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Get Your International Baccalaureate at the United World College Network

Flags from countries around the world for study abroad.
“I was just a middle class kid from rural Oregon who had seen all he could see where he was and needed to go somewhere else. It was the right place, at the right time, to help me keep growing.” — Matt Wallaert, UWC graduate, Hong Kong campus

In high school, I figured studying abroad was a pleasure reserved solely for the affluent and only available during my university years. If only I had known about United World College, I would have had an exciting, fast-paced, intellectually stimulating, and wildly different finish to high school than I could have imagined. And what is most extraordinary is that my study abroad would have been virtually free. If you know somebody who is of high school age and looking for something different, United World College might be the solution.

What is United World College?

United World College (UWC) is a global educational NGO with 18 colleges on four continents, instructing and enlightening 10,500 students yearly. The majority of the colleges are pre-university programs that replace the last two years of high school or, in some cases, the last year plus one extra year. Graduates can receive one of two optional International Baccalaureate diplomas and a standard high school transcript. The two types of diplomas are the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IBDP) and the International Baccalaureate Career-related Programme (IBCP), both of which are two-year pre-university curricula offered to students between 16 and 19.

The school accepts applicants from around the world, so the student body is widely varied in culture, language, and background. The students come together (most of them far away from home) to study, socialize, and effect positive change in the world.

Community Projects 

In addition to the standard educational curriculum, UWC emphasizes community projects, which students participate in weekly. The projects can also be involved and provide critical services: one campus operates a lifeboat service along its coastline, and another school in a less developed country focuses on literacy projects.

The students also participate in an annual “project week,” where they collectively take on an even more extensive task (that can be either local or international in nature).

UWC Operations 

UWC is a Global Educational NGO that prioritizes education over tuition (we’ll get to that shortly). As such, it relies on a small army of volunteers (many of whom are UWC graduates who want to give back) who manage everything from student selection to marketing to the ever-necessary fundraising. Community activists, philanthropists, and UWC graduates largely keep the ball rolling.

Student Selection 

Each country has a National Committee (again, made up of volunteers), which is charged with the annual selection of students for the next UWC class. There are over 1,000 spots for new UWC students each year, and the volunteer National Committees collectively sort through applications from 150 countries to arrive at the next student body.

UWC is vocal about keeping race, religion, politics, and ability to pay out of the selection criteria. The school is not meant to be a launching pad just for affluent students headed for an Ivy League education, and inner-circle politics are kept to a minimum.

Although the UWC campuses are spread around the world, the universal teaching language is English (and assistance is given to those students who need help learning).

As for the student’s application responsibilities, each National Committee develops an application process pertinent to the country. Most involve writing essays and attending interviews.

Nahal Zebarjadi is an Australian who attended the UWC-USA campus. Of his selection process, he said, “The first phase consisted of a written application which included personal essays, high school records, recommendation letters, etc. The second step was an interview process during which we spoke both informally to past graduates and formally with the Board of the Australian UWC committee.”

Selecting the The Location of the Campus

Although you may have a UWC campus in your home country, students often attend UWC campuses abroad to deepen their experience. Most application processes allow students to rank their order of preference of school.

Matt Wallaert is an American who studied at UWC’s Hong Kong campus. “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.”

By the same token, Elisa Cundiff, an American who studied (a few years later) at the Hong Kong campus, says it doesn’t really matter where you go; instead, the student body's international experience is inherent. “I actually visited four UWC's and came to realize that no matter where I would have gone, I would have had an incredible international experience. When you attend a school of less than 200 students, picked from 120 different nations, you could be anywhere”.

Nahal decided to go to his campus based on the scholarships available. He received a 100% scholarship to attend the UWC-USA campus but only a 50% scholarship for the UWC-India campus.

Cost and Scholarships

As stated earlier, the ability to pay is (interestingly) not a determining factor in attending UWC. In fact, UWC strives to meet 100% of each student’s financial needs through extensive scholarships (funded by philanthropists, government programs, and the fundraising efforts of National Committees).

American students are familiar with Shelby Davis, who funds many (if not most) UWC scholarships for Americans and provides funding for the UWC-USA campus.

Benefits of a UWC Education 

Matt believes that diversity begets identity and progress. “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.”

Nahal cites the accepting and loving UWC community as instrumental in his ability to feel part of a global community. “My lifestyle since UWC has been full of displacement and new contexts, and yet this network has kept me grounded and balanced in a way that defies distance and time.”

In addition, Nahal also relates to the world differently due to his UWC education. “Despite the possible simplification of equating entire countries and cultures with single individuals, these people gave me faces, families, and stories to connect with unfamiliar places. I was exposed to the widest spectrum of opinions and philosophies on every subject, which continue to inform how I see the world and make my choices.”

Challenges to Studying at UWC 

Interestingly, most UWC graduates I have interviewed see each UWC challenge as beneficial in some way.

Elisa found herself at UWC after 9/11 and questioning her national identity. “I remember feeling 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 to realize that I could be American without being American and that I could choose exactly what that meant to me.”

Nahal, as an Iranian immigrant to Australia, felt something similar. “I was representing Australia (and for the first time in my life actually feeling Australian), and particularly happy to tell a different story of my country - an immigrant one — while also being the only Iranian on campus. Though this was a relatively easy position to be in, issues of figuring out where I belonged culturally were still sometimes challenging.”

Other challenges of studying at UWC involve living away from home at a young age and being thrown onto an international stage to learn diplomacy.

“Because our identities were inextricably tied up with our national backgrounds, sensitive international conflicts challenged those who were deeply affected by them to separate their individual classmates and friends from the political positions they opposed,” says Nahal.

Elisa says she “was constantly feeling like the world was falling apart around you, in a way. The Argentinean financial crisis throw's 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. 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.”

Advice from UWC Graduates

All the UWC graduates I spoke to wish they had done more, enjoyed themselves more and generally been easier on themselves during their time at UWC. Matt wished he had been more outward-focused (socially) and forgiving of others. Nahal wished he had been more courageous in getting involved with theater and cultural performances, gotten to know more people, and stayed longer at dances to learn some of the extraordinary dance moves of his colleagues.

Elisa wished she could have taken more advantage of the school and opportunities around her. However, she also recognizes that doing everything with many opportunities for personal (and intellectual) growth at UWC is hard. Nahal says it beautifully: “There were so many ways in which we were each out of our comfort zones, that it wouldn't be possible to break all the boundaries at once.”

“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 Graduate, Hong Kong campus
For More Info

Visit the United World College website.

Take UWC for a Test Drive: 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.

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