GRADUATION 2013 Shirleen and Colin (1)

Shirleen Lanham retiring after 33 years

By Britti Paudyal ’21, Nepal

United World College-USA math teacher Shirleen Lanham will retire at the end of the school year after working on the Montezuma campus for 33 years.

During that time, Shirleen was also a residential coordinator from 1988-2020, raised her two children here and experienced a change in the UWC-USA culture.

“When I first started at UWC, there weren’t cellphones, computers, emails, and students who came here were cut off from their prior communities,” she said. “There were no phones in the dorms in the early years and you’d have to make a call home through your RT (residential tutor).”

“There was no way of keeping ties to former friends and this place was it for you,” Shirleen continued. “So we had a much stronger contained community and the relationships built were very strong because this was your family for two years.”

She decided to retire for various reasons, including her age.

“I’m 70, I think it’s time,” Shirleen said. “It’s been many, many years and especially if we have to continue online, it is not ideal for me to interact with students and do the best for them.”

Born and raised in Cape Town, South Africa, Shirleen received her bachelor’s in philosophy and psychology and master’s in education, all from the University of Cape Town. 

Her first teaching job was with the only international multiracial school in Eswatini in South Africa. The school’s purpose was to fight apartheid, a system of institutionalized racial segregation that existed in South Africa and South West Africa from 1948 until the early 1990s. The school later became UWC Eswatini.

While at Eswatini from 1976 to 1987, Shirleen taught the children of anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela and political dissidents. 

That’s also where she met her husband, Colin. He also taught at UWC-USA, retiring in 2018, after teaching art here for 30 years.

The couple came to UWC-USA in 1988 with their children, Nick and Jessica.

“My children were born in Eswatini but they could not get citizenships,” Shirleen said. “Nick would be compelled to join the South African army for military service when he turned 17, and I did not want that for him at all.”

When the late Ted Lockwood, the founding president of UWC-USA, came to Eswatini for a UWC celebration, he told the Lanhams UWC-USA needed an art teacher, and the couple moved to New Mexico.

“It just didn’t seem like a possibility to get rid of apartheid,” Shirleen said. “We came to UWC-USA for two years initially, but later decided to stay.”

She enjoyed raising her children on campus, where there were about 15 faculty children.

“They would all play together and look after each other, so they had a wonderful childhood,” she said.

Shirleen loved the relationships she made while working as a residential coordinator.

“Getting to know the whole student — getting to have a feel of what their lives are like was good for me because when being a teacher, I knew all the stressors of UWC life so I could help with student wellbeing in terms of academics,” she said.

Married for 44 years, Shirleen and Colin will move to their home outside Albuquerque. In addition to traveling, Shirleen will spend time knitting, quilting, patchworking, baking and cooking, and learning more about constellations from the New Mexican sky.

They will also spend time with their grandchildren, Noah, 8, Quentin, 2. 

Shirleen said she will miss Montezuma’s beauty and the community.

“When you move from another country with no family, the adults in your surrounding become your extended family,” she said. “I lived my whole adult life in a multicultural community so at this point, I’m scared of going into a homogenous society. I’ll miss interacting with people from all over the world.”


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