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Home > News and views > My year on the Secondary School Exchange

My year on the Secondary School Exchange

We were thrilled to receive an email from Secondary School Exchange alumna Lois Sear recently, telling us that, 40 years on, she is still in contact with her host family and the school she had the good fortune to visit. Here she tells us a little more about her experience:

ESU alumna Lois Sear tells us about her time in America on the Secondary School Exchange

Tell us a bit about yourself.
I live on the Gold Coast in Australia and have been here since marrying an Australian, David, in 1990. I have had a career in the university sector and have very recently retired from full time work; a couple of days a week at work is a lovely work/life balance and I am thoroughly enjoying the time to do other things. We live on an island so enjoy all things on and around the water and I am currently training for my second triathlon being held in November! I am a working member of the Australian justice system and volunteer my time for people who need help in our health service.

Tell us about your year in Illinois.
I was a grateful recipient of an ESU scholarship in 1982 and travelled from Bruton School for Girls in Somerset to Illinois, USA, to spend the academic year at North Shore Country Day School in Winnetka. I lived with the Dettmers family who provided a loving and generous home away from home; we have always stayed in contact – Jane and I recently met in Paris as I was travelling to the UK from Australia. I kept a diary during my year, starting on September 14, 1982 at Dartmouth House and finishing on June 18, 1983. I wrote pages and pages of my thoughts. I had such a wonderful time, with many new experiences and meeting many new friends, and doing lots of domestic US travel. My US History teacher, Mr Jack Ingram, even came to my wedding!

What were the highlights academically and socially? 
I chose to study subjects that I had not taken at A level – US history, constitutional law, art, psychology and advanced English and engaged with all of them. I was involved with a lot of extra-curricular activities such as drama, music and sport, for which NSCDS has a great reputation so all the days and weekends were filled. My host family included me in everything and were supportive of all I wanted to do so I was lucky enough to travel with them across America (when looking at colleges for Jane) and to holiday with them in the Bahamas and Bermuda! (Funny story – I was stopped at Immigration after our Thanksgiving trip to Bermuda as my visa was not a multi-entry visa – it took a lot of diplomatic help from the ESU and some gentle persuasion from NSCDS to persuade the authorities that I was not a threat to the USA and to be allowed back in!). I passed my driving test early in the year and shared a car with Jane so we had some independence in getting to and from school – it was all QUITE different from my life at boarding school in Somerset the previous year!

How did your year in the US change you? 
I know I was an independent person before I went to America but immersing myself in that culture and saying ‘yes’ to all the opportunities that I was offered, made me even more so. I was truly blessed to have stayed with such a generous host family, and fundamentally, the year set my path to thinking that anything was possible. I met people who had different viewpoints from mine, and I was able to start to think outside of what I should do on my return to the UK.

Tell us about your continuing relationship with your host family?
It’s amazing really that we all stayed in touch – without the internet! – but I have always been a letter writer and that just continued when I returned to the UK and to my new working life in London. Unfortunately Mrs Dettmers died suddenly in the following year which was such a shock but maybe that cemented our friendship even more. My US History teacher Mr Ingram was a great writer too, so I stayed in touch with him until his death in the mid-2000s. My school NSCDS is also a great communicator – I still receive their newsletters and annual magazine. I travelled to Chicago for our cohort’s 30th reunion and had a lovely time and am sorry to have missed the 40th celebrations this month, Covid restrictions put paid to that. Jane spent some time in Paris with her family so I was able to meet her there on one of my UK trips and we always exchange Christmas cards with all our news. And of course now, we can see what folk are doing on Facebook which is a bonus when I live so far away.

Did you ever do any of our public speaking or debate competitions while at school?
I don’t think so – I was introduced to the ESU scholarship by my drama teacher.  I have always been interested in debating though and have been a team manager for a local boys’ school over the years. It’s such a wonderful skill to practice and so transferable to all parts of our lives.

Whom do you admire and why?
I admire any person who manages to live a happy and fulfilled life. I think that one person can make a difference, so I admire those folk who have a great idea and then make things happen!

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Small personal achievements are better than one big one. Being married to David for 32 years, moving to a new country in my early 20s and making a home in Australia, completing the Camino de Santiago walk in northern Spain with a backpack, finishing a Triathlon when I was 50, being successful at work – many things make a person whole.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I hope the ESU, with its international partners, can continue to offer wonderful opportunities to school leavers, just like I had – I remember it all so fondly and it shaped the rest of my early adult life, in such a positive way!


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