Chris Dwyer ’93 was a 17-year-old student living in a small English town and a member of the debate team at Colchester Royal Grammar School when he was introduced to the English-Speaking Union, an education charity for international students “working to give young people the speaking and listening skills and the cross-cultural understanding they need to thrive.” The ESU was offering British students finishing secondary school in the UK year-long scholarships at a high school in the United States. Chris wasn’t exactly sure what he was getting himself into, but he applied and was soon invited for an interview up in the big city of London.
The interview was definitely nerve-wracking and he got a little tongue-tied at the start, but luckily a fire alarm went off, meaning the building had to be evacuated. The alarm calmed him down and he quickly connected with his interviewers. A month later, he received a letter explaining that he had won a full scholarship and would be heading to Rochester, NY to live with the McLear family (Eleanor, Bruce, Gavin ’93, Rob ’88) and spend Grade 12 at The Harley School. He took out his atlas—this was before Google Maps—and started getting excited, even though he didn’t know at the time that New York was a state as well as a city!
Leading up to his trip, Chris and the McLears exchanged letters back and forth, getting to know each other and planning the stay. One key tip that Eleanor McLear gave him was, “Bring a coat, it gets a little chilly in Rochester.” Chris went out and bought a new “mac” (a raincoat). Little did he know he’d soon be needing something much, much warmer!
Today Chris is a freelance travel writer who has been to more than 90 countries, but when he boarded the plane to head to New York in September 1992, he had never flown further than an hour to France. When the McLears picked him up at the airport, he immediately felt at home and says that they were “instrumental in making the year amazing” due to their warmth, generosity, passion for learning and culture, and desire to introduce him to new things.
When he walked in the door of Harley on his first day of school, he was surprised by how contemporary it was. He knew that, for the US, Harley is considered quite established in its years, but he came from a school that was almost 500 years old. The study and extracurricular options really impressed him, especially since in the UK, from the age of 16 you study three subjects—so he had studied only French, German, and English for the previous two years. At Harley, on the other hand, he dove right in and took classes including creative writing, photography, book art, bio, mathematics, psychology, Japanese, and history. He also took French with Peter Flinders P ’88 (French, 1978-1994). Having come from two full years of French immersion in the UK, his French was well above the level of the class so Mr. Flinders gave him private lessons and access to classic French texts that set him up for his future studies in French Literature and Literary Theory at University College, London.
Out of school, Chris was at Harley in the year when Bill Clinton was first running for president and he joined classmates putting in lawn signs for local Democratic candidates. He also became a “little obsessed” with American television. There were so many channels, compared to just four in the UK at the time! And so many shows! He particularly enjoyed “Cops”, “Jeopardy” and continued his love of news by watching a ton of CNN. Then, of course, there was the weather and more snow than he could ever have imagined. He had never even heard of a snowblower but quickly became acquainted with one!
Outside of the classroom, he participated in yearbook with Alex DeSantis P ’84 (English, 1971-2009). It was something else completely new to him, but his time with Alex and the yearbook staff really tapped into his creative side. He also loved playing on the soccer team with his host brother, Gavin ’93, who was one of the best soccer players in the area. Playing on the team was great fun and a way for him to discover different parts of Upstate NY, with all that running around, he even lost weight (Side note: he loved the food in the Harley dining hall, especially compared to British school food —he found the salad bar amazing and grilled cheese and tomato soup was a favorite.).
Other highlights included prom, homecoming, the batting cages, playing regular pool and squash, watching the Red Wings baseball, going to Friendly’s and Perkins, and even eating his first-ever submarine sandwich, bagel, and sushi! He said that at times his experience at Harley felt “straight out of The Breakfast Club”, an unforgettable and iconic experience. While the culture, the environment, and the people were all so new and different, he appreciated how welcoming, kind, and friendly everyone was from the outset. Well, almost everyone. When he was pulled to join the “Scottish Exchange” at the last minute, his host family in Edinburgh was a little less than excited to get a fellow Brit as an exchange student!
After a four-year degree at University College London which included a year living in Paris, he spent another year in France and then got a job in London working for a youth development non-profit called Raleigh International. One definite highlight was spending two weeks in Chile with the Prince William, now Duke of Cornwall.
He was then hired by CNN International in London where he worked for five years before moving to Hong Kong in 2005 as the Vice President of Communications for Asia-Pacific. He had a team of 25 and traveled all over the world. By 2014 he needed a break from the corporate world and decided to pursue writing, one of his true passions, encouraged in part by his Creative Writing class with Alex DeSantis. Now, six years later, he is a freelance travel and food writer working for media groups like CNN, the BBC, CNBC, Travel & Leisure, and The South China Morning Post. He has been very fortunate to travel to over 90 countries and he is currently living in Hong Kong with his wife, Pat, and their new puppy, Toffee.
He’s quite a writer and sent some great examples:
Looking back, Chris credits Harley and the McLears for his open-mindedness and his desire to experience new countries and people. He adds teachers at Harley always presented new ideas and gave students the option to take new-found information and meld it into something meaningful. Ultimately, he is so thankful for his formative time abroad, and his chance to go to an American school like Harley.
He would love to hear from anyone at Harley and can be reached on Instagram at @chrismdwyer.