By Lauren Davis, Upper School French and Spanish Teacher
This summer, I boarded a plane to head toward a place I had dreamed about for years. I had been exposed to the United World College (UWC) movement at my university and, ever since, had hungrily pursued ways to get more involved. UWC-USA is located in Montezuma, New Mexico. At the junction of the Great Plains and the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, I finally was able to participate in a program affiliated with UWC. I brought 3 of my students from Westtown School to participate with me with the purpose of incorporating some of the vision and philosophy of UWC to enrich our own community. While I had read a lot about the movement previously, at the conference I was exposed to the founding philosophies of UWC’s creator, Kurt Hahn. Further, I was challenged to construct a project that combined my interests, skills, and talents that could be used for social good. These philosophies challenged me to think about my daily mission as a teacher and how I could incorporate some of what I was learning to inspire my students to be world changers.
UWC was founded in the 1950s by Kurt Hahn. Commissioned by NATO to start a school whose purpose was preventing the outbreak of World War III, Hahn designed an unconventional institution for the express purpose of promoting cross-cultural understanding and mutual respect in a time in which tensions between nations were most precarious. To prepare his students, he would give them tasks that were hard, supply them with the skills they needed to complete the task, and would ensure that these tasks were needed (i.e., that they were not just an academic exercise). He wanted each student to find a “moral equivalent to war”. Hahn created the first UWC in Wales and brought in students from all around the world and had them live together, study together and do projects together. From there, the UWC movement was born. Today there are 12 schools in different countries around the world with several more being added over the next few years.
The camp we attended together was called “The Global Leadership Forum”. Naturally, we created dialogue around global issues, learned about ways to assert our leadership, and devised ways of connecting with others with similar passions from around the globe. I was there as both a mentor and a co-participant with my Westtown students and with the other students that came from across the world. It was thrilling to see them brainstorm and create projects in order to imagine ways to help their communities. Watching 14-18 year olds begin to feel empowered to effect change in their community and in the world fueled my own desire to use my interests, skills, and talents to pursue the things I cared about most. As I began to reflect on my own passions, I saw a way to fuse my two passions- namely immersion language summer experiences and UWC’s philosophy of raising global citizens- into a project of my own to do something that no one has done before.
As I reflected on this experience, I realized that I had gotten a window into my students’ experience that I somehow had forgotten. Asking students to share their ideas before the idea is fully formed is something I do on a daily basis as a teacher. As a participant, this process was utterly unsettling and made me feel extremely uncomfortable. However, as I began to trust the leadership of the camp more, I felt more able to share with them my ideas and to receive feedback and wise counsel. I will return to my classroom this fall with a better sense of what it is like to sit in my students’ shoes. My theme for the year is based on what Kurt Hahn thought of all his students: Plus est en vous: “There is more in you than you think.” After this experience, I am looking forward to a great year of discovery and adventure!