“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
A Volunteer’s Perspective: Living Life At Full Sail
When I was 15 years old, after seeing The Sound of Music and reading an article in National Geographic, I began lobbying my mother to send me to school overseas—for just one year. Some in the family staunchly opposed it. They argued it was too far away and too dangerous an enterprise for a boy not yet 16. Still, in the end, I prevailed, and late one September afternoon I boarded a plane bound for Geneva. What was to have been one year became two, and I returned home an entirely different person.
The school was Aiglon College, not far from Montreux, Switzerland. As part of the curriculum we had to participate in long, exhausting mountain expeditions—on foot in the autumn and spring, on skis during the winter. We also took annual cultural expeditions to explore major European cities. There were times on the slopes of mountains, legs burning, that it occurred to me I could be sitting at home, thousands of miles away, eating pizza and watching "Batman." But there are few experiences as satisfying as standing on a mountain peak, surveying the valleys far below, and knowing you got there through your own sweat and perseverance. That sort of hard-won achievement changes you in a profound way. An entirely new self-perception emerges when you discover you are capable of much more than you thought you were.
Equally life-changing in Europe was the opportunity to meet people from all over the world, some of whom became fast friends for life; the impetus to learn a foreign language; and a new perspicacity that allowed me to see possibilities that were not on the radar screens of most of the people I knew back home. The food, the local customs, the palpable history, the breathtaking scenery—so much was a revelation.
After university, I went on to found several companies that took me routinely to Italy, Spain, France, England, Germany, and elsewhere. I was the subject of numerous articles, including two in The New York Times and another in Entrepreneur magazine. In short, I had a career that would have been highly improbable had it not been for a remarkable teenage experience and early exposure to foreign cultures.
Will Sutherland (the ELS Director) and I arrived at Aiglon at about the same time. Although I was a student and he was a teacher, he is a fellow pickle who ended up sitting in that special brine for almost two decades. He understands how challenging adventures, a little mentoring, and cultural exposure can combine to create rocket fuel for young people starting to pursue their ambitions. And with years of experience now under his belt, he has a proven formula.
Because of current exchange rates, Aiglon and other top Swiss schools are beyond the reach of all but the extremely affluent these days. Too, concerns about liability have caused many Alpine schools to "recalibrate" their more daunting mountaineering activities. That's why, a number of years ago, several former Aiglonians joined together to help Will keep the torch burning with an ambitious sailing course in the English Channel. Today, QBE is a British non-profit supported by patrons and volunteers around the world who endorse his experiential education vision. Will's summer program, The European Leadership School, exists solely to inspire and encourage a new generation of young leaders in much the same manner as previous generations were inspired and encouraged.
There are many outdoor adventure programs out there. Some are excellent. All of them beat sitting on the couch playing video games. But not all adventure programs have the same aim. Some are essentially survival courses or boot camps, others focus more on teaching various outdoor skills. While Will's program certainly emphasizes "doing" as a means of teaching sailing, teamwork, and leadership, it also levers the powerful impact of European cultural immersion, helping young men and women better understand themselves and the world around them by "seeing" and "experiencing." When all the pieces come together, the combined effect can confer a transformative grace, an uncommon emotional and spiritual gift. In that regard, the ELS may well be one of the best investments you'll make in your son's or daughter's future. I for one will be forever grateful for my teenage experiences abroad. I was very fortunate indeed. And as you weigh the merits of different summer programs for your teenager, know that the European Leadership School offers a unique combination of benefits that could make a world of difference—this year and for many years to come.
W.G. (Maryland, USA)