United World College: Study Abroad For Way Less Than You Think
Is your high school-aged child looking for something different? Are they curious about various cultures and standards around the world? Would they excel in a fast-paced school abroad that focuses on world issues, communication, community projects, and studying alongside students from dozens of other countries? If so, United World College could be a good fit. And for a school abroad, you may be surprised at the sticker price — or lack thereof.
United World College (UWC) has 12 colleges on five continents. Most of them are pre-university programs, which take place during the last two years of high school, or the last year of high school plus one extra year. At the end of the two years, students earn an International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma, which is said to open many international doors.
Weekly involvement in community projects are a fundamental part of the UWC curriculum, and they are not projects to sneeze at. For example, one campus’s students operate a lifeboat service along their coast, and another school in a less developed area focuses on literacy projects in their community. Each year, students also have “project week” where they adopt a more in-depth project that can be local or international in nature.
Because UWC is a global educational NGO, it relies on volunteers to do much of the trench work, in terms of student selection, marketing, and fundraising. Alongside community leaders and philanthropists, previous graduates are often happy to step up to the task; many tend to feel that the value they received from the school is well worth their effort to keep the program going and growing.
Because students come from all over the world to live and study together, they gain a world perspective that many of us struggle to achieve. Graduates tend to have a network of friends who live around the world, which becomes handy for business, travel, and ultimately — peace.
Matt Wallaert is an American who attended the UWC Hong Kong campus. For him, the internationally diverse student body gave him definition and identity.
I was lucky to have this rich patchwork and community of international kids, and I was able to find the ways I was both alike and different from each of them. You look at my class now and we're all over, doing different things…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.
Elisa Cundiff, also an American who attended the Hong Kong campus (albeit a few years later), learned how to differentiate between her national identity and her personal identity.
I remembered feeling for the first month or two 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.
UWC student selection is a function of the National Committee in each country. Admittance is purely based on merit with no regard for the student’s ability to pay (we’ll get to that shortly), race, religion, politics, or gender. Each year more than 10,000 students apply from over 120 different countries, for a spot among the 1,500 lucky students to be accepted annually. Despite the campuses being scattered around the world, the universal teaching language is English. Although not all students may be entirely proficient in English, assistance is given to these folks to learn.
Each country’s selection process differs. But generally, you can expect to have a written application and interview as a starting point. From there, you may take part in group activities, write an examination, or do community service to demonstrate your merit.
Dominic Muntanga is originally from Zimbabwe, and attended the UWC campus in the UK. His selection process seemed pretty simple:
I applied to a national committee following a news article, was short-listed, interviewed, and selected.
At the tender age of approximately 16, most students find there’s a learning curve in living away from home at such a young age. UWC candidates are best served if they are somewhat independent to begin with, so they can maximize on the full study-abroad experience.
Elisa Cundiff also spoke of feeling the weight of the world at UWC.
The Argentinean financial crisis throws 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 [leader], he will not be able to return to visit his family at all...it's been eight years, I still don't think [he] 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.
And for Dominic from Zimbabwe, he said his biggest challenge was that the “weather sucked” in the UK!
United World College is not for students wanting an easy ride. In addition to the full high school curriculum, many students are saddled with the task of learning another language, being immersed in another culture, and community service work that tacks extra hours onto the day.
While both Elisa and Dominic promote curiosity, an open mind, and general smarts as benefits for potential UWC applicants, Matt also suggests that self-motivation is another key to success as a UWC student, saying that a good candidate would have the wheels but not necessarily the direction.
I think to live internationally and on your own, you have to be self-sufficient and stable in a way that most people aren't at that age: you have to have a steady base to work from. And then you have to want to build on it — you can't half-ass it. You've got to be a pusher, a goer, a doer, and then let this rich international community help you figure out where you are going and what you are doing.
Each UWC campus has a different personality and curriculum. The National Committee will do their best to select the best fit for each applicant, and will take the applicant’s wishes into account too.
Matt was looking for something different for his UWC experience.
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.
Elisa attended the Hong Kong campus, but she also visited four other UWC campuses during her two year program.
I came to realize that no matter where I would have gone, I would have had an incredible international experience. Because what really sets UWC apart from any other learning experience is the wildly divergent student body. When you attend a school of less than 200 students picked from 120 different nations, you could be anywhere.
Okay, the part you’ve been waiting for with white knuckles; is this program too good to be true for my little one?
The short answer is no! Regardless of your current financial situation, your child could attend UWC upon acceptance. This is made possible through extensive scholarship programs which are funded by individual philanthropists, some government programs, and the fundraising efforts of each National Committee. UWC aims to meet 100% of student financial needs through these efforts.
Even students in countries without a lot of financial stability manage to attend. Dominic says his cost to attend UWC abroad was an “insignificant amount equal to tuition in Zimbabwe.” In the States, Shelby Davis is a philanthropist who funds many (if not most) US UWC student scholarships, as well as provides funding for the UWC campus in New Mexico.
Test Drive UWC with a Short Program
If you think your child might be interested in this opportunity, they may be able to take it for a test ride. 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.
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 alumni, Hong Kong campus