A Lifetime Impact?

The Fellowships have a lifetime impact for each individual Harkness Fellow. Many tell us that their time in the US was a life changing experience.

But how was it for the youngsters who accompanied their parent Harkness Fellow to live in the USA for anything from a few months to a year. Torn from their regular routines, would this be remembered as a great adventure, an extended holiday, or the foundations of some key elements of their future lives?  We asked some now adult Harkness offspring about their memories and the impact it had on their lives.

Their memories are of fun and interesting childhood experiences….

“Given I was 4, the main thing I remember is playing all the time and going on exciting trips…. I remember playing with lots of different children from all sorts of cultural backgrounds I would never have met where we’re from in CheshireI have lots of memories of California – taking a running jump into the pile of cuddly toys at Disney World in LA, the machine which crunched copper coins into mementos of Sterns wharf and losing a beloved toy in Yosemite. 

“I got involved in performing a play which is one of my fondest memories of my time there. I was lucky to make friends whose homes I went to, playing basketball in their front driveways like they do in the films. I still have great memories of teaching the whole class the phrase ‘easy peasy lemon squeezy’ and everyone thinking it hilarious!”

Small issues highlighted the difference between people in different countries; America’s size and diversity impressed.

 “My life in the states was much more colourful than it had been in Scotland.  Of course the seasons were more pronounced.  But it was more than that.  There was no school uniform, we could wear whatever we liked.  One teacher even encouraged us to dress in the colour associated with whatever cultural celebration was being observed at the time.  I still do that to this day!   The kids in my class were also a complete mix of race, religion and colour; something I barely noticed at the time but which perhaps explains my keen interest in diversity and inclusion in the workplace.”

 “I first remember going skiing in Vermont. Everything seemed large. We went to the Ben and Jerry’s factory nearby which was classically American – so large and so many options. At the end of about 50 choices to taste, my sister chose vanilla :).” 

Ducklings in Boston Public Garden

 “One key memory for me was attending school in Boston, which was a contrast to my primary school back in London. It felt a lot bigger and grander, the playground was very comprehensive in comparison with loads of apparatus. In some ways I felt quite advanced in terms of my learning – especially in my reading and writing. But on the flip side they offered opportunities I hadn’t had in the UK including a fantastic wood working class which I absolutely loved; it started a life-long interest.” 

 It was not always easy………………….

“When I was there, and attending school, it wasn’t always a positive impact. I found the culture a big challenge, and repeatedly got into trouble with my teacher for refusing to say the Pledge of Allegiance to the American flag, because I definitely wasn’t American and the whole pledge thing was too weird for me.”

 “Joining school (aged 10) mid-way through a year was very tough, and there was an expectation  (or at least I perceived there to be ) that I would know what they’d all been doing. This got much easier though, and they gave me a civil war project of my own to work on.  Being out there then also meant I missed my secondary school pre-entry get-together.”  

“I remember being sad at leaving family and friends behind.  But that was back in the 1970s, when the options for keeping in touch were archaic compared to what’s on offer today.   My brother and I recorded ourselves on cassettes which were then air-mailed to our grandparents’ home in Aberdeen.”

 It is not only in recent years that children accompanied Fellows. Earlier Fellows have referenced families travelling with them.  Jan Morris, then James Morris, who was a Commonwealth Fund Fellow in 1953 took his eldest two children with him. Harrison Birtwhistle (HF 65-67) took his three children with him – their adventures included travelling across the Atlantic on an ocean liner.

 It was in the 1990s, however, that the number of accompanying children reached a level that required “proper management”   The scheme as revised by William Plowden in 1990 was focused on mid-career professionals who were much more likely to want to bring children.  Keith Kirby, who ran the programme from 1991, takes up the story.The arrival in the US of children (and partners!) was an inevitable consequence of changes made to the Harkness Fellowships from 1990…………  As I saw it, the presence of a family required Fellows to engage much more deeply with American culture and society.  Those with children had to engage with schools, children’s friends and sporting activities, American families, and much more.  I saw that as beneficial to the aim of gaining the depth of understanding of the USA that was needed to make sense of, and to profit from, sometimes stark differences in policy and practice…………  I also argued that the Fellowships got more bang for their buck.  We not only got an ex-Fellow with professional contacts in the US, we got a family whose American friendships and visits could be lifelong”

Keith’s wife, Lis, a qualified teacher takes up the story. “ I first met the 1991 fellows at a hotel in New York. It became clear, then, to both Keith and I, that we’d need to provide some childcare during seminars; to allow fellows to focus fully on the seminar programmes, their partners to participate as well, and their children to benefit from this once in a lifetime opportunity.” From then until 1997, as Childcare Coordinator, Lis  “arranged visits to art galleries and museums, open top bus tours, river trips and so much more. The children weren’t just looked after, they were shown a window in to the culture of the cities and states they visited.” As her children “got older, they remember sharing their experiences of US life with fellows’ children. My daughters have such fond memories of the seminars, I’m sure the other children do too. “

The children of Fellows do indeed have fond memories  There was “loads of travel to other cities in the States. The one that stood out the most was San Francisco. I fell in love with it and decided when I was older I wanted to live there on a house boat. It’s still an option in the back of my mind!”  

It is hard to say whether an experience like this has a life-long impact and difficult to separate out the aspects of our early lives that influence who we are as we grow older.  What do our interviewees think?

 So many of the strongest memories of my childhood were from my year in the states that it is impossible to say exactly how it shaped my life. It was a truly formative experience. Going to a new country, with a new school, a new home, and new friends will always be a challenge, at times I found it extremely hard. But now, I wouldn’t change a thing. In adulthood I maintain a sense of wonder in the world, and a deep curiosity that has led me to select a career as a research scientist. I believe that seeing the world in the way I did during the Harkness Fellowship was instrumental in this development. “

 “It’s hard to say what the lasting impact of that year is, but I do think it gave me a sense of possibility – that it’s easy to take trips, meet new friends, that there are always lots of exciting experiences round the corner (and I’ve now travelled very far and wide). I also think it was very positive to be in a more diverse social mix than back home and befriend lots of different children.”

 “My time in North Carolina definitely had a huge impact, at least according to the teacher who told my parents at parents’ evening “If Hannah says ‘When I was in America’ one more time!” .……… However those six months, playing Oregon Trail on the school computers, the places I got to visit, and the people I met, gave me a lifelong interest in American History. So much so that I ended up getting a PhD in it. And 22 years later, the speaker at my PhD graduation, and the person who handed me the certificate was a Harkness Fellow from the same year as my dad who I’d last seen when I was about 10.” 

“The overarching memory is that it was an amazing opportunity and adventure, I learned to always take opportunities.”  

 “….. I suppose the biggest impact of my short time in America is an ability to express myself.  At that formative age, we were encouraged to say how we felt, and explain why.  This was in contrast to the norm in Scotland at the time, when people didn’t really open up at all.  I am now a Senior Communications Manager so I suppose it must have stood me in good stead.  Plus I really hope it’s a legacy I’ve been able to pass down to my own children.”

With many thanks for contributions to KB, SB, EL, AL and HF from the 90’s cohort, SM from the 70s and Lis and Keith Kirby.