The United World Colleges
by Yoong Pui Shen
A-Levels? ADP? SAM? CPU? Form 6? Oh no! SPM first!
Such was the condition of my mind one year ago. “So what are you going to do next?” everyone asked, and all I could offer was a weak smile and a shrug. I don’t know, I would say.
Truth is, I did know where I wanted to be: at a United World College (UWC). I harboured hopes of learning and living amongst peers from the four corners of the globe. I wanted a comprehensive education that would allow me to explore my ‘other’ interests like music and theatre without forsaking academic prowess.
“What? What’s that?” was the common reaction when I expressed my desire to friends and teachers. So I patiently explained: The United World Colleges movement primarily offers pre-university education. What’s special is that it is the only global educational movement that brings together students from all over the world regardless of their ability to pay. There are currently 12 UWCs, situated in the UK, Hong Kong, US, Singapore, Swaziland, India, Canada, Venezuela, Norway, Italy and recently, Bosnia and Costa Rica.
“Oh, is this new?” they would ask next. No, I say with a smile, it’s just rather unknown in Malaysia. In fact, the UWC idea originated in the 1950s, as an initiative to ease post Cold War tensions. German educationalist Kurt Hahn (who is also founder of the Outward Bound School) envisioned a global college whose students were selected purely on merit, regardless of race, religion, nationality, background or financial means. Its objective was to achieve international understanding, peace and justice.
Today, that guiding principle of UWC is more relevant than ever. Tell me: where else in this bomb-fearing world can you find Israelis and Palestinians working together on a Middle East presentation? Or Africans and Americans dancing to the beat of Malay joget? To me, the UWC is like a microcosm of the world, tempered with some idealism: 200 students from over 90 countries, learning how to tolerate one another’s quirks and values. Every room is a veritable melting pot of cultures and beliefs– even the teaching faculty is multinational!
The curriculum at nine of the colleges adopts the prestigious International Baccalaureate Diploma. The IB, as it is known, requires that candidates take subjects from 6 groups – two languages, humanities, mathematics, natural sciences and the arts. With its additional components - CAS (Creative, Action and Service), Extended Essay (EE) and Theory of Knowledge (TOK), the IB is fast becoming the preferred option to develop well-rounded graduates with a genuine interest in thinking and learning.
Therein lies the strength of the UWC. Many other schools in the world offer the IB Diploma, but the sheer diversity of UWC maximizes the meaning of its global syllabus. Imagine studying the Holocaust with people whose grandparents have survived it. Imagine working with the homeless in Los Angeles with people who have been homeless at a time. Imagine having the freedom to try new, exciting things like ballroom dancing and capoeira. If the outdoors is your passion, well imagine having the opportunity to hike the Grand Canyon or the Niagara Falls. Or experience glacier climbing in Norway, as accomplished by Sijie, a 2nd year student at Red Cross Nordic UWC.
It is for those reasons that I applied for the United World Colleges scholarship last March. While it is possible to pay for entry to certain UWCs, most students are awarded scholarships after a rigorous selection process by National Committees in about 115 countries. Scholarships range from a full one for certain colleges down to 50% for some. Interviews are conducted by the UWC Malaysia National Committee, chaired by Tan Sri Awang Had. Here, PETRONAS also awards UWC scholarships to selected successful candidates.
Back: Amir Kamarudin, Teh Min Sern , Wong Loke Jin, Lim Yangli, Joan Low Su-May, Nishreen Daud Ali
As much as I wanted to go, my elation lasted but for a second when that fateful email came informing me that I had received a partial scholarship to Armand Hammer United World College, USA. Due to the UWC’s non-profit nature, my parents would need to contribute approximately RM90, 000 towards my education at UWC-USA for the two years. How extravagant for a pre-university education! I thought, as many Malaysians would. Where am I going to get funding for university?
A long-distance call from my Malaysian senior studying at UWC-USA, Nithiyanathan s/o Muthusamy, dimmed my apprehension considerably. “I’ve only been here a year, and I’m not that worried about getting funding for university any more”, he assured me. Almost all UWC students get into reputable universities or colleges with very generous financial aid – Yap Xiang Ling from Pearson College in Canada will be attending Harvard University for 50 USD a year. The Shelby Davis Foundation gives full need-based financial aid exclusively to successful UWC applicants to Princeton, Middlebury, Colby, Wellesley, and College of the Atlantic. There are many other schools to which the Davis fund contributes $10, 000 towards fees. Lest you assume that the UWC only enjoys recognition in the US, Pravina Gopalan is going to Warwick University this fall while two of my seniors are attending the Australian National University, Canberra on full scholarships.
The beauty about UWC is that every graduate emerges from it with a different experience. Take my college seniors for example. Adriana Nordin Manan studied theatre arts and economics during her time at UWC-USA. Rina Ayob, a current psychology student at Princeton helped to set up a radio for the surrounding community. Ng Eng Han, currently a freshman at Dartmouth College, dabbled in water polo and trained to be a Wilderness Search and Rescue leader. Nithiya himself is involved in student government, Model UN and the Constructive Engagement of Conflict program.
For the first time in all my 18 years, I can’t wait to be dressed in a batik kebaya, waving the Jalur Gemilang a la the Commonwealth Games delegation flag-bearer as I walk in for the Welcoming Dinner at UWC-USA!
For more information about the United World Colleges scholarships, please contact the Malaysian UWC National Committee at firstname.lastname@example.org or 03-78805455/66. You may also drop the writer a line at psyoongatgmaildotcom.
This same article may be published as well in the local papers, but well, you heard it here first! :-)