Kane McLaughlin from Derry, who is now studying at the University of Leeds and working as an ESU Mentor, was given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spend a year at a school in the US.
It was with trepidation that I left just after A-level results day in 2015 to embark on my gap year at an American boarding school. It was a strange gap year. People usually work to save for university or go travelling in exotic locations. I took another year at secondary school.
But the secondary school wasn’t a normal one, it was an American prep school a few hours outside of Washington DC that one could only attend for $55,000 a year.
I attended through the generosity of the English-Speaking Union with the award of the Secondary School Exchange scholarship. It was an amazing opportunity.
There’s a lot of pressure for a 17 year old to go straight from school to university. A gap year in the USA seemed just the thing. I got to choose subjects that I wanted to do so I took classes that I’ve never had the opportunity to such as oratory, art history and economics.
My other motivation for applying is that the scholarship is rather prestigious with a chairman of HSBC, head of MI6 as well as former US Presidential candidate Howard Dean amongst the alumni. Oh, and Dawn French too. I was hoping some success would rub off on me.
The school I attended was the Virginia Episcopal School, and it’s where the sons and daughters of North Carolina’s and Virginia’s elite go to be educated. The campus is picturesque with its buildings in red brick, dressed with white columns and its manicured lawns. Whilst the building was beautiful and the subjects new and exciting, my year was mainly vindicated by the close friendships that I made. I made friends with so many people from different walks of life and corners of the globe.
One of these was my roommate, Darrien Johnson. My roommate was very different; he was the antithesis of me and many people pointed out that contrast between the short, un-athletic, Irish, fair-skinned guy and the tall, American football-playing, Caribbean New Yorker. I spent Thanksgiving at his home in New York City. It was an extraordinary experience from the Macy’s day parade to the traditional gut-busting dinner.
Whilst New York was an amazing trip, Washington DC is my favourite city in the USA. The city’s classical architecture attests to the grand ambitions of the young country and to the aspirations of a democratic republic. I was kindly given time at the British embassy there by Patrick Davies, the deputy British Ambassador and an ESU alumnus, for a meeting. The ESU’s Alex Orpin was so helpful in arranging a meeting so I could find out more about his work as a diplomat, as my own career ambitions are in international relations. The embassy was right next to The Naval Observatory, the vice-president’s home. Patrick was very helpful, telling me about what his career in the foreign office has been like and I was so thankful for such a high-ranking diplomat giving me so much of his time.
As an ESU scholar, I had certain doors opened to me. As well as meeting the deputy British Ambassador, I hosted David Cameron’s aunt for lunch and I ate pizza on a billionaire’s estate. I even knew Clinton’s running mate, Tim Kaine, was running for vice-president a few days before it was announced!
However, there were a lot of culture shocks. European political culture is a world away from America; I witnessed someone give a gift of a small, pink handgun to a friend’s little sister, the issue of gun ownership is something that many Americans feel ingrained in their identity. There was also the matter of being understood in the first place with an Irish accent. Mine is not the strongest but when I’m especially tired it can take subtitles to understand me. This was apparent one early morning when staying with a friend and asking where the shower was only to receive directions to the coffee machine!
The SSE experience has had the most profound effect on my life and given me experiences, opportunities and attitude that have empowered me and made me a better person. It’s for this reason that I decided to remain involved with the ESU following my return to the UK. I’ve starting working for the ESU as a debating mentor in schools. This has been really rewarding work, through which I can help empower other young people through the ESU in developing their oracy skills in debate.
I am so thankful for the scholarship that I have received from the ESU and I’m hopeful to say that it has only been the beginning of my relationship with the ESU. The Secondary School Exchange is a unique experience, which has a profound effect on its recipients. It’s truly a gap year with a difference.