In 1978 when Eleanor Alger suggested School Year Abroad to twin daughters Alexandra (Alex) FR’79 and Hilary FR’79, she inspired a family tradition that has endured for two generations. Daughter Nicole FR’83 would follow her sisters to Rennes, and much later, grandson Davison Chung CN’12 would venture to Beijing to perfect his Mandarin language skills.
“I heard about SYA from a friend whose two sons went to France,” says Eleanor. “It was Christmastime and Alex and Hilary were in ninth grade. I thought, , this is really fabulous.’ I pursued it through Spence and -Bamford (where Alex and Hilary were in school, respectively) that spring and they were both sold on the idea.” Daughter Alex, a former business journalist from Brooklyn, recalls her excitement at the prospect of traveling outside the U.S. for the first time. “We were both at small private girls’ schools in the bubble of the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and here was a chance to go to France for a year on our own,” she says. “It was so fantastic as to be beyond imagining.”
The sisters lived separately abroad yet share similar recollections about their host families. “They were incredibly warm and merry people,” says Hilary, a nonprofit fundraising consultant who lives in Philadelphia with her family. Both French host mothers happened to be talented cooks and knitters, thus each twin came home with a handmade sweater she had knitted herself.
For Alex, the memories that are most vivid all these years later tend to center around the gastronomical. “French food in general was a revelation. I’d never so much as tasted a baguette,” she laughs. “To this day I remember rising when it was still dark, bounding eagerly out of bed, because I couldn’t wait to sit down with my tartine (baguette with butter) and a cup of hot chocolate, which I made myself on the stove, my French family still asleep.”
The Gift of Confidence
Reflecting on the enduring lessons of her year in Rennes, she says. “Before SYA, I’d never thought about what it meant to be an American. I was forced to look at myself the way the French looked at me. Which was an uncomfortable place to be, especially in the beginning when I wasn’t fluent enough to express myself the way I wanted to. When you have to struggle to express yourself,” she continues, “you start to see yourself more clearly and to think about who you are and who you might want to be. That kind of growth may not be possible without spending time on your own in a foreign country.”
“To some extent,” she says, “(my French family) reflected onto me whatever general thoughts they had about Americans. I wasn’t simply an American, I was America, personified. I remember their comments on how wasteful Americans were — and certainly we were and are.” Alex recalls being allowed one shower a week and the constant reminders to turn off lights when not using them.
“At SYA you also learn patience and how to weather early-stage loneliness.” she adds. “In the end, the gains in self-confidence and sense of self are immeasurable.”
Twin sister Hilary echoes her Alex’s sentiments. “My experience at SYA made me a much more self-confident person, gave me a greater appetite for risk, and also increased my sense of my own possibilities,” she says. “I learned the valuable lesson that there are many ways to be and to act in the world that are just as valid as the ways I had grown up with. My nine months in Rennes built up my resilience and tested my courage. It remains one of the most impactful and joyful periods of my life.”