English girl who had been sent to America during the war and had stayed, were my closest friends – and I’m still in touch with them today. We used to walk into the town for ice creams. I remember being amazed at the choice, as we barely had ice cream at home. We weren’t that far from NYC, so we used to go down there at weekends by train, a freedom I hadn’t had before. Because it was a boarding school, my friends came from all over and I went to stay with them in the holidays – to California, Chicago, Kentucky, Washington DC, Boston and Texas. Everyone was just so incredibly welcoming and outgoing. It made a deep impression on me. It was an adjustment coming home just as it had been an adjustment going over, but I came back much more independent and confident in myself. I noticed the difference when I started nursing, as most of the girls had gone straight from school, but I had had this amazing year away and my horizons were much broader as a result. I’m delighted Susie – and my son Andrew, as it happens – were able to follow in my footsteps. They’ve experienced life in a country that is quite different, and made lasting links with people there. And that brings both confidence and a different outlook on life – very valuable attributes.’

SUSIE
‘I think I’d always known I wanted to do a Secondary School Exchange. My mother used to keep her yearbook from her time at Masters (left) by the side of her bed, and I used to love leafing through it. I thought it was so glamorous. Because of the friends she’d made there, we’d visited America twice as a family and so I was even keener by the time the opportunity presented itself after my A levels. I’d taken them at 16 and so was quite young, and my parents were keen that I do something productive with my gap year rather than just going backpacking. I knew the interview panel were looking for people who would be good ambassadors for Great Britain, so I was over the moon and very relieved to find out they thought I fitted the bill. I was sent to Hotchkiss School, in the Berkshires in northern Connecticut. The tradition there is that on the first morning after orientation, new students get up early and jump into the lake. I’d had a very long journey and arrived late and was told I didn’t have to join in if I was too tired, but I had my mother’s voice ringing in my ears. Before I’d left, she’d told me to throw myself into everything, to get involved, to be enthusiastic, and so that’s exactly what I did – I got up and threw myself into the lake! It was exactly the right thing to do. And even though I was incredibly homesick at first (to the point where I didn’t actually unpack my suitcase for a fortnight), by the end of two weeks I felt completely at ease. As I already had a place to read medicine at Cambridge, I could study whatever I was interested in. I chose philosophy, drama and American literature and I sang with the chamber choir and with the band. The school had the most amazing theatre, it had incredible sports facilities, the teachers were inspiring and it was a total awakening for me in so many ways. All the things I’d dreamt of doing, I could now do as part of everyday life. The exchange quite literally changed my life, not only because I gained so much in confidence and independence, but because I decided during that year that, having studied only maths and sciences since the age of 14, I didn’t want to do medicine any more. I didn’t want to be a doctor – I wanted to read philosophy. And, through learning how to structure an argument and how to look at both sides, that has ultimately led me to my current career as a journalist and presenter for the BBC. I hope my own daughter will be keen to apply for the programme. The structure allows you to gain in learning and experience whilst also getting the chance to travel and to make lifelong friends. It’s just such a vibrant experience; I would recommend it to anybody.’

Susie Fowler-Watt presents BBC Look East and is a judge for the ESU-Churchill National Public Speaking Competition for schools 

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