celebrating 50 years of women at SYA

Nixon was president. People flocked to see Love Story. IBM introduced the floppy disk. That Girl was the number one TV show and “Layla” was ubiquitous on the radio. The median household income was $8,734. The Baltimore Orioles won the World Series. It was 1970, and Schoolboys Abroad changed its name to School Year Abroad during the historic moment when 13 female students enrolled at SYA Spain. This unprecedented move toward coeducation signaled a sweeping evolution at SYA. This moment opened doors to a lifetime of possibility and change for women, one that continues to evolve and show promise.  SYA admitted women to our campus in Rennes the following year. The rest is HERstory.

Beginning this Founder's Day, September 9, 2020,  we commemorate this historic moment with a year-long celebration of virtual programming and stories. Throughout the year we will invite the participation of alumnae/i, faculty, staff, students and parents as we honor the influence and contributions of women to SYA's past, present and future. 



Celebrating our Coeducation Trailblazers:
A Round Table Discussion with Some of the First Women of SYA

Meet some of the first women of SYA. Go back with them to Spain and France in the early 70s and hear about their experiences as Schoolboys Abroad admitted its first female students. Moderated by Allison Temple Bacon ES'81, Trustee



Take a look back to 2012 when we featured six of the original 13 in a retrospective on  the 40th year of coeducation. 

A Wish Come True
(reprinted from 2012)

It was the wonderful tales of their Spanish adventures shared by her brothers, Desmond ES’67 and Raymond ES’67, that first piqued Diane Runyan Bech’s interest in School Year Abroad.

“We would have a very different world if every sixteen-year-old was given the opportunity to study abroad,” she says. “By developing a broader, more in-depth view of global culture, these students would be able to develop a much better world than the one that exists today.”

Read more.

A Transformational Experience in SYA Spain
(reprinted from 2012) 

Emily Nicklin ES'71 was aware of her role as one of the first female students in SYA. “It was with us — the girls — every day,” she says. “Fascism restricted all the students; sexism restricted only the female students.”

Nicklin believes her group of young women helped set a standard for SYA. “Just the simple acts of attending classes and living our lives, we helped blaze the trail for the girls who followed us in SYA,” she says.

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A Heartfelt Sense of Independence
(reprinted from 2012)

McCouch traces her experience, coupled with her international development work and SYA participation, as inspiring her to choose a career as a plant geneticist. “The whole cultural cross-pollination between Spain and the Americas — in which plants, foods and agriculture played a large role — led me to graduate studies in plant biology and plant breeding,” she says. Presently, her research on plant hybridization at Cornell University has made her a leader in her field.

McCouch believes in the benefits she gained from SYA as a teenager. “High school students really need to see, firsthand, how the world works,” she says. “If more people were exposed to other cultures at a younger age, they would be less likely to engage in violent global conflict — and would have more global understanding — as adults.”

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The Best of Both Worlds
(reprinted from 2012)

Gender issues also figured prominently in Hoitsma’s daily life. “There was a sense that having girls in the program was a learning experience for everyone,” she says. For example, she participated with other SYA girls in groups led by Señora Vilanova focusing on Spanish customs for women, as well as cooking and shopping trips.

Years later, Hoitsma discovered what the addition of the first girls meant to the boys. “I discussed the program with several D.C. male alums who were in SYA Spain at the same time,” she says. “According to them, the boys were happy to have the girls in the program because, in their view, it softened the tone, made it less male-oriented.”

Eventually, SYA Spain influenced Hoitsma into choosing teaching as a career. Today, she’s a third-grade teacher at The Park School, in Baltimore. “I’ll often use my Spanish to capture the attention of my students,” she says, laughing. “More than anything, SYA cemented my desire to encourage children to explore the world and become lifelong learners themselves. I want them to become solid global citizens.”

Read more.

Discovering Cultural Vibrancy
(reprinted from 2012)

“I learned many things while in Barcelona,” she says. “I learned to embrace diversity, to see change as an opportunity and to listen.”

Today, Gillis puts these well-learned lessons into play in her roles as executive vice president and chief administrative and diversity officer of Exelon Corporation and as president of Exelon Business Services Company, a leading U.S. energy provider.

“As a business professional, I’ve come to especially appreciate what SYA taught me about diversity — that it should be sought, rather than shunned. There is no doubt that the language, cultural and life experience that I gained in Spain was beyond formative for me,” she says.

Read more.

Expanding International Horizons
(reprinted from 1971)

By the time Michele French began SYA Spain, in 1970, she had already lived in Mexico and Europe, but, she says, participation in the program offered her an opportunity for a multicultural educational experience that was previously unknown to her. “In a way, I enjoyed a new level of independence,” she recalls.

French eventually settled in Mexico, where she has become a successful jewelry designer. Her jewelry is particularly praised for its distinctive international style, with Middle Eastern, Iranian and Indian influences.

Her lifelong love of traveling and living in other countries has made her a strong advocate for programs, such as SYA, that provide such experiences. “Every student should have the opportunity to travel abroad,” she says. “Our world is simply too interconnected today for students not to be aware and appreciative of other nations and cultures.”

Read more.



These women, representing a small sample of the thousands of alumnae, faculty, administration and staff, will discuss their  experiences and how SYA helped shape their lives and careers.

Share your story by answering a few short questions!

Laura Heery FR'72
Stephanie Nass FR'08
Jan Johnston FR'74 ES'13P
Merritt Moore IT'05
Susan Benesch FR'81
Maya Smith ES'99
Kaitlin Solimine CN'97
Robin Hauser FR'82
Sarah Cate Patten Scaduto IT'04
Alexandra Gray IT'13
Wanda Mann ES'89
Carolynn Rockafellow FR'77 FRS'09P


A timeline highlighting female firsts at SYA culled from archival records.