For the past four years, I’ve worked with schools and school districts across the U.S. to help them improve schools in urban settings. As I’ve worked with traditional public high schools, I’ve wondered how they compared to UWCs. I am not a UWC alumna, but I met many UWC alumni in college who spoke about how “transformative” their UWC experience had been; few alumni who I met from other high schools would describe their high school experiences as “transformative.” I decided to visit UWC-USA to learn more about what makes the UWC experience “transformative” for students and think about the take-aways for more traditional high school settings in which I work. There were two particular aspects of the UWC experience that stood out to me.
FREEDOM. On the first evening of my visit, a student took me to a cafe in the Castle after we had dinner together, and we conversed for a few hours about UWC, international education systems, and the Montezuma community. Another time, a student took me to the Dwan Light Sanctuary after her last trial exam, and we spent the afternoon discussing various educational models we’d studied and the pros and cons of each.
In most U.S. high schools, students are not given such freedom to schedule their time; rather, parents or school administrators can dictate students’ schedules inside and outside of class time. Although we know students will need to be able to manage their own time once they are in college, we tend to think that they may not be ready for that level of responsibility before they turn 18. UWC proves that high school students can learn to manage their own time if they are given the freedom to do so.
DIALOGUE. Students who I spoke to on campus consistently cited the nature of dialogue with their peers as a defining difference between UWC and their high schools back home. UWC students were uniquely interested in engaging in dialogue that pulled from students’ cross-national experiences and enabled them to think about their global impact and personal identity. I witnessed this in a history classroom where the teacher asked students to comment on world events based on their experiences in their home countries. I also saw this in the dining hall where students spoke over lunch about the extent to which they identified with the nation represented on their passport.
In many U.S. high schools, students are reluctant to engage in authentic conversation about their similarities and differences, afraid that their differences will not be accepted. The quality of dialogue I encountered at UWC proved to me that students can more meaningfully engage in dialogue about their differences and can learn from the exchange once they move past an initial reluctance.
I came to UWC-USA expecting to find a specific academic framework that could perhaps be applied in other settings. Indeed, students seem to enjoy the International Baccalaureate curriculum, and several said that the unique Experiential Education program provided their best educational experiences on and off campus. But I found that what differentiated the UWC experience from more traditional high schools was a foundational trust in students to manage their time in pursuit of their goals and to engage with each other in meaningful ways.