By Carlin Carr
With the end of summer and start of the crisp fall air, most recent Walkers’ grads have already made the big move to their colleges of choice. These colleges may be local to New England or even across the country. But not everyone took that straight path — one student did the unthinkable: staying on for another year of high school.
In the spring, Elisabeth “Liz” Helmin ’19 was accepted into the prestigious English-Speaking Union (ESU) program, and this September, she headed to Eastbourne College in England as a postgraduate student — or, as the British students call them,”6th-years” — and she couldn’t be more excited about her global academic adventure.
“It’s very exciting to be taking classes in a different country that will help me toward my major,” says Liz, who will be attending the University of Massachusetts at Amherst to pursue landscape architecture when she returns. “I’m thrilled to be able to travel in the UK and throughout Europe as well as takes classes. Last year a student travelled to 13 countries. I plan to follow that.”
Clarissa Basch, Walker’s Director of College Counseling, heads up the ESU exchange, guiding Walker’s seniors through the application process and also welcoming UK students to campus. She says that the ESU program provides an exciting and affordable alternative to the many for-profit gap-year options out there.
Participating ESU private schools in both the US and UK are vetted and then can become members, ensuring quality. For the students, the process is highly selective, including an interview with a local board, with the expectation that selected students will be ambassadors for their country and school while abroad, so “maturity and open-mindedness are important characteristics,” says Clarissa.
Once accepted, students pay a $2,000 fee to ESU and then their tuition, room and board is covered for the year by a scholarship. This makes the program an enticing option to a diverse array of students.
Clarissa’s own daughter, Talia, was selected into the ESU program in 2015, and Clarissa says she was incredibly impressed by the program and how much her daughter matured on a whole new scale in the process.
Talia made friends with other ESU students, who came from many different countries, as well as with British students, even visiting with some of their families. Clarissa recounts when she, her husband and son went to visit during Talia’s April vacation, and they all met in Rome. “She [Talia] arrived first, picked up the keys for our Airbnb, found the grocery store, and had wine, bread and cheese waiting for us when we got there,” says Clarissa. “Not bad for an 18 year old! Navigating different cultures gave her so much confidence.”
Patricia “Trisha” Smith, now in her junior year in mechanical engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, also attended the ESU program, and although she had some trepidations at first, she says the extra year of academic preparation and the experience abroad was invaluable.
Trish was a day student at Walker’s, so she never had the experience of living in the dorms. She saw this as a good transition step before college. “Part of what attracted me was the fact that I’d lived in Connecticut my entire life and I really wanted to try living somewhere else,” she says.
Still, she was concerned about taking a gap year. “When I thought about it, I was concerned about being a year behind my graduating Walker’s class, and being on the older side in my class at college. However, once I got to college, I realized it really didn’t matter, and the extra year I got to mature helped me a lot.”
Trisha’s year was a magical experience: she traveled on weekends all over England and to other European countries; took a history class trip to Greece; became a dorm prefect; and even started a girls’ soccer team (or as her classmates called it, “football”), receiving a captain’s armband for her valiant efforts to bring the varied-abilities team together.
Looking back, Trisha says it was “absolutely” the right decision. “I have always been independent and confident in my ability to make friends wherever I go, but this was a different kind of independence … I was able to figure out how to get around in the world on my own.”
While these Walker’s students and alumnae all enjoyed the jaunt across the Atlantic for further studies, Walker’s also welcomes ESU students from abroad for an academic year. Alison Bruce Creichton-Stuart ’81 is among them. She came to Walker’s from England during the 1980-1981 academic year, just after completing high school at St. Helen’s, Northwood, Middlesex.
She had already applied to defer her admission to Durham University by one year and was looking for what to do with this time. While taking a gap year was already popular in England — many students using the opportunity to backpack in far-off places — Alison didn’t feel she was ready for international travel on her own yet. A friend told her about the ESU program, and she liked the idea of a cultural exchange.
Alison was matched with Walker’s because of her love of horses and the Walker’s riding program. She spent the year on campus, boarding at Cluett, and says her experience was “exhilarating” but also came with initial trials and tribulations; “It was challenging to walk into an already-formed community and try to make friends,” she recalls. But Alison took on the social challenge and also found herself strapping on skis for the first time, riding, taking singing lessons and embarking on a memorable cross-country trip at the end of the school year. At graduation, she was awarded the Caroline Walker Honor Society Prize for her contribution to the Walker’s community, topping off her Walker’s experience.
Through the exchange, she also made lifelong friends. This June, Alison flew back to Connecticut — just for commencement weekend — as classmate Yolanda “Yoli” Eleta de Varela ’81 had been invited to give the keynote address. Alison was joined by 15 other 1981 Walker’s graduates, who had all made the journey to support their classmate. In the end, Alison says, she “found a sisterhood” — one that transcends both time and distance.
As for Liz, she’s not only grateful for the adventure but how Walker’s helped bring her to this point. “I am a very different person having gone to Walker’s. I wouldn’t have been as outgoing and willing to try new things and see where it takes me.”