Lockerbie scholars keep faith in friendship

24th December 2010 at 00:00
Every year, two Lockerbie pupils go to the Big Apple for the educational experience of a lifetime.

When Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over her native Lockerbie killing 270 people, Allison Donaldson had not even been born. Even so, the 18-year-old student is contributing in her own special way to keeping the memory of the victims alive.

A former pupil at Lockerbie Academy, she is one of two pupils currently studying at Syracuse University in New York on a one-year scholarship established to connect two communities affected equally by the tragedy.

A group of 35 Syracuse students had been on the plane, travelling home from placements abroad, and was killed by the bomb attack that made Lockerbie synonymous with tragedy around the world.

Searching for a way to keep the students' memories alive, staff at Syracuse and Lockerbie Academy set up two fellowships in the immediate aftermath of the bombing - the SyracuseLockerbie Scholarship, to be given to two academy pupils every year. While the academy pays for their accommodation and travel, the university takes care of their tuition fees for one year.

Now celebrating its 20th anniversary, the scholarship has forged a strong bond between the two institutions.

"Here we are in 2010 and the relationship is stronger than ever, because the contacts are real and the network has extended," says Graham Herbert, headteacher of Lockerbie Academy.

Syracuse University also feels the positive effects of the programme: "Over the years it has proven to all of us to be one of the best things that has ever happened to Syracuse, because it is a bridge of friendship that has evolved," says Judy O'Rourke, director of undergraduate studies, who has acted as an "American mother" to all 20 pairs of Lockerbie scholars.

Stefan Hanley, one of last year's scholars, has left the rural tranquillity of Ecclefechan behind and is now aiming for a career in the bright lights of advertising. He says the experience has changed his life and he has extended his stay by a further three years to complete his advertising degree at Syracuse.

"It has been a fantastic experience in every way imaginable," he says. "The education is top-notch and I have great friends. The first day I got here I just knew I wanted to stay. Something overcame me and I knew I would do anything I could to stay longer. I have gained a lot of confidence and I find it easier to talk to my peers and professors."

Students at Syracuse are encouraged to study a broad variety of subjects and live in halls of residents on campus.

For Allison Donaldson, this has meant studying subjects such as interpretation of poetry and the science of shipwrecks in addition to biology, the subject she is hoping to study at Glasgow University when she returns next year. "Freshmen are not expected to be doing courses like that. You are given special treatment as a Lockerbie scholar."

But the scholars also feel the responsibility of representing not only their school, but Lockerbie and the whole of Scotland. "Everyone knows you. There has been such a backlog of great people that you have to live up to the name of being a Lockerbie scholar," says Allison.

In addition to their daily role as ambassadors, they contribute to the university's annual remembrance week, one of the most important events in the university calendar.

"Syracuse selects 35 remembrance scholars every year to represent the 35 students who died. The event has not lessened over the years; it is still as important as it was from day one and some of the families still attend," Graham Herbert explains.

Allison says helping to organise and run the event last October was both an honour and an emotional experience: "Duncan (McNab - the other scholar this year) and I represented the 11 victims in Lockerbie. It was very hard, but an amazing week. The majority of the organising is done by the other scholars. We helped build the memorial cairn. We had to give a speech and take part in the candlelight vigils."

Even the release of the Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, failed to weaken the strong bond between Lockerbie and Syracuse.

"We came across within a couple of weeks of him being released, so we were a bit apprehensive. But everyone was very mature about it and very understanding," says Stefan.

Despite its success, in 2003 the future of the programme was put into question following the death of one of the Lockerbie scholars, Andrew McClune, after an accident on campus.

"He was one of the most well-rounded, nicest young people I have ever met in all my years of teaching. It affected all of us very deeply. The inevitable question was, should it continue? But the family and we ourselves felt he would not have wanted it to stop," says Mr Herbert.

Looking forward, both institutions are hoping to continue the fellowship and keep the memories of the victims alive.

"I think it would be neglectful of us as a school not to acknowledge that this happened in our local area and what has happened since," said the Lockerbie head.


Erin McLaughlin, 24, 2003-2004. Completed her degree at Syracuse and is now working as a resident director at Fordham University, New York

I always wanted to live in America and the scholarship set me up for this. It took a little bit of getting used to, but once classes started, you met people and it got easier.

Initially, I had to repeat things over and over for their amusement because of my accent. It was easy to make friends.

I knew by October of my first semester, so after about two months, that I wanted to stay. It was because of my friends for the most part, as well as the academic side.

Learning more about the connection between Syracuse and Lockerbie, working on remembrance week, being more active and more social made me more service-oriented and more active.

David Thomson, 32, 1996-1997. Edits adverts, TV and films in London

There is an element of celebrity there and an element of VIP treatment. The university makes sure that your experience is very good.

I had originally planned to go to study computer science and artificial intelligence in Edinburgh. After being at Syracuse I got less interested in computer science, because I was always really interested in films and television. What I wanted to do was actually something I could do and was quite good at - that is, something I got from Syracuse.

I got my BSc in artificial intelligence, applied back to Syracuse and did the graduate programme, which was in TV, radio and film. As soon as I graduated I went to New York City, did commercials and edited movies and commercials."

Kirsteen Scott, 36, 1992-1993. She is now head of social subjects at Berwickshire High in Duns and lives in Edinburgh

I had not been out of Scotland before. There were no mobile phones and I was only rarely in touch with my parents; it was very much like going to the other end of the world.

I went with my best friend, so we could not have had it any better. We must have gone to 20 or 30 states. I have now "done" 47 states, so I only have three left. I feel very humble and lucky and I feel it would be so nice if there was any way more people could benefit from that American experience. It gave me the confidence to do things in life.

Louise Mankau, 33, 1994-1995. Is a barrister in London

I did a massive range of things - astronomy, ballroom dancing, medieval history - I could get credits in so many things. Astronomy I really enjoyed, and that is not something I would have ever really come across. It probably has changed my life because when I went it was my first time away from home and having to be self-sufficient.

It gave me a great grounding and what better preparation could there be than this? It is the most fun you can cram into a year. I am not from a rich family and I would have never been able to afford anything like that, if it had not been for the scholarship.

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