Your Impact: Philanthropy Gets Personal

Tom Hassan, SYA President

What is it about the mission of SYA that resonates with you and why?

I knew of SYA from my years serving in various roles at Phillips Exeter Academy (PEA). When I was first appointed principal of PEA in 2009, I had the distinct pleasure of serving on SYA’s Board of Trustees as the representative from one of the three founding schools (the other two being Andover and St. Paul’s School). While I believed in the good work of SYA and saw how it transformed the lives of PEA students, being on the board reinforced my support of SYA’s mission in the world. I was approached to consider the role of President of SYA after my retirement from PEA in 2015, just after SYA’s 50th anniversary celebration. It was compelling to think I would be part of charting the future of SYA, a unique organization — an accredited one-year school and nonprofit with a 50+ year history — that profoundly changes lives. Pushing teenagers out of their comfort zones is what SYA does best, and the outcomes speak for themselves. 

What organizations do you volunteer with, and at what level? How do you feel your unique skills, experience and perspective further those organizations’ causes?  

I spent 27 years at PEA and now seven years with SYA because I believe there is a promising future that will be led by today’s young people. For board service, I like to work with organizations where I can make a difference, where my knowledge and experience can be of value to those communities. Organizations that serve high school and college-aged students are especially important to me.

There is a person near and dear to my family who lives in Raymond, NH, which spurred my involvement with the Reach High Scholars Program (RHSP), where I am now the chair. RHSP serves high school students in two rural NH towns, Raymond and Epping, by providing them supplemental resources to prepare for and apply to competitive colleges. Its philosophy is that money should not be a roadblock to a great education, encouraging students to “reach higher” in their educational pursuits than they thought possible. I was a first-generation college student with little family resources and was able to find my way to Brown University, and I want to give other kids that opportunity.

I’m also on the board of UWC-USA based in New Mexico, one of the campuses for the United World College. Like SYA, UWC-USA has a similar mission and goal for its students – to use education to build bridges between people and cultures for a more peaceful, just, and sustainable world.

In addition, I am on the boards of The Piney Woods School in Mississippi, which is the only historically Black boarding school left in America, and the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) which is the accrediting body of many of SYA sending schools, including SYA itself.

What reasons do alumni and parents give for their support of SYA?

What is striking to me is how often our alumni say that SYA was the most transformative year in their education (and sometimes in their lives) and that they learned more in their one year abroad than in all the others combined, including college and graduate school. Many try to replicate the SYA experience by studying abroad in college or taking a job in another country. Hard as they try, the essential ingredients can rarely all be assembled to recreate the SYA magic. It means a lot to hear people talk about the value of that one year, and to have them financially support SYA to share their experience with today’s students.

It may surprise people to know that SYA’s top donors are alum parents Carlos and Malú Alvarez FR’00P, whose daughter Carla spent the 1999-2000 year in Rennes. Like many parents, Carlos was hesitant for Carla to go abroad and was not initially supportive of the idea, even though he had a similar experience as a young person. Thankfully, Carla convinced him and ended up having an incredible year. Carlos later joined the board of SYA, and we served together when I was representing PEA. The commitment of parents to SYA’s mission is powerful, especially those who give long beyond their child’s year. I think many of them are surprised at just how much their child changes for the better!

Can you share a favorite moment in your career or volunteer experience that remains a profound example of why you do what you do?

When I was new to SYA, at events and meetings with alumni I would ask them about their “SYA moment,” which is the pivotal moment that defined their SYA experience. Some people talk about the day they started “dreaming in Spanish” or when at dinner with their host family they realized they were no longer struggling to carry the conversation. My “SYA moment” took place during SYA France’s 50th anniversary celebration in Rennes. We were at l'Opéra for the Saturday evening program and in the lobby I saw a crowd assembling around an older couple, whom I came to learn was Mr. and Mme. Le Fèvre, host parents to 25 SYA students over the years. Mme. was proudly displaying her handwritten list of SYA “children” dating back to 1970, a number of whom were gathered around her. I came to learn recently that she began hosting because during the war American soldiers came to her aid and she wanted to give back by providing a warm and nurturing "home" for young American students. She has kept all the letters written to her over the years by her host “children.” Our host families are truly the magic sauce of SYA.

What advice would you give to someone interested in building their career in the nonprofit sector or volunteering for an organization that resonates with their philanthropic priorities, including SYA?

Consider volunteering for smaller organizations (like SYA!) that have a limited budget and staff. You’ll likely find that your efforts go much further, your skillset will be more utilized, and you have an opportunity for larger impact. SYA’s Board of Trustees is one of the best I’ve been on with members who are deeply engaged and participate in respectful dialogue. A third of our board is made up of heads of member schools and the rest are alumni and parents. I always enjoy the balance that is created by this dynamic – alumni come in with enthusiasm and ideas, and heads of school come with practical boots-on-the-ground perspective and experience. For anyone interested in board service, I recommend starting with one of our other volunteer opportunities. Many of our trustees were class ambassadors or members of the Philanthropy Council before being asked to volunteer in a leadership role.