Many schools across the world incorporate a volunteering element or service opportunity into their curriculum as a way of broadening the awareness of its students, equipping them with life skills that are harder to cultivate in normal a classroom setting. During my time with UWS in Cambodia we hosted a team of 17-18 year old students from Li Po Chun, United World College of Hong Kong. This school is a regular visitor to this part of Cambodia as they sponsor one of the small rural primary schools managed by UWS. In addition to raising funds back in Hong Kong, as part of this continuing relationship a team of students each year organises a trip each year to come and support the work on the ground, delivering an exhausting programme of activities for the students in two of the villages. Li Po Chun is part of the United World College (UWC) network of international schools. These are based across the world in 12 different locations, due to rise to 14 later in 2014 and have a particularly unique approach to education. First founded in 1962 with the vision of bringing together young people whose experience was of the political conflict of the cold war era, UWC seeks to offer an educational experience based on shared learning, collaboration and understanding so that the students would act as champions of peace. As such the pastoral and extra-curricular elements are particularly strong within UWC with their own website seeking to quantify their aims,
‘UWC schools, colleges and programmes deliver a challenging and transformational educational experience to a diverse cross section of students, inspiring them to create a more peaceful and sustainable future.’
In practice this means that all of their schools contain students from across the world – many who are on scholarships, alongside a significant number of students local to each institution with a view of harnessing the opportunity that comes from uniting students from such different contexts. The students, whilst certainly strong academically, also need to develop in themselves certain values that UWC are keen to foster:
- International and intercultural understanding
- Celebration of difference
- Personal responsibility and integrity
- Mutual responsibility and respect
- Compassion and service
- Respect for the environment
- A sense of idealism
- Personal challenge
- Action and personal example
Interestingly, the schools are all residential in nature – even for students who live locally to each school. Speaking to teachers and students it is clear that this environment and context makes it a very ‘full-on’ environment but all were emphatic that the benefits hugely outweighed the negatives. So, while a lot is certainly expected of its students – both academically but also in the vast array of extra-curricular opportunities, students similarly appear continually motivated to push themselves in the intensive environment that is created. Working with this group for a week many of these values were clearly evident in both the individual and group’s approach to their work. Similarly, I was particularly struck by the international element that was created because of the group’s individual backgrounds, comprising students from as far afield and varied as Iran, Hong Kong, the UK, Malaysia, Canada, the Congo, and New Zealand. Given this project is about young people around the world I was keen to hear the perspective of some of the students from such differing settings. Lisa is French but until she moved to Hong Kong to study at UWC she lived on Reunion Island – a tiny French island not far from Madagascar, off the East coast of Africa. Prior to that, she lived in the Seychelles. Growing up in the rain-filled UK we are always fascinated by the idea of living in a tropical paradise. Was it really as perfect as we envisage?
‘[Living on Reunion Island] Perfect if you love the sea and being outside, but there is not much development – same as the Seychelles. But in ten years Reunion Island will be very different – it will be too crowded. Seychelles by comparison has hardly any development – only very small shops, one cinema, and one library. But, it has lots of native marine wildlife.’ ‘I applied to UWC after my parents were moving to Tahiti and I didn’t want to move back to the French school system as I did the IGCSE last year.’ ‘[After UWC] Probably Uni in Europe or Reunion Island in a year’s time. Right now human rights is my big interest’
After speaking with Lisa and hearing of life on a tropical island I spoke with another French speaker, Steven, who had only very recently arrived at the school from Congo. This is a small country in West Africa, not the much larger Democratic Republic of Congo that generally receives more international attention.
‘I love Hong Kong especially the attitude to learning here; they reflect differently about things. And the education is better. Congo is a nice place but many people don’t know my country – they only know bigger Congo. It is a nice place, poor, but compared to Cambodia in fact our education is better.’ ‘I now have two years in Hong Kong and then I have to choose what to study. I want to study medicine in USA – it’s the only option. Then I want to become a doctor and go back to Congo. I think my country needs people to take the responsibility. Yes that means there is pressure, but that’s what I need to do.’
I found the contrasts that arose in my conversation with Steven fascinating. At the same time as recognising how fortunate he was to be studying at UWC in Hong Kong and the opportunities it provided he was also acutely aware, from spending time in Cambodia, how there remained communities less fortunate than his own in Africa. And, similarly, he spoke powerfully about the need to commit to his own community, in a very similar vein to that of the four Cambodian students I wrote about recently. I also spoke with two local Hong Kong students, Derek and Vincent, on their experiences of studying at UWC. What was it like to attend such an international institution right on your doorstep?
‘UWC gives more than just normal academic stuff which is always central to Hong Kong life. It gives us broader skills; still academic, but doing things not just for CV which often happens in Hong Kong like music and sport.’
Both Vincent’s older brother and sister had previously attended UWC so he knew what to expect. He also indicated that despite his family home being nearby in Hong Kong that he didn’t tend to go home that frequently as staying on campus was part of the UWC experience. So, even for local students it seems this community aspect is vital. Longer term, he wasn’t sure what he really wanted to do; he wanted more time to see what was out there. Derek by contrast had two clear ideas. He either wanted to go into business, which he said is very typical for Hong Kong students, or maybe something linked to the creative industries.
‘I’ve chatted it through with my parents and they just want to make sure I get a good educational experience. So, I might take a gap year, connected to a good work experience.’
Both indicated they liked the fact that at the school students have to take real responsibility, not just the individual egocentric nature, which was their perception of other Hong Kong schools.
‘Yes we’re working harder than before but just getting so much for it.’
The motivation within this group seemed continually evident; both in their actions during what was certainly a memorable week being exposed to rural life in Cambodia but also hearing of their own activities back on campus. In many of its locations UWC is for 17-18 year olds (a 6th Form College) with students studying for the International Baccalaureate and a number of people I spoke to felt this combination, as well as the international element was critical in developing this focused environment.
‘It works because it’s a 6th form. They’re mature enough to have conversations on a serious level. Also they’ve been selected [reinforcing their motivation] and have an inquisitive nature.’
I spoke about this aspect further with one of their teachers, accompanying them on their trip.
‘UWC look for people who are happy to be out of their comfort zone: to give things a try, because that’s how you’ll learn the most. The students need to be willing to make a fool of themselves, enjoying studying and learning. It’s a can-do attitude: personal development is important as well as weekly service (volunteer work). And so it’s about the whole person with a huge emphasis in giving back. And that’s because most are here because someone has contributed to them being here. The emphasis is on student leadership.’ ‘Our school isn’t that resource heavy when compared to other international schools. But kids don’t pay for things: if they need a laptop we will set up a fund to get one. So their academics are important but not above everything else. Lots get into Uni – often through scholarships, as there is a strong network as well as UWC having an excellent reputation. But many kids particularly Hong Kong kids, come here because of the extra opportunities it brings. They might well be top students at their own school but they feel they can get even more here.’
Having worked in the UK system I was struck by the teacher’s comments on the importance of student leadership, reinforcing Derek’s observation that it was real leadership opportunities, not just for a CV. Clearly the school has created an environment where students all want to take part and are encouraged to do so, but at the same time their teacher, interestingly, also indicated to me that, actually, the students have to take a leading role..
‘Going back to student leadership, we run 80 extra curricular projects with only 30 staff so students have to play a role.’