ESU governor Gillian Day first heard about the English-Speaking Union and its Secondary School Exchange programme when a fellow pupil talked about her experiences on the exchange in her school assembly one day. Her interest piqued, Gillian applied and was sent to a high school in Brooklyn in New York City, where she lived with a family in their apartment for a year.
What did you know about America and your school before you went?
I had never been to America before so my impressions were entirely based on television and film, particularly TV detective dramas. I’d seen Kojak, Taxi Driver, Columbo… so I thought it would be dangerous and quite exciting. It wasn’t quite like that, although the subway trains were covered in graffiti and patrolled by Guardian Angels, unarmed volunteers trained to combat crime. I didn’t know much about what to expect from my school either. At the time the TV show Fame about a New York high school for performing arts was very popular here so I imagined it might be like that.
What were your first impressions?
It was much more boisterous and rowdy than my school at home. It was co-ed for a start, with no uniforms and some teachers were called by their first name. The cultural mix was hugely diverse too with students from a wide mix of races, religions and backgrounds, drawn from all five boroughs – from the South Bronx to Staten Island. Most shockingly for me, Jimmy, the security guard at the front entrance, packed a gun.
What were the highlights of your time there?
There were many but one thing I’ll never forget was that, on a school trip to Washington DC, our class was invited for dinner by Kathryn Graham (the then owner of the Washington Post) at her home, and after dinner we could ask editor Ben Bradlee and journalist Bob Woodward questions about anything we liked, including the Watergate scandal.
And the lowlights?
I remember I was put in the 9th Grade US history class – the test for which was to fill in a map of the US with all the states and state capitals. I had Washington DC right around Kansas… I also remember getting marched off a Quebec-bound train by Canadian guards at the border in the early hours of the morning for not having the right paperwork and, on another occasion, hiking to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, running out of water and having to camp on the trail.
How did your year abroad change you?
It gave me curiosity, resilience, a world view and the ability to see other people’s points of view. Without doubt it gave me a much greater sense of independence – I’d had to stand on my own two feet and had proved I could. It also greatly expanded my horizons and gave me a better understanding of the US perspective. Indeed, I went back to NYC after university to attend graduate school at Columbia and worked on Wall Street for several years before coming home to work in the City. And, last but by no means least, it gave me some friendships which are still thriving today.
Why did you want to become involved with the ESU as a governor?
To give something back to an organisation which provided me with a fantastic opportunity.
What do you hope to achieve?
I want to help raise the ESU’s profile and get more people excited about it, its mission and all the valuable work that it does.