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Home > News and views > Where could the ESU take you?

Where could the ESU take you?

BBC Radio Presenter Chris Hawkins found that not having to learn not only helped him to learn more, it gave him one of the best experiences of his life

Chris Hawkins is a presenter on BBC Radio 6 Music and spent a year at Tabor Academy, Massachusetts, in 1994 on the Secondary School Exchange

What do you remember the most about the Secondary School Exchange?

I think what I remember most about my time at Tabor Academy is the culture I became part of and the friends that I made – I’m still in touch with many of them now, 20-odd years later. The school itself is known as the ‘School By The Sea’, it was in a really beautiful New England setting and it was just one of the best experiences of my life.

How did you feel the first time you arrived at Tabor Academy?

The airline lost my luggage, so for the first week I had to borrow clothes which turned out to be a good way of getting to know people! I think for the whole time I was in America I was very much ‘the English kid’ – I was something of a novelty so I was never short of friends because they all just wanted to hear me talk.

Tell us about the education you received in America.

I did a lot of American politics and American history. It was obviously taught from a different perspective to the UK, which gave all of what I’d learnt before a really different spin, in a very good way. The school was on the coast and rowing was a big part of life there for me. I once competed for the school rowing team against Harvard. I also did a lot of drama, a lot of acting in school productions.

Part of what made the experience so great was that the pressure was really off, I’d done my A levels and had a place at university and that’s a really nice feeling because, oddly, it actually helped me learn more. I definitely think that was one of the best aspects of the whole scholarship experience: not having to achieve anything in particular but just being able to learn for enjoyment. And I still got to officially graduate from the school!

As a DJ you are obviously passionate about music, did you engage with the American music scene while you were there?

I hosted my own show on the school radio station which was great. Presenting on American College radio was a fantastic thing to do. I got to see a lot of American music while I was there, too. From a favourite group of mine, They Might Be Giants, to one hit wonder Haddaway, to a really intimate show by a singer I’m a huge fan of, Ben Folds. He and his band played a gig at the school. No one really knew who he was at the time and only about twelve of us turned up – now he plays to tens of thousands all around the world. I’ve interviewed him on the radio since then and he can actually remember playing that tiny show at Tabor.

I remember too, that a DJ friend back home got me some last-minute tickets to see Oasis who were playing in Buffalo New York, but I was travelling in Memphis at the time, over a thousand miles away. So I did the whole drive in a day and just as I was driving into Buffalo I heard on the car radio that Oasis had cancelled the gig!

What would you say to students who are thinking about doing the Secondary School Exchange?

Don’t hesitate. I had six of the most incredible months of my life. It really was fantastic, and brilliantly life changing. Anyone given this opportunity should grasp it with both hands.


We’re open now for applications to the Secondary School Exchange – find out more and apply now.

Read more alumni stories by visiting our Changing Lives page.

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