Friends Reunited: St Columba’s classmates make waves in America

14 min read

Imogen Davies, Maddie Cleat, Josh Hendry and Joe Yacoubian are a formidable four – best of friends in Scotland during their school days they are now sharing the journey of a lifetime in the USA. 

The quartet are relishing life as scholar-athletes at some of the very best universities in the States, enjoying both the academic and sporting journeys. Field hockey stars Imogen and Maddie are at Yale University and University of California, Berkeley, respectively, while rugby prospect Joe attends St Mary’s College of California and Wofford College, South Carolina, is home from home to track and field athlete Josh. 

We caught up with all four former St Columba’s pupils during lockdown to hear a little about their journey so far. 

How was life at St Columba's and what were your aspirations at that time? 

Josh Hendry: Life at St Columba's was fun and overall pretty nurturing of my sporting aspirations. I remember first looking to try and get to America on a sports scholarship in 3rd year. 

Joe Yacoubian: I really enjoyed St. Columba’s as well as it gave me friends for life, and also a platform to succeed. They push you to a very high standard there, so having good mates, and some teachers I was very fond of to help me along the way, was invaluable. 

Maddie Cleat: I loved being at St Columba’s because of the people I grew up with through the years. It is a very tight-knit community full of people keen to support you and give you opportunities to succeed. It is a very special place to go to school because of how close you become with the teachers and peers. Since we were a small school it meant we were always the underdog in sporting events, however we always competed well in everything we did. Watching people in the years above me in school go to American universities to pursue their dream was always an inspiration to me. I wanted my hockey to take me to a great university and I am over the moon to be at the University of California, Berkeley.

Imogen Davies: I totally agree. St Columba’s was an incredible school and I had a fantastic time there. I had great friends and really enjoyed my learning experience too. I know for myself and Maddie, the hockey opportunities that we were able to access all began at school. Prior to 5th year, I did not really have any intentions of studying in the States. I hoped to continue to play hockey at a high level and I also wanted to pursue a top tier education. After Maddie and I first spoke with Andrew Kean, it became clear that the American student-athlete experience was perfect for us. Once we came into contact with coaches from some of the best Universities out there, we knew that we could not have that combined academic and athletic experience in the UK. 

What are your memories of each other from school? Any sporting rivalry or funny stories? 

Maddie: Josh, Joe, Imogen and I have all been best friends for years. The great thing about going to different universities in America is that we all have had a similar experience and it is so nice to be able to chat with each other about our experiences and support one another. Imogen and I have always been best friends and teammates at school, club, district and Scottish hockey level so have never really been in rivalry with each other which was nice as we mainly just pushed each other to be better players. It was very strange playing against Yale one season and going up against Imogen but was great fun - Joe even came to watch the game in Berkeley. 

Imogen: Yeah, Maddie and myself were best friends at school and played at every level of hockey together. We always laugh about how we would spend almost every waking hours together, and usually had sleepovers before and/or after our weekends of hockey. We started playing in J6 at St Columba’s, we then joined Greenock Hockey Club together and later moved to Kelburne. From 2012 to 2016, we represented South West district at U16 and U18 and we have also represented Scotland together at different age groups. Whilst we were indeed competing against each other for selections and starting positions, it never felt like a rivalry. I think we would both describe it as a competitive relationship where we pushed each other to the top of our game. It was also great that our friendship was not only hockey, so that experience was diluted by our social life together as well. We would definitely both attribute a lot of our success on the pitch to our competitive but supportive friendship. 

With regards to Joe and Josh, I actually live within a minute’s walk from both of them at home so I remember walking to and from school together for a few years. Joe and Josh have a similar story of friendship as Maddie and I, although they obviously competed in different sports. I do remember throughout our school years that Joe and Josh would always dress in matching outfits (supposedly unintentionally)! They were more like brothers than friends and I think, similar to Maddie and I, their commitment to their sports and their studies was elevated by their friendship. I think we would all class each other as among our closest friends and so I am really glad that the four of us have managed to get out to the States and have such positive experiences. 

Joe: I met the three of them very early on in our time at St. Columba’s, so we go quite far back into our childhood. They are always people to lean on whether it be sporting, academic, or social matters. We didn’t really have much rivalry, I was always happy to see them succeeding at their respective sports, and putting our wee school on the map. 

Josh: I always remember Joe, Maddie and Imogen being at the top of the sports that they do (rugby and hockey): all highly valued by the school for their contribution to the sports teams. I’ve always thought that Maddie and Imogen have had a bit of a hockey rivalry, whether that’s spoken or not. 

How has university life in the USA been for you all so far? Any highlights? 

Joe: My time at St. Mary’s College of California thus far has been life-changing. I’ve never looked back since I made the decision to go there and can honestly say I couldn’t have picked a better spot for myself. The people I’ve met – from friends, coaches, teachers, mentors etc. – have welcomed me with open arms, and I can’t thank them enough for the experience I’ve had so far. 

Josh: It’s 100% the same for me - Wofford has been amazing so far. I’ve met loads of great people and developed my sport, as well as other aspects of my life, a lot over the two years I’ve been there so far. A highlight has to be the Conference meets that I get to go to for both cross country and indoor and outdoor track: I love the competitive atmosphere these events create. 

Imogen: I have had an amazing time at Yale. It has been more challenging but more rewarding than I could have imagined. The intensity of the sport has been something that I have really appreciated - being treated like a professional athlete whilst still being able to study is a pretty rare opportunity. The thing that I have appreciated most about my time there is probably the diversity of people that I have met. I have an amazing team and have made a huge number of friendships for life. I also live with a group of non-athlete girls and the residential college system has allowed me to meet people whose interests and talents vary significantly. I really like that the athlete and non-athlete students are fully integrated. Another highlight of my time at Yale has been my classes. I have been able to take classes on a breadth of topics that was unimaginable to me before. Whilst my major is History, I have taken incredible classes in Psychology, Political Science, Biology and Spanish, among others. The quality of the teaching and my engagement with the courses have both far exceeded my expectations. 

Maddie: Life at Berkeley has been amazing too. The location is great because of the California weather and with Berkeley being so close to San Francisco and other beautiful places. My social life is very fun and helps me feel less stressed out with trying to balance field hockey with my studies throughout the year. The people there have really made my experience one to remember and I am so happy with going to Cal. My highlights include home games with everyone’s families and friends coming to watch, having the tailgates after our home games and the cool, unique things to do in Berkeley plus the views. Outside of Berkeley, traveling with field hockey has been incredible. Some of my favourite places include Chicago, Boston, New York and Kentucky. 

How have you been surviving during lockdown? 

Imogen: I have really enjoyed lockdown actually. Obviously with our academic and athletic schedules, things are pretty intense out in America so it has been really nice to slow down a bit. I have hugely appreciated my time at home with my family as this is usually pretty scarce. I also worked on a rhubarb farm in Paisley for a month so that helped pass the time! However, I am looking forward to returning to some normality and getting in some proper training. 

Maddie: During lockdown I stayed out in Berkeley with my friends. It was really good fun as lockdown wasn’t as strict over there and we were able to make trips to Lake Tahoe and play sports and have days out together. It was especially nice being there with my friends that stayed as the majority of them were seniors so was a great last time to spend with them. 

Josh: Lockdown has allowed me to push my running on even further as I’ve have so much time to do as much as I can. I can’t wait for things to go back to normal though. 

Joe: I’ve been trying to get on with life as normally as possible during lockdown. With everything going on I’m just thankful I can be back home with my family at this time. 

What are your aims for the year ahead? 

Joe: I plan to go back to St. Mary’s whenever the time is right, and to get stuck into the academics and athletics again. I’m hoping to round out my undergraduate experience well, and to also have an impact with the team for the upcoming season. I count myself very lucky to be able to return and play for the team, as our seniors this year had their last go taken away from them. 

Josh: My aims are to break some more school records and place top 10 in my conference cross country championships. 

Maddie: I am very excited for my final year ahead because it is my last season. Fingers crossed our season goes on in fall and if not I will be majorly disappointed not to play but will enjoy my last year in Berkeley with my friends and just being on campus. 

Imogen: My main aim is to get back to America and play my last season. I am really hoping everything works out with returning to campus as our team is in a fantastic position and I think we will do really well this season. I am also really looking forward to two more semesters of classes. There are so many courses I want to take and professors I want to learn from and so I am really looking forward to getting us much out of my last year there as possible. 

What does it say about St Columba’s that you have all enjoyed success on the same pathway? 

Maddie: As I said before, St Columba’s is a small school which was really beneficial for me as the teachers and coaches were always very supportive and pushed me to succeed. I think we would all say that we were very lucky to attend St Columba’s and make such good friends. 

Imogen: I think we all agree that St Columba’s has obviously played a significant role in our success. The environment at the school is one that really pushes its students and encourages them to challenge themselves every day. I also think the small, community-based nature of the school really meant we had all the support we needed to make the move out to the States. Being surrounded by like-minded people (like Joe, Josh, and Maddie) who aim high and are willing to work hard has meant that students at St Columba’s are prepared make the necessary sacrifices to succeed in new environments. 

Joe: St. Columba’s is a school which punches way above its weight in the Scottish education system, and I’ve always liked the underdog mentality. I’d like to thank the teachers who believed in me and helped me do something a little out of the ordinary. 

Josh: St Columba’s has given us all the confidence and belief to go out to the other side of the world and thrive in the new experiences and challenges that this pathway has given us. 

What would you say to others considering following in your footsteps? Any advice?

Josh: I would say 100% go for it. Research the sport you’re wanting to go over for and commit fully to the idea and challenge that being a student-athlete in the US brings with it.

Maddie: I have thoroughly enjoyed my experience in the States and would definitely recommend it to others wanting to go abroad. It is really important to be an independent person, however with the support from your team and from the other athletes in the same boat it makes the experience less daunting. I would also recommend doing as much research as possible about potential universities, the location of them, the type of people who attend, the major you are interested in and the sports program they offer.

Joe: I’d say to anyone in any situation who is thinking about taking a risk, and going against the judgement of those around them, to not hesitate. Getting out of your comfort zone is something that should be encouraged. Leaving Scotland to pursue a dream and get my education a little differently, is the biggest risk I’ve ever taken, but has had equally as big rewards.

Imogen: I would say that if you are willing to work harder than you expect and if you really love whatever sport you play, then studying and playing in America is the best choice you could make. It has been an immense challenge to balance the intensity of the schedule but it is 100% worth it. Before you commit to a University, I would say to make sure that you understand the program, the campus, the location, and the coach. I would also try to meet the team (either in person or virtually) if you can. Saying “I want to go to America” isn’t really something that makes sense because the variety of experiences you can have there is pretty unimaginable. It is really so important to find a University that truly fits what you are looking for. Again, if you love your sport and want to be pushed academically and athletically, then there will be a program in America that works for you.

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