By Alisha Fredriksson
“As our bus drove up to the college, students all around us started cheering and banging on the windows and sides. It was like everyone at the college was waiting for us to arrive; it felt very special.” – Maja Horvath on her first moments at United World College Red Cross Nordic.
Every year, thousands of students from around the world pack their bags at home and unpack them in special corners of Swaziland, Costa Rica, Norway, and a dozen other countries. These students arrive to United World Colleges, a network of international boarding schools famous for their mission “to make education a force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future.” For two years, they live and learn together with peers from 60+ countries while studying the rigorous International Baccalaureate Diploma and immersing themselves in a new way of life.
Since 1962, the 15 United World Colleges (UWCs) have welcomed over 55,000 students from over 150 national committees. Amongst those 55,000 are hundreds of Swedish students who graduated from “gymnasiet” at a United World College. For Maja, a student from Växjö, Sweden, UWC represented an opportunity to surround herself with people who were curious, driven, and interested in working on meaningful projects. Many of these qualities are what helped shape the origins of this educational movement back in the 60s. UWC took form at the height of the Cold War on the grounds that education could be a powerful force to prevent future conflict. With this vision in mind, German educator Kurt Hahn brought together a diverse group of 16-20 year olds for a transformative educational experience. The first UWC, Atlantic College, was born in a castle in South Wales in 1962 with Canada’s Pearson College and Singapore’s UWC of South East Asia opening in 1974 and 1975 respectively. UWC Red Cross Nordic was the eighth college to open; welcoming students to Flekke, Norway in 1995.
United World College Red Cross Nordic in Flekke, Norway
In the 1990s, Sweden began to nominate 10-12 students per year for a United World College experience with scholarship support from the government. Similarly to the processes by other national committees, the Swedish Committee selects each student based on academic merit and potential. Swedish students have attended nearly all of the 15 United World College locations, with the majority of Swedes matriculating at UWC Red Cross Nordic (UWCRCN).
Maja, a student in her first year at UWCRCN, spoke to Swedish Press about the changes she has observed in her life since arriving. “So far it has mostly affected my personal development. Moving away from home, adjusting to a new level of independence, and exploring the many ways to live on campus have challenged me on a very personal level. At the end of my two years here, I hope to know how to balance my life and prioritize what I’m most interested in. This will help me to pursue my goals in life, such as exploring the power of music as a form of communication.”
Maya Horvath, United World College Red Cross Nordic, 2015-2017.
Alexander Burlin, a student from Linköping, Sweden and a graduate from the Mahindra United World College of India in 2013, attested to a similar concept. “I think there was a lot of implicit and explicit emphasis on our personal development – the kind that goes beyond academics. There were formal venues and reflection sessions to engage students with critical questions but the architecture of the school and its social dynamics also contributed to this engagement.”
“What makes the UWC experience so unique is that it happens at such a young age,” he explained further. “Those two years between 16-18 are key years for intellectual and social development. In university, a lot of the focus is on developing ideas and knowledge within an extremely academic sphere. In UWC, there was a lot of potential for taking what you learnt and applying it to your environment. There was also space to express your idealism, cynicism, and everything else that comes along with being an adolescent. Although academics are important and people do achieve high results, the academic component seemed like a miniscule part of what we learnt.”
Alexander Burlin, Mahindra United World College of India, 2011-2013.
At United World Colleges, students spend many of their afternoons engaging in extracurricular activities and service work. Maja currently volunteers at a residential center for refugees who arrive to Norway and Alexander was involved with setting up an organic farm on campus. Most students juggle multiple activities while also juggling a demanding course load and a rich student life experience. At UWCRCN, students live in shared rooms of five people, each from a very different background than the next. They are involved in ongoing cultural activities as well as events and shows that they may organize on campus. For example, Arkus Fredriksson, another student from Sweden, led a team of his peers to establish TEDxUWCRCN, a conference to welcome inspirational speakers to share their stories with the community.
The TEDxUWCRCN team.
“What all UWCs have in common is the ‘yes feeling’”, Arne Osland told the Swedish Press. A teacher at UWC Atlantic College since 1991 and at UWC Red Cross Nordic since 1996, Osland has engaged with over 20 cohorts of United World College students. He now serves as the Director of Development at UWCRCN and hopes to remain involved with the UWC movement up until his retirement. “People have this incredible enthusiasm, which I think we were able to establish in our first year at RCN in 1995. Students are curious and willing to share and they come with a very large comfort zone. One of the most rewarding parts of my job is to help people discover their own resourcefulness. We are all resourceful human beings and by finding that within ourselves, we can open up to new possibilities and experiences. Or like Kurt Hahn has put it: ‘There is more in you than you think.’”
For many United World College students, these possibilities continue to influence their lives after they have packed their bags and left their special corners of the world. For instance, Pontus Ohrstedt, a Swedish student and graduate from UWC-USA in 1995, now works in Geneva for the United Nations and credits the value of his UWC education. “Through my work at the United Nations, I have been able to contribute to very real processes of positive social change within poor communities highly affected by armed conflict. The UWC experience has been a very valuable foundation from which to approach this work.”