Bonds forged out of tragedy

26th May 2000 at 01:00
For 10 years Scottish sixth-year pupils have been helping to bridge the gap between two hurting communities. John Cairney reports

It is highly unlikely that many of the Lockerbie Academy pupils preparing for their Christmas holidays in 1988 would have heard of Syracuse in New York State and its university. It is even less likely that any of the students at Syracuse would have had any knowledge of the small Scottish border market town 3,000 miles away. All that was to change on December 21 with the destruction of Pan Am Flight 103.

Among the passengers on the Boeing 747 were 35 Syracuse students returning from overseas placements arranged by the university's division of international programmes abroad (DIPA). The deep bonds forged by the tragedy led to Syracuse joining with the trustees of the Lockerbie disaster fund to establish two student fellowships - the Lockerbie scholarships - as permanent tributes to the students who died. The Lockerbie trust pays for accommodation and travel and Syracuse funds the tuition fees.

Every year since 1990 two students - usually sixth-year students - from Lockerbie Academy have attended Syracuse for a year. The time allows them to widen their experience and to maintain progression in their chosen subjects before taking up a university place back home. It helps that the first two years of the Syracuse courses, irrespective of a student's ultimate specialism, are founded on a broad liberal arts course.

The scholars are selected by the trustees of the LockerbieSyracuse University Trust not only on the basis of academic ability but also on their suitability "to be worthy ambassadors for their region or country".

Katherine Grant was one of the first two Lockerbie scholars at Syracuse and is now working in pharmacological research in England. Her spell in the United States helped her to adjust to the transition from school to university.

"The benefits were only apparent when I started my course at Strathclyde University and found myself settling easily into a work pattern that I might otherwise have found strange," she says.

She speaks warmly of her time in the States. "The year I spent in Syracuse will always hold special memories, particularly of peple I met while I was there. Memories of such friendships and the hospitality I received always encourage me to act likewise when I can."

She has been back to the States three times since her scholarship year and on her third visit was bridesmaid to one of her closest American friends.

The benefits are not just one-way. She feels that she left her American contacts with a greater appreciation of Scottish culture and what the Scots are like.

The scholars selected for 2000-2001 are Stephen Armstrong from Lockerbie and Gemma Ritchie from the neighbouring village of Dalton, both 17, who are the deputy head boy and girl at the academy. Both are looking forward to studying media-related subjects in Syracuse and a chance to travel in the USA and Canada.

Stephen hopes to do a BA in accounting when he returns to Scotland, while Gemma intends to study geography and environmental science at Edinburgh University. If their year in Syracuse leads them to change their plans, they won't be the first scholars to do so.

The Syracuse connection, though forged from tragedy, is a natural development for Lockerbie Academy, which has been at the forefront of international links for many years. The Syracuse scholarships are "very positive" and both parties are keen for it to continue, according to headteacher Graham Herbert. "The links between the town and the university are stronger than they have ever been and the personnel involved have become close friends over the years."

Many of the scholars still communicate with their American friends. At the moment cyberspace is buzzing with messages making arrangements for the first reunion this summer to commemorate the scholarship's 10th anniversary.

Happy as the get-together will surely be, its origins will not be forgotten. As one Scottish scholar e-mailed to his American friends, he and others "have gained immeasurable opportunities because of the tragedy that destroyed the opportunities of so many others".

He says: "It is our responsibility to create as much from the opportunities we receive as we can, to be a living reminder and to sustain the bond between the communities of Lockerbie and Syracuse and keep alive the friendship and loves."

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