Teenage Détente

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — November 26, 2003 15 min read
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High school students from around the world find a home, and mutual understanding, at the edge of the New Mexico wilderness.

Hill Vognild was eager to leave her settled life in Norway to study and live at United World College, where she envisioned an oasis of learning, tolerance, and cultural understanding among classmates from more than 80 countries.

The feisty blond teenager was ready for the challenging academic requirements at the private boarding school and fired up to balance those demands with community service, outdoor adventures, and cultural lessons from peers from around the globe.

View the accompanying photo gallery.

But soon after arriving at this campus at the edge of the Pecos Wilderness, Vognild discovered that the schoolwork was the easy part. Learning to negotiate relationships with students from such varied backgrounds, she says, was a challenge she was not fully prepared for.

“A year ago, I saw this as a perfectly wonderful place, like paradise,” she says. “They talk here a lot about building bridges and understanding between diverse cultures, but it’s not always as easy as it appears in the brochures.”

This particular paradise, with its scenic view from rocky slopes and natural hot springs, requires hard labor, say teachers, administrators, and students. Even while the principles of peace and tolerance guide life and schooling here, the tensions are inevitable among 200 teenagers from a range of political, religious, and economic backgrounds. But the friction often yields the greatest lessons, forcing students to question their own norms and those of others, and to learn to respect their differences.

“We are working toward building community between many unrelated parties,” says Phil Geier, who has served as the president of this campus for more than 10 years. “The living situation is right in their face, providing a 24-hour immersion into this sort of teenage United Nations.”

It was precisely the kind of environment German education philosopher Kurt Hahn believed would propel adolescents on a path toward deep intellectual and personal growth and help broaden their views of the world. Hahn, the founder of the Outward Bound expeditionary-learning program, helped establish the United World College system, which now boasts 10 schools worldwide, as a way to catch promising students at a crossroads on their way to adulthood, when their worldviews were still being formed.

“We’re building in students character as global citizens and helping them become articulate about their own culture while embracing a stronger sense of the world,” says Geier.

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View the accompanying table, “Countries of Origin for Students on New Mexico Campus in the 2003-04 School Year.”

Hahn’s work as a consultant to the United Nations led to the formation of the first United World College, in Wales, in 1962. The school’s carefully constructed curriculum served as the model for the International Baccalaureate, a pre-university program with culminating examinations that has since been adopted in some 1,300 schools worldwide.

Hahn died in 1974, but his legacy has endured in the United World Colleges, with other campuses in Canada, Hong Kong, India, Italy, Norway, Singapore, Swaziland, and Venezuela. Students can complete their final two years of secondary education at the schools.

During that time, students are required to complete challenging coursework, including an extended research paper, and participate in regular community service projects and physical activities. They are also met with some of the most difficult social lessons of their lives, Geier says.

When they are welcomed on campus by an international assembly of classmates, for many it is their first introduction to such extreme diversity, independence from their families, and this level of academic and social responsibilities.

Even while the principles of peace and tolerance guide life and schooling here, the tensions are inevitable among 200 teenagers from a range of political, religious, and economic backgrounds.

Students from adversarial nations— Israel and the Palestinian territories, India and Pakistan, Serbia and Bosnia— must find paths to diplomacy when they face each other in the same classes or across the dinner table, when they work side by side on service projects, or even as roommates in the small, single-sex dorm rooms housed in nondescript brick buildings on campus. As a result, teenagers who would otherwise seem destined to be enemies forge unlikely alliances, and often lifelong friendships.

“I have a best friend from Pakistan,” Nikhil Mallavarapu, a second-year student from India, says, noting the irony of the combative relationship between the countries. “I can’t change his viewpoint on political conflict, but we have a lot of things in common.”

The camaraderie on campus, however, can quickly turn more antagonistic as students react to a report on the evening news, a political debate in the classroom, a student’s presentation on his or her country’s national holiday, or a cultural slight in a popular movie.

Those disputes can also arise over pressures that are more universal: typical adolescent anxieties, homesickness, gossip, and a changing self-image.

“There are issues usually surrounding religion, politics, and sexuality,” says Maria DaSilva, one of 50 American students at the New Mexico campus. “But when you bring 200 adolescents together, no matter where they are from, the problems are more a result of them being teenagers than because of cultural differences.”

Like all students here, DaSilva was selected in a competitive application process for her academic performance and interest in international issues. Each campus welcomes about 25 percent of its students from the host nation. Among U.S. applicants, about 100 students are selected each year, half to attend the American West campus here, and the others divided among other schools.

The Americans admitted to the program are all offered full scholarships from donors Shelby and Gale Davis, the founder and CEO of a New York City-based money-management firm and his wife, in an effort to promote interest in international affairs among American students. The school tries to enroll students from diverse economic backgrounds as well, so youths in other countries are often given full or partial scholarships through their governments or charitable organizations to cover the roughly $20,000 in annual tuition and expenses.

The schools have gained strong backing internationally from leaders and promoters of diplomatic relations. Queen Noor of Jordan became the president of the colleges in 1995 along with Nelson Mandela of South Africa, whose own children and grandchildren attended the school in Swaziland. They succeeded Britain’s Prince Charles.

Several similar schools operate in the United States, including the United Nations International School in New York City and the Nacel International School, which opened at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn., this year.

But unlike some other international schools, the UWC program is not a training ground for future diplomats with formal lessons on international relations or comparative studies. UWC students have a range of career aspirations, but educators hope their experiences will instill a sense of responsibility as citizens of their local, national, and international communities.

As Norway’s Vognild has found, with that responsibility comes commitment to resolving problems calmly. That resolve can be put to the test in everyday living, she says.

One evening when the 18- year-old was watching what she saw as a typical American movie, a friend from Jordan erupted in anger. Where Vognild inferred an appropriate U.S. military response to an attack on an American embassy in the Middle East, the other student saw a vicious assault on helpless villagers. The two friends had also argued before over their opposing viewpoints.

“I am from Norway, so I am open-minded and I like to make friends with everybody, but my friend from the Middle East thinks [that because of those qualities] I’m stupid and naive,” Vognild says. “It is really hard sometimes to get along, but that doesn’t mean he is not still my friend.”

Vikram Anand, a second-year student from India, has had similar arguments with classmates. But most conflicts, he says, strengthen the bonds between students.

“Sometimes, those debates and arguments are a part of life here,” he says.

Students are encouraged to discuss problems or disputes in weekly assemblies, or in a more formal environment in the school’s Bartos Institute for the Constructive Engagement of Conflict.

Over the years, as the campus has struggled through waves of student activism, and as world events have fueled opposing sympathies, larger student conflicts have boiled over.

Community service projects make up a big part of the school week to instill in students a committment to helping others.

But when debate on campus grows especially contentious, school officials see the disputes for the compelling lessons they hold, and work to guide students toward resolution.

“When we have kids from the same region of the world who are at each other’s throats, what do you do about it?” says Geier. “We take their eye off the ball.”

After the 1999 NATO bombings of Serbia, for example, hostilities erupted among students from that country and from Kosovo. To neutralize the situation, teachers asked students from both countries to work together to produce a cultural presentation on the region. After collaborating to draft a historical summary of the region and select poetry that reflects the culture, the youths started to find common roots, Geier says.

Palestinian and Israeli students are often asked to work in the same way to organize events that celebrate the history and culture of the region prior to the current conflict.

For Hadar Meltzer, a 17-year-old from Israel who often ponders the three- year military assignment he faces after he graduates next spring, the empathy the environment tends to cultivate has allowed close associations with students from various Arab states. Such experiences foster a model that, he says, sends a message about the possibility for peaceful coexistence.

“There is tension, but we’re working through it. Otherwise, it would be hard living here,” says Meltzer, who passed up a school ski trip last winter to spend a Muslim holiday with Palestinian students and a faculty member. “I believe you can see here coexistence. We are showing people that peace among different people is possible.”

Other sensitive topics outside the realm of geopolitics also fuel debates. Several campus discussions have focused on homosexuality, for example, an orientation that many students from religiously conservative countries do not acknowledge.

School leaders have carefully constructed programs and activities that encourage students to express and share their own cultures. At the annual matriculation ceremony here recently, students in their national garb nervously awaited their turns to add their names to the leather-bound roster of their predecessors, some 3,000 in all since the 110-acre campus was donated by the Dallas-based Armand Hammer Foundation in 1982.

Yukio Iseki of Japan proudly modeled his traditional black dress robes, handed down from his grandfather. Pem Lama, from Bhutan, showed off the handwoven plum-colored kira, a wrap garment with ankle- length skirt and short jacket that women in her country wear to school and work.

When dressed down in their bluejeans, it is easier to ignore the norms and traditions in which they were raised, says Erisha Suwal, a 19-year- old from Nepal. Although fitting in at UWC does not require the kind of conformity that is more typical in an American high school, Suwal says she has done a lot of soul-searching, questioning how far she should go toward embracing other students’ perspectives, particularly those that run counter to her family’s conservative values.

“I’ve had to ask myself if I’m living for myself, or my friends, or my family and culture,” says Suwal, who describes her attendance here as a significant achievement, considering that girls in Nepal are rarely allowed to study away from home.

The answer to that question, Suwal says, changes: She has not been home in nearly two years, and will be applying to universities in the United States and in Europe, like many of UWC’s graduates. But when classmates urge her to explain her culture, she regrets that she was not earnest in learning about Nepal’s history, and that she has not maintained a stronger devotion to her Hindu religion.

Many of the young men and women here find themselves torn between their cultural traditions and the allure of the school’s open-minded ethos. Several years ago, school officials recognized that the student body as a whole was embracing a kind of moral relativism, and that many students yearned for more spiritual guidance.

In response, the school started providing more opportunities for students to study and practice religion. A sanctuary for religious services and nondenominational activities was opened several years ago. Special arrangements are made for students to go to nearby church services on weekends. And Muslim students have chances to pray throughout the day, as required under Islam, and gather for weekly prayer services.

Many students have also found their passion in community service, a requisite of the curriculum. At least twice a week, blocks of school time are dedicated to activities ranging from tutoring in local elementary schools, to volunteering in nursing homes, animal shelters, and state detention centers, and working on environmental-conservation efforts.

One brisk morning last month a group of UWC students took local youngsters on a tour of the campus. For many of the 4th graders from Paul D. Henry Elementary School in nearby Las Vegas, N.M., the castle on the hill-the majestic historic structure that serves as the centerpiece of the campus-is the closest they’ll every get to a trip around the world.

The intensive International Baccalaureate curriculum prepares students to attend top universities in the United States and abroad.

The UWC students, who volunteer as teachers’ aides at the elementary school, first unfurled a world map for a geography lesson. Then they explained to the younger pupils about the languages and traditions of their homelands. Emily Foraker of Washington state, one of the student leader of the service project, pointed out the Middle East, Asia, and Europe, and asked students what they knew about the different languages and geographies of the regions. Later, the UWC students talked about their homelands, their families, and their traditions.

The outreach into the impoverished community, dotted by trailer homes and grazing goats, has smoothed the school’s appearance of wealth and privilege. In Las Vegas, whose 15,000 residents are predominantly white and Hispanic, the average household income is roughly half the national average. The $15 million renovation of the Montezuma castle, perched high on the rocky campus, was viewed by some as extravagant, especially when compared with the aging public schools nearby. The restoration was paid after an agressive fund-raising campaign. The school’s long-time sponsors also contributed.

But Geier, who spends much of his time raising scholarship money, touted the benefits to the community in restoring the building, which was completed last year. The historic site, first developed in the 1880s along the Santa Fe rail line as an upscale retreat for East Coast aristocrats, is the only significant local tourist attraction. The project pumped money into the ailing local economy and put many residents to work.

While the school’s service efforts contribute to the local community, the primary goal of the service programs is to instill in students a broader commitment to others, says John McLeod, who oversees some two dozen such activities here.

Many students find unexpected rewards in that work and choose to join several service groups. McLeod says the difficulty is building in time for reflection so they get the depth of experience that was initially intended.

Sometimes, in fact, students need reminding that their schoolwork demands at least equal time.

“It’s not all about the books. It’s more about developing as a person,” says Peter Frank, a first-year student from Jamaica. “But it is a challenge dealing with academics and social life and service. There are a lot of late nights.”

Frank is certain, though, that the experience will prepare him well for a career as an aeronautical engineer.

Graduating students generally go on to top universities. The school has been building partnerships with dozens of four-year institutions that promise scholarships to UWC graduates in the hope of expanding their campuses’ racial and ethnic diversity. Alumni have gone to work in governments and businesses around the globe, as well as for international agencies.

“The students here are more than anxious to learn,” says Ravi Parshar, a native of India who has taught economics at the school for 11 years. Parshar, who roams the campus in typical native dress, has a knack for memorizing students names and key personal details before greeting them like friends when they first arrive on campus.

“There’s a passion for learning,” he says, which allows them to stretch their intellect and dazzle you.”

While the gregarious teacher is confident most students leave highly prepared for future studies and successful careers, many graduates find themselves unprepared for returning home, where often they struggle to fit back in.

“It hurts me to know that when they go back to their own countries after graduation, many times they feel a sense of displacement,” Parshar says. “People don’t understand them; they don’t understand their parents.”

Graduates who have had time to gain some perspective on their experiences at the UWC schools may have an easier time articulating the impact the school has had on their lives.

“Very few people come away from that school unaltered,” says Paul Moore, a 1985 graduate of the New Mexico campus. “You have an increased awareness of a need for international tolerance and a deep need to engage in some type of social change, whether that be on the national, state, or local level.”

The United World College network has expanded to some 30,000 graduates of the 10 schools, representing 175 countries.

School leaders are betting on graduates to spread that message throughout their lives, says Geier. “We are working to build a critical mass of future leaders who are networked together,” he says, “and share a commitment to service and improving the world.”

That network has expanded to some 30,000 graduates of the 10 schools, representing 175 countries. Many of them stay in touch through e-mail discussions and other correspondence, and call on one another when traveling.

They also work together on service projects and meet monthly in coffee shops, churches, and private homes in the United States and abroad.

“I know I have a place to stay virtually anywhere I go in the world,” says Moore, a lawyer with the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington.

Coverage of cultural understanding and international issues in education is supported in part by the Atlantic Philanthropies.

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