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Reflections on UWC, Part I
1. Boring but necessary context on UWC (skip this if you already know)
The United World College movement comprises a set of 18 international schools across the world that were founded to bring students from different backgrounds together and help them understand one another. The mission of the school, which is repeated often and with a somewhat propagandistic character at the Colleges, is to make “education a force to unite people, nations, and cultures for peace and a sustainable future.” (Unfortunately, it also says this on the back of my shirt right now. This is why I have worn a backpack in public all day.)
The schools originated as a sort of experiment in education. The first College was founded in postwar Wales to ease tensions between countries during the Cold War by having kids from a lot of different countries live with each other. Under the leadership of Lord Mountbatten, and then King Charles III, and then Nelson Mandela (!), and then Queen Noor of Jordan, the schools expanded to different continents.
Since 1962, roughly 60 000 students have graduated from UWC schools. Alumni include Julie Payette, the Former Governor General of Canada who has since resigned after creating a scandalously toxic and abusive workplace environment, a bunch of European royalty, and Kim Han-Sol, the grandson of former North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il.
Also, me! I recently graduated from Lester B. Pearson United World College of the Pacific (aka Pearson College), which is located on South Vancouver Island. I plan to write a few articles reflecting on my experiences over the last two years at Pearson.
2. “The Incident”
Pearson is a school of roughly 200 students, 75% of whom are international students from ~95 countries, and over 75% of whom receive financial assistance. (Certainly, there are still ways in which diversity could be improved, but I include these statistics to illustrate UWC’s diversity relative to almost all other high schools and probably most universities too.)
Living in an international community brings a lot of things closer to home. The typical reflection made of UWC students is that various humanitarian disasters gain a sort of visceral, emotional flavour. This is true. I read a headline about an earthquake in Syria the other day, and a girl in my hallway this year was from Syria, and I can actually care about this issue as a human now rather than a morally calculating cyborg.
It also brought political conflict closer to me, in a way that forced me to form my opinions more slowly, carefully, and responsibly. Last spring was dramatic, for example. One of my close friends at the time got into an argument with a group of students from a marginalised racial group. He went back to his room that night and went on a vitriolic, semi-racially-charged tirade about the students. It was loud enough that the rooms next door heard him, and people were scared, and traumatised, and in around 48 hours, he was expelled.
Of course, it was more complicated than that — these things always are. (I still feel ambivalent in some ways about how the situation ended, but I don’t think my opinions here are as relevant as my takeaways.) And in a campus of only 300 people, rumours spread and fester. Our living room was home to tense, timid conversations that circled around the disagreement and occasionally broke into hostility. Calls for racial justice were scrawled across our whiteboard, and students slept in front of the administration building to protest the perceived inaction of the school in providing support to victimised students. Students on the other side (who felt expulsion had been too harsh, and was politically motivated) gathered in underground group chats and whispered conversations to express their frustration.
And the few of us who were caught in the middle — those who knew that the words said had been wrong and hurtful, but who cared about our friend nonetheless — mostly kept to ourselves. We didn’t talk about much about what had happened until weeks later, when the memories faded and the living room had been demilitarised, if not expunged of all discomfort.
The incident was painful and exhausting, but in some ways, it represents the type of political conflict that is most meaningful. We all cared about the problem because we cared about the people involved, and saw them suffer, and wanted to reconcile with one another not just intellectually but emotionally. The month forced me to think about conflict with more empathy, balance, and patience than any political disagreement I have had in my life.
When my peers and I looked back on the incident a year later, I think we felt an odd sense of communion. It was a sense that we had struggled through something of real consequence and come out the other side together — even if, at the time, we were mutually responsible for each other’s frustrations.
3. A different kind of politics
“The Incident,” as we occasionally called it, was by far the most intense argument, but it certainly wasn’t the only one. I probably had a good argument every week, actually. We argued about whether The Merchant of Venice is anti-Semitic; whether women in conservative religious traditions feel genuinely empowered by religion or if they’re just indoctrinated into it; whether we care so much about Ukraine out of genuine humanitarian reasons, or because Ukrainians are white and most other refugees are brown, or both; and so on and so forth. Throughout, I came to view the world in terms of the people sitting at my dinner table, and I began to see politics as something more personal and more real.
Politics after Pearson feels vacant sometimes in comparison. I would suggest a few reasons for this:
The news is often about distant, theoretical problems that we don’t have a particular stake in (increasingly so due to the nationalisation and consolidation of media). I’ve never met a professional transgender athlete — how could I possibly know what they should be doing?
Sometimes we lie about the world to sound intelligent. I’m friends with many competitive debaters, a group of people who have a unique passion for saying random, unhinged shit about climate change and the World Bank and the BJP with little to no factual backing (sometimes I’m guilty too). This is bad.
On the other side of the spectrum, many political commentators quantify things heavily. They use a lot of graphs and don’t speak in human terms that much anymore, and it all feels somewhat unnatural.
Politics is increasingly inattentive. There’s an odd kind of object impermanence fuelled by 24-hour news, where we forget about Afghanistan the day it stops rolling through headlines.
To be clear, many of these trends have benefits, and maybe they’re ultimately worth it. It’s good to learn about people in other places and consider data when making decisions. But I do think that as society has expanded and become more interconnected, a lot of dialogue has been drained of meaning and personal relevance. We’re often infused with artificial anger instilled by a political system rather than being motivated by genuine emotion for or commitment towards those around us.
Living on a small, isolated campus for two years provided me with a rare contrast. Pearson helped me learn how to listen, and when to listen. It helped me understand that people I disagree with are often experiencing things I don’t see and might never know about. And it allowed me to envision what an alternative sort of politics could look like — one rooted in care and human experience rather than mindless institutional loyalty.
Note: I spent some time thinking about whether to discuss the specific disciplinary infraction that I referenced in this article. I think there is a delicate balance between recounting my experiences with honesty and clarity, and protecting the privacy of everyone involved. I ultimately opted to include the reference, but to exclude any identifying information about people involved. What happened last year was one of the most formative experiences I had at UWC, and the purpose of this piece is to share what I learned from the situation rather than to expose specific people involved.