In 1928, The English Speaking Union created the Secondary School Exchange scholarship program to promote Anglo-American understanding between young men in England and America. Twenty-seven years later that changed when Sheila Fowler-Watt (Beynon) was the first young woman to be sent from England to the United States.
Recently we had the pleasure to welcome Sheila and her husband Donald to The English-Speaking Union’s National Headquarters during a cultural tour of New York City. Between opera and theater engagements, she and Donald (active ESU of the Commonwealth Education Committee member for over 20 years) sat down with us, sharing wonderful memories and pictures of her year at The Master’s School in Dobbs Ferry – vividly bringing that exciting time to life. Just as she had over 50 years earlier on her first trip to the US, Sheila charmed us immediately.
Although the Roedean School (Sussex) nominated Sheila, the headmistress was far from encouraging about Sheila’s chances of actually winning the Isabel Carden Griffin Memorial Scholarship to study in the United States for a year. The first of ten girls interviewed, Sheila’s nervousness was put at ease by the charm of the Committee and the fact that she needed to rush off immediately after the interview to compete in a lacrosse tournament. Her mother was almost as surprised as Sheila when she won the scholarship. Aware of the great honor their daughter had earned, her parents still had some trepidation about sending her overseas for a year in the era before email, international phone cards or frequent flyer programs. Brigadier Treadwell, Vice President of the ESU at the time, and his wife reassured her parents by coming to Sussex to meet them. Knowing the Treadwells would be her guardians in the United States, her parents felt reassured in letting her go.
Still, it was not an easy decision, and Sheila recalled the first time she ever saw her mother cry was from the ship as Sheila waved goodbye. She traveled aboard the Queen Elizabeth with a chaperone for the five-day voyage to America. There were other ESU members aboard the ship, but the SSE male scholars traveled over separately. When Sheila went past the Statue of Liberty on a sightseeing cruise recently, it suddenly transported her back to the first time she saw it from the Queen Elizabeth in 1955.
It reminded me of how daunted I was when I first saw that big New York City skyline and I thought what am I doing here? I’d lived quite a sheltered life in a boarding school until that time barely venturing into London. But in the end, it’s the people who make all the difference. The warmth of the Americans was so evident from the word go. I was so kindly welcomed, as you can see in the picture of me between Mr. Griffin (the scholarship was in memory of his wife) and Mr. Treadwell. I remember Janie, Jack Treadwell’s secretary, was absolutely wonderful to me and handed me over to the Kimballs who I stayed with that first week. The Treadwells acted as my guardians and the Kimball family also entertained me and became good friends.
Along with dealing with the homesickness of being away from her country, family, and friends for a year, Sheila experienced the pressure of living up to something, of being the first of something that they hoped would go on. It was academically stimulating but stressful. Sheila was able to share her knowledge of England and English Education. However, as her forte had been in the sciences, she hadn’t studied much English history and felt a bit at a loss when expected to fill in blanks of American knowledge of British history. The biggest difference to Sheila in academic styles in the United States was the frequency of tests. She lived in the school, shared a room with Julie Brown, joined the Glee Club, and played field hockey.
It was such a novelty for a British girl to study in the United States for a year that a reporter from the London Evening Standard came over and took pictures for an article to be written about Sheila. It was a wonderful year and I made super friends. Joanna Whitney, a war baby who had been adopted by the Whitney family in New Jersey, became her best friend. Sheila enjoyed Thanksgiving with Joanna’s auntie in Mendham New Jersey. It was her first taste of very gracious living. She experienced a New England Christmas with the Treadwell family in their lovely home. After graduation from The Masters School in early June, Sheila traveled to Louisville, Kentucky to attend her friend Annie McDowell’s Debutante Coming Out Ball. Sheila found a clipping from the Louisville Times of a photo taken at the ball along with a letter from Annie’s mother and all the letters she had written home during that year after her mother died.
When school finished, she traveled across America, staying with friends all over the country. Two of the highlights were staying with The English-Speaking Union in San Francisco and visiting her roommate Julie in Arizona. We were driving across the stunning Uma Desert to get to her family’s ranch and saw a rattlesnake. They handed me a stone and I killed the rattle snake with one throw.
After that first year, the number of girls increased yearly and I am delighted to be one of the current interviewers in London selecting the English students to come over each year. Sheila noted there is quite a difference in what candidates wear for their interviews these days, but she realizes clothes are not relevant, I enjoy looking for the person. It was a hugely valuable experience, so I wanted the same for my children. Two of her three children participated in the SSE. Andrew attended Lawrenceville, Susie attended Hotchkiss. I’d say the SSE definitely changed the course of Susie’s whole life. She’d been accepted to Cambridge to study medicine and after taking different subjects at Hotchkiss she told me she wanted to study the arts. Susie is now a BBC News Presenter and Andrew just began as Principal at the International School of Sri Lanka. They both made lifelong friends while a part of the SSE program as well.
So grateful was Sheila to The English-Speaking Union for her SSE experience that she phoned me a few days after the interview before returning to England to make certain the sentiment had come across.
I want to express my heartfelt gratitude to The English-Speaking Union for a lifelong experience. My being here after 50 years again shows it, but in the end, it is the friends that are the lasting part of the experience. I had always wondered what happened to the Isabelle Cardin Griffin Memorial Award and am pleased to know it has been incorporated into the SSE scholarship fund to continue to make the experience possible.
I have gained such pleasure from the warmth and generosity of the American people and their history and culture continue to inspire me.