Emma Robinson reflects on an unforgettable experience, and the difference her grant made
Upon receiving confirmation of what would be my new school on my Secondary School Exchange, I immediately grabbed my laptop and frantically started researching. Memphis? My friends and I had never heard of it but a quick google search produced results such as ‘home of blues music’, ‘civil rights movement’ and ‘smoky BBQ ribs’ all of which I would become familiar with in the next few months. Further searching led me to find my new school and home: Hutchison. At first, I was apprehensive that Hutchison was an all-girls school (having experienced 12 years of co-ed) but I was thrilled to find that it was a day school. I was so eager to experience living in the US with a host family as I knew it would fully immerse me into the culture of the South. Living with a host family meant more freedom and opportunities to do activities outside of school, including being lucky enough to travel around the US with my host families. This all, however, came with an additional cost. These wonderful extra opportunities therefore were only possible due the generosity of my lovely host families and the grant from the ESU.
I used my grant for return flights and towards my insurance, both of which were a huge cost and came as a relief when I knew that I wouldn’t have to find the means of paying this myself. With less pressure on my family to pay upfront for big costs like flights it meant they could instead support me monthly during my time out there.
Despite my year being cut short due to the pandemic, there were still a plethora of opportunities to be had. I was a part of the school musical and choir which provided me with extra social activities outside of school and helped me meet people from different schools. Although the track and field season was cut short, I attended daily practice in which I met younger members of the school and was able to answer their questions about the UK and moving away from home. I threw myself into all school events including ‘spirit’ and dress up days which greatly contrasted with my experience of UK schools. Despite sometimes being quite intense, I really enjoyed the sense of pride that each of the students and staff had for the school and wished we had more of that at home. This was especially apparent at the weekly American football and basketball games each Friday night! In addition to all of this, I visited the Civil Rights Museum, attended college open days and experienced a PRIDE festival in the middle of a heavily conservative state. These events gave me a greater insight into the Southern culture.
The freedom of not sitting official exams not only helped me thoroughly enjoy my studying but also gave me additional time to pursue some work experience. I used this time to shadow a spinal surgeon and worked a day at the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation! I even applied to talk at TEDxMemphis in which I would have discussed the generational differences between the Southern states and the UK. This was a topic I was particularly interested in after finding out that my host sisters referred to their family members as ‘Ma’am’ and ‘Sir’ as a sign of respect. Small cultural differences like this were more apparent to me because I had the privilege of living within the culture with a host family.
Life in the South
Before I departed I was told that culturally everything would be different apart from the language. I soon found that to be true (whilst also picking up some new Southern slang!). My initial impression of Memphis was that it was still heavily segregated in spite of being one of the homes of the Civil Rights Movement and being where Martin Luther King was shot. Despite me being in lessons with progressively-minded young women, divisions were still obvious throughout the city. It became apparent that there was still a huge race and economic divide which was confirmed by my learning in my class of Human Geography. Coming from a predominately white small UK town, living in Memphis opened my eyes to the clear cut race and class divisions and I would spend time in class or with friends discussing how bridges between communities could be built to unify the city.
BBQ food, fashion styles and accents weren’t the only differences I encountered. I often found it useful to sit back and listen when spending time in the senior common room. I learnt a lot about the culture just by observing the way my new peers interacted with each other and the topics of their conversations. This was especially useful at the start of the school year when I was unsure of cultural norms. I soon became accustomed to the slightly more conservative way of life in this predominantly religious community and became comfortable enough with close friends to discuss their beliefs, culture and political views. Likewise, they asked me lots of questions whilst walking to class or chatting at lunch. We compared partying culture, family influences and the issue of gun control, a debate that came up frequently when we had school shooter drills or discussed gun rights in class. My peers were equally as interested in the cultural comparisons as I was.
My mum always says she remembers me facetiming her and simply repeating over and over again: ‘I am just learning so much!’ I had taken on five classes and loved each one. I could continue academic discussions with my friends as we drove to my favourite Mexican restaurant for lunch. I studied comparative politics which taught me more about the UK system than any class at home had whilst studying countries such as China and Russia and looking at systems there. It was so refreshing to study subjects outside of my scientific background and, as cheesy as it sounds, I now feel more set for life. I can confidently join in with conversations about political systems or human geography and add value to the discussion with all that I have learnt. I was also lucky enough to travel with both my host families. Not only was I able to experience Memphis but also San Francisco, LA, Chattanooga, Alabama and Las Vegas. I will forever be grateful for these trips and have such fond memories that will last a lifetime. I have made friends for life, met teachers that I will never forget and experienced things that have changed me as a person for the better. I will be forever in debt for this incredible opportunity. I would highly recommend applying for this program if you have a passion for learning, are proactive and are prepared to experience things you would never normally have the opportunity to do otherwise.
Click here if you’d like to find out more about or apply to the Secondary School Exchange.