Study Abroad at High Schools Worldwide in the United World College Network
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“I was just a middle class kid from rural Oregon who had seen all he could see where he was and needed to go somewhere else. It was the right place, at the right time, to help me keep growing.” – Matt Wallaert, UWC graduate, Hong Kong campus
When I was in high school, I figured that studying abroad was a pleasure reserved solely for the affluent and only available during university years. If only I had known about United World College: I would have had an exciting, fast-paced, intellectually stimulating, and wildly different finish to high school than I could have imagined. And what is most extraordinary is that my study abroad would have been virtually free. If you know somebody who is of high-school age and looking for something different, United World College might be the solution.
What is United World College?
United World College (UWC) is a global educational NGO that has 12 colleges on five continents. The majority are pre-university programs that take that place of the last two years of high school, or in some cases the last year of high school plus one extra year. Graduates receive an International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma, in addition to a standard high school transcript.
The school accepts applicants from around the world, so the student body is widely varied in terms of culture, language, and background. The students come together (most of them far away from home) to study, socialize, and effect positive change in the world – together.
In addition to the standard educational curriculum, UWC places importance on community projects, which students take part weekly. The projects can be quite involved and provide critical services as well: one campus operates a lifeboat service along their coastline, and another school in a less developed country focuses on literacy projects.
The students also participate in an annual “project week”, where they collectively take on an even larger and more in-depth task (that can be either local or international in nature).
UWC is a Global Educational NGO that places importance on education over tuition (we’ll get to that shortly). As such, it relies on a small army of volunteers (many of whom are UWC graduates who want to give back), who manage everything from student selection, to marketing, to the ever-necessary fundraising. Community activists and philanthropists along with UWC graduates largely keep the ball rolling.
Each country has a National Committee (again, made of up volunteers), who are charged with the annual selection of students for the next UWC class. There are 1,500 spots for new UWC students each year, and the National Committees collectively sort through 10,000 applications from 120 countries to arrive at the next student body.
UWC is very vocal about keeping race, religion, politics, and ability to pay out of the selection criteria. The school is not meant to be a launching pad just for affluent students headed for an ivy-league education; and inner circle politics are kept to a minimum as a result.
Although the UWC campuses are spread around the world, the universal teaching language is English (and assistance is given to those students who need help learning).
As for the student’s application responsibilities, each National Committee develops an application process that is pertinent to the country in question. Most involve writing essays and attending interviews.
Nahal Zebarjadi is an Australian who attended the UWC New Mexico campus. Of his selection process, he said “the first phase consisted of a written application which included personal essays, high school records, recommendation letters, etc. The second step was an interview process during which we spoke both informally to past graduates, and formally with the Board of the Australian UWC committee”.
Selecting the The Location of the Campus
Although you may have a UWC campus in your home country, students often choose to attend UWC campuses abroad to deepen the experience. Most application processes allow students to rank their order of preference of school.
Matt Wallaert is an American who studied at UWC’s Hong Kong campus. “I wanted somewhere as different as possible from where I grew up, somewhere that would push me to be different myself. I could have gone to Norway or Wales or somewhere European, but that felt like a vacation, rather than an adventure. Going to a UWC, for me, was about stretching and Hong Kong felt like the best place to do that.”
By the same token Elisa Cundiff, who is also an American who studied (a few years later) at the Hong Kong campus, says it doesn’t really matter where you go; instead that the international experience is inherent in the student body. “I actually visited four UWC's and came to realize that no matter where I would have gone, I would have had an incredible international experience. When you attend a school of less than 200 students, picked from 120 different nations, you could be anywhere”.
Nahal decided on his campus according to the scholarships on offer. He had a 100% scholarship to attend the New Mexico campus, but only a 50% scholarship for the Indian campus.
Cost and Scholarships
As stated earlier, ability to pay is (interestingly) not a determining factor in attending UWC. In fact, UWC strives to meet 100% of each student’s financial needs through extensive scholarships (funded by philanthropists, government programs, and the fundraising efforts of National Committees). I briefly spoke with a student from Zimbabwe who studied at the UK UWC campus, and said his cost (meals and accommodation included) was equivalent to tuition in Zimbabwe.
American students are familiar with Shelby Davis, who funds many (if not most) UWC scholarships for Americans, in addition to providing funding for the UWC campus in New Mexico.
Benefits of a UWC Education
Matt believes that diversity begets identity and progress. “The more diverse the community you get to define yourself in and through, the more I think you emerge with a strong self-identity and confidence. And confidence, belief, faith, whatever you want to call it: above all things, it is what helps us push the whole world forward.”
Nahal cites the accepting and loving UWC community as being instrumental in his ability to feel part of a global community. “My lifestyle since UWC has been full of displacement and new contexts, and yet this network has kept me grounded and balanced in a way that defies distance and time.”
In addition, Nahal also relates to the world differently as a result of his UWC education. “Despite the possible simplification of equating entire countries and cultures with single individuals, these people gave me faces, families and stories through which to connect with unfamiliar places. I was exposed to the widest spectrum of opinions and philosophies on every subject, which continue to inform the way I see the world and make my choices.”
Challenges to Studying at UWC
Interestingly most UWC graduates I have interviewed manage to see each UWC challenge as a benefit in some way.
Elisa found herself at UWC in the wake of 9-11, and questioning her national identity. “I remember feeling a strange need to defend America. That was catalyzed in part by being asked a week after arriving to present the American side of 9/11 two days after the attack at an impromptu college-wide meeting. I stood in front of my new peers, faithfully reciting the notes my military-minded father had sent me on the various sorts of counter-attack that the U.S. army might employ while my Afghani peer explained the history of the Taliban and his feelings that in the U.S., we had created our very own Frankenstein. It took a painful, soul searching month or so to realize that I could be American without being America, and that I could choose exactly what that meant to me.”
Nahal, as an Iranian immigrant to Australia, felt something similar. “I was representing Australia (and for the first time in my life actually feeling Australian), and particularly happy to tell a different story of my country - an immigrant one—while also being the only Iranian on campus. Though this was a relatively easy position to be in, issues of figuring out where I belonged culturally were still sometimes challenging.”
Other challenges of studying at UWC surround the idea of living away from home at a young age, and being thrown into an international stage to learn diplomacy.
“Because our identities were inextricably tied up with our national backgrounds, sensitive international conflicts challenged those who were deeply affected by them to separate their individual classmates and friends from the political positions they opposed,” says Nahal.
Elisa says she “was constantly feeling like the world was falling apart around you, in a way. The Argentinean financial crisis throw's a friend into a difficult financial situation, another peer copes with the death of a relative who just died from a car bombing in Israel, another student finds due to the insanity of his country's President/Dictator Robert Mugabe, he will not be able to return to visit his family in Zimbabwe at all, unless he wants to stay in Zimbabwe forever. (It's been eight years, I still don't think Tawanda has seen his family). I remember feeling overwhelmed by the world's problems, because at UWC you are directly connected to them in a very real way through your peers.”
Advice from UWC Graduates
All the UWC graduates I spoke to wish they had done more, enjoyed themselves more, and generally been easier on themselves during their time at UWC. Matt wished he had been a little more outward focused (socially) and forgiving of others. Nahal wished he had been more courageous in getting involved with theater and cultural performances, gotten to know more people, and stayed longer at dances to learn some of the extraordinary dance moves of his colleagues.
Elisa simply wished she could have taken more advantage of the school and opportunities around her, but also recognizes that with so many opportunities for personal (and intellectual) growth available at UWC, it is hard to do everything. Nahal says it beautifully: “There were so many ways in which we were each out of our comfort zones, that it wouldn't be possible to break all the boundaries at once.”
“I couldn't imagine that the opportunity existed; to study across the world in an academically rigorous, idealistically minded school with students from more countries than I'd even heard of. I still can't believe the opportunity exists.” — Elisa Cundiff, UWC Graduate, Hong Kong campus
For More Info
Visit the United World College website.
Take UWC for a Test Drive: UWC leads 2-3 week courses in July and August each year, allowing students to get a flavor for UWC’s mission by focusing on topics like youth leadership, sustainability, and intercultural understanding.