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My ESU exchange was the springboard for deciding what to do with my future

KT Tunstall

Singer-songwriter and musician

Hear my story


‘I still pinch myself that I can play music for a living,’ says multi-award winning singer-songwriter KT Tunstall, best known for hit singles Black Horse and the Cherry Tree and Suddenly I See. ‘Music is my vocation and it was always my fear that it would have to be relegated to a hobby. I’m deeply thankful that the stars aligned and I put the work in and kept the faith and that I now have complete creative freedom.’

A key part of those stars falling into line was the year KT spent at Kent College, Connecticut, on the ESU’s Secondary School Exchange. ‘Everyone I met at school was obsessed with music. I got into The Rolling Stones, The Grateful Dead, The Flaming Lips, all these brilliant American bands that I hadn’t really heard that much of before.’

Most formatively, it was at Kent that KT formed her first band, The Happy Campers. ‘We had phenomenal music teachers, great music rooms with pianos and everything you could wish for, and, since it’s a boarding school in the middle of nowhere, we had a captive audience, so we started doing some gigs. Any opportunity we had to play, we were playing. It was the springboard for me deciding what I wanted to do with my future.’

Success didn’t come overnight. After studying music at Royal Holloway College, KT spent nearly seven years in her hometown of St Andrews trying to make it as an independent musician, before moving to London with a publishing deal as a songwriter. Her first record deal came two years later and her first album was released in 2004. ‘It all took painfully longer than I ever thought it would,’ she says. ‘And I really don’t know where the resilience to keep going came from, but I’d put so much time into it, it would have been crazy to stop.’

An image of KT's music school Royal Holloway College in london
Image of KT posing with a guitar in a park

‘I came from a very sheltered corner of Scotland and the Secondary School Exchange gave me an opportunity to meet people from completely different backgrounds, to feel a sense of independence as a young person within the structure of a very safe environment, and was one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done in my life.’

‘I think all of us go through periods of self-doubt, shyness and chronic awkwardness, and I think that confidence and self-esteem are top of the list in terms of life skills that young people should acquire. I think that you’re able to achieve incredible things as an adult if you have self-confidence and healthy self-esteem, and you might actually do better than someone with a great education who doesn’t have those things, because you’re able to communicate, to express yourself, to be open, and to learn.’

I think it’s essential to help kids challenge themselves to do things that they think they can't do, and I think that's something that the English-Speaking Union does. It opened my mind and shaped me deeply as a person.


Building young people’s self-confidence is at the heart of everything we do, from our debate and public speaking programmes and competitions, to our cultural exchanges such as the Secondary School Exchange in which KT participated.

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