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.

The Basics

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!

Ideal Candidates

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.

Which Campus?

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


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Guest's picture

Interesting article you have here. This program seems great but doesn't fit my needs as I'm already in university with 1 year to go before graduation. I am interested in a Master's program similar to the one you mentioned.

Do you know of such a program (especially one targeted at Canada)? It doesn't have to be free but a reduced cost would be great.

Nora Dunn's picture

@Julian - I don't know of one myself, but the first place I'd go to research this would be Transitions Abroad, which is a Site dedicated to Studying, working, and living abroad.

Start with this page; I already notice a few links that will help you find what you're looking for:


Guest's picture

Julian - have a look at the EU Erasmus Mundus programmes. These are two year Masters programs, and usually you need to take some classes and study at at least two different universities in the programme (sometimes three!). They offer quite generous scholarships for non-EU people, like yourself, covering tuition and living expenses. There are Masters programmes in a number of different areas - here is a list of them and their websites.

Nora Dunn's picture

Thanks, Anna for the info on Masters programs abroad! Cheers.

Guest's picture


I was wondering if you knew of any other programs like UWC that offer study-abroad programs for high school students. I'm currently a sophomore and have already applied to UWC, but any other info about other programs would be greatly appreciated.


Nora Dunn's picture

@Guest - I don't know off-hand of any other programs, but if you check, out the Study Abroad section of

Transitions Abroad

site, hopefully you'll find something. Cheers! 


Guest's picture

Yes, it is too good to be true. UWC , does not treat every one the same. How one gets treated depends on national committees , they have their own rules; which is not necessarily fair and transparent. The statement “Students are selected to UWC on the basis of personal merit and potential. Race, gender, religion, politics and ability to pay are not considered during the selection process.” Is NOT true at all.

Guest's picture
UWC parent

UWC is above and beyond excellent in every way. Every country has their own selection committee, so yes, there are different standards for each country, and every country accepts a different number of kids each year. USA Selection Committee is a completely unbias group of individuals from all over the country who spend days pouring over applications (about 500 this year) and then select 100 "finalist" who they travel across the country for a month to interview. Shelby Davis pays for every student who is selected. USA selects 50 students each year. The applicant "ranks" their preference, but the selection committee decides where you are to go, usually within your top 5. My daughter attends UWC and it is rigorous, rewarding and she has friends from over 80 countries. She told me she no longer sees a map with a name of a country, she sees a face. UWC is the real deal, and an incredible opportunity for HS students.

Guest's picture

Hi UWC Parent,

This comment is not about the USA or other countries which has an official website stating clearly how a citizen can apply including age, academic preparedness , standard test scores, and recommendations requirements. No doubt the idea about UWC is noble and the program for those who are lucky enough to be enrolled is excellent in every way; it is a once in a lifetime opportunity. My concern is about the lack of transparency and about the rules that governs some countries national committee. Unlike the USA some national committee don’t not have any official website to provide information to prospective applicants about specific rules applicable to the local national committee. Local committees operate under their own rule, and without transparency. Who is to say the rules are fair or in keeping with the UWC mission? This is not to discredit the hard working volunteers who work in national committees, but to say may be UWC must ensure that information is provided officially through the official website to ensure transparency to all prospective students, regardless of the country of origin.

Guest's picture

I was wondering how the students academics (grades and test scores) affect their ability to be chosen into the program. My son was chosen as the Sophomore representative for the Regional HOBY and then attended HOBY International this past summer in Chicago. I don't know that his grades were factored in to the decision to choose him for these leadership programs, but he certainly is very strong in academics. Are you aware of information regarding previous students g.p.a./test score/class rank/A.P. classes/University classes taken during their high school years? Also, my concern is that he has spent 2 years working with the University of Ohio on a project testing nanofibers and cells that are representative of cancer cells. He is currently leading this project as a Junior through the physics department and I'm not sure how to determine if it is worth leaving. He has other projects of similar importance through the school and community opportunities and I wonder if other incoming UWC students are leaving projects like this behind as well. We have worked very hard to create a resume suitable for the universities that he intends to apply to. I don't know if having UWC on the resume is worth stopping all of the activities that he has participated in and gained leadership in for the four years of high school. His activities include multiple community-service projects, three academic teams and sports related teams that have been carefully selected for his pre-college years. I would appreciate any feedback regarding students who have been recently admitted. On another note, the use of profanity by the alumni student in this article, was astounding. She knowingly used the word in a quote that would be placed on the UWC website. Also, that she would use profanity in any conversation makes me question the caliber of other students on the campus. Are students placed in groups or on campuses that reflect their personalities? The students in his current circle of friends attend the same all boys Catholic Prep School, so it is possible that we are more conservative than most, but it is not a positive insight into the typical student at UWC. Is there a website that offers communication with alumni of UWC or posts their current credentials having graduated from this program?

Guest's picture

I think your son would do well to apply for a UWC place, the primary reason being to put some distance between himself and his controlling parents. He may find the opportunity to develop independently rather than having to follow the carefully crafted course you appear to have laid out for him. You clearly have no concept of the UWC ideals or mission. This is not about doing projects or activities 'carefully selected' by your parents because they think that they make you 'look good on paper' and might open the 'right doors' for you. The child that turns up for selection with this mindset would frankly struggle compared to the outstanding independently-minded, self-motivated, diverse students who get chosen. Young people who have been encouraged to question and challenge existing conventions and who choose their own path (which may include, if and when, to use the odd 'profanity'!).

Also, are you really asking in all seriousness if UWC students are segregated into homogeneous groups because you think this might suit his all-boys catholic school background? Keep him safely away from any unwelcome outside influences? Oh dear - you really don't get it at all....

Guest's picture

I went to their website and I just saw that I missed their application deadline... Is there another program like this that you may know?

Thank You