This month's article comes from a GASSie in Manhattan. Eleanor Handley went to a town near Hamburg in the north of Germany on a SAGSE exchange in the 90's. She still recalls fondly the independence she gained through her exchange experience and the role this played in subsequent life decisions, most notably going off to the USA on an acting scholarship after finishing her VCE. Amongst her acting credits is this clip as Sheila Evans in Unforgettable Season 3.12, "Moving On", and she has also had an extensive career on Broadway and in other theatres all over the US, including performing in front of the Clintons during Bill's presidency. These days she also works as an Executive and Communications Coach.
Year of Exchange: 1996/97
Group Leader: Adrian Lennard
School: Toorak College
Town / city of exchange in Germany: Trittau
In 1996 smoking was still allowed on Lufthansa flights. I was seated in the last row of the non-smoking section. So I definitely have a strong memory of how I smelt (and felt) when I arrived.
Having never travelled in the northern hemisphere at that time of year, just how cold it might actually get was beyond my comprehension. My solution to 'appropriate winter gear' was to purchase a smart-looking burgundy dress coat and misguided beret from David Jones. As such, I spent a good amount of time in oversized outerwear borrowed from my very kind (and extremely bemused) Gastfamilie, who mercifully never said too much about it. However on Christmas morning, under the tree, were a bunch of packages with proper thermal undergarments, just my size!
More profoundly, the first day of independent travel. I had made plans to take the train from Hamburg to Munich, and then make my way out to a nearby suburb to meet up with two other GASSies at a Jugendgästehaus. (All pre-cell phones and GPS in your pocket mind you). My mother, back in Australia, was extremely nervous about the idea, and right up to the last minute urged me to stay with my lovely hosts until the group met for the supervised stay in Bonn and Berlin. I have to admit the prospect of traveling the length of the country solo was daunting, and my confidence in my language abilities wavered. It was my host father who insisted, 'you have to do it. You've come all this way. You have to see the country'. So I spent the day on the interstate train, and with the help of a few friendly folks successfully transferred to the suburban line and found my way to the hostel. I was the first there. Alone in the room, just me, the bunk beds and the laminated flooring, I did what can only be described as a 'jig of joy'. I mean I actually danced. I remember thinking, 'you can go anywhere! You can do ANYTHING.' The world was cracked open.
I closed out my VCE at Toorak College, followed by a Bachelor of Creative Arts / Diploma of Modern Languages (German) at University of Melbourne. Soon after graduating, I set about making plans to move to New York City. I had known since I was very young I wanted to make a life in the theater and New York seemed like the place to do it. In 2005, I received a scholarship to complete my MFA at the New School for Drama in Manhattan.
Since graduating I've worked for theater companies all over the USA, including a dozen seasons at either the Hudson Valley or Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festivals. Highlights include performing Lady Macbeth for over a thousand cadets at Westpoint Military Academy, playing Regan in a production of King Lear attended by President Bill and Hilary Clinton, and working with Sir. Tom Stoppard on the premiere of his play, 'The Hard Problem' at Lincoln Center.
Through a series of fortunate alliances and opportunities, I've found myself with a busy parallel career in executive and communications coaching. These days I travel all over the world working with lawyers, bankers, designers, entrepreneurs, as well as students and faculty at Columbia Business School coaching and speaking about public speaking, presence and impact. I now manage the North American arm of UK based coaching brokerage TXG Ltd, as well as sitting on the board and regularly acting and directing for New Normal Rep.
I really do credit that moment in Munich as the instant I realized how much I wanted to travel and really experience other countries. The SAGSE experience made the world big and small at the same time. I remain extremely grateful for it.
In May we will hear from a NSW Stipi who went on exchange just a couple of years after Eleanor. These days he can be found in Saudi Arabia, where his company is developing probably the most ambitious power generation project in history!