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Building bridges with boarders

Andrea McDonald, Grade 5 Teacher and Boarding Assistant Houseparent, East Campus
12 April 2017

Every few weeks, Grade 12 student Blen Menghesha makes her way to the Infant Block. Despite her rigorous IB Diploma Programme schedule, Blen takes time to visit some of the College’s youngest students, her adopted K1 buddy class. She has been dropping in over the course of the school year, to the great delight of her younger peers. Blen and K1 teacher Imogen Piccilli were partnered together last school year, and have built an even stronger bond this year.

Imogen recounts Blen’s involvement with her class, “Blen has been sharing stories about her family and home life in Ethiopia. The K1s have been learning about the life of a boarder and what life is like in her home country. She loves interacting with the 4- and 5-year-olds, and playing alongside the children in the classroom. She is very much like a big sister!”

This same scene is mirrored across the Primary School. This year more than 40 UWC National Committee (NC) students1 in the East High School have been ‘adopted’ by a Primary School class. These senior students commit to engaging with their respective class several times over the year, but many go beyond that and spend time with their buddy class weekly. Not only does the ‘Adopt a Boarder’ programme strengthen community bonds between students of different ages, it celebrates the diversity of the College. High School students are exposed to leadership opportunities and, as a result, become much-loved role models to the younger students. Families resident in Singapore also have the chance to gain insight into new cultures, by welcoming their child’s boarding buddy for a home-cooked meal or outing. These connections can lead to long-term relationships—even after students have graduated.

Community bonds and home away from home

One of the many positive aspects of the Adopt a Boarder programme is that students new to UWCSEA are quickly connected with the wider school community. With 2,500 students on campus and 160 in Tampines House, older and younger students alike can find the scale intimidating. In addition, many of the NC students are abroad for the first time, having left younger siblings and a strong family structure. The chance to integrate in a small class environment, with a rapt and receptive audience of young students, can transform a student’s experience and provide a sense of commmunity.

Nanakwame (Nana) Nyarko-Ansong has benefitted from his connection with Kim Duffy’s Grade 3 class: “I feel [the younger students’] excitement in getting to know me and it touches me the way they share their interests and day-to-day adventures. They often call my name and run up to me shouting, ‘We miss you Nana from Ghana!’ When I am stressed out and wandering in a sea of students … having these Grade 3 students call my name inspires me and makes me happy!”

Teachers will often request a NC student from their home country or who speak a shared home language, giving both of them the opportunity to speak their language and helping ease the student’s transition. Primary teachers Isabel Valenzuela and Arlene Van Staden typify this. Isabel enthusiastically welcomes Chilean students into her class, whilst Arlene’s bond with Dutch student Goya Van Den Berg has provided them with the chance to catch up regularly on news from their homeland.

Leadership skills and role models

UWCSEA East UWC NC Scholar with Primary School students

Sten Leinasaar, in his first year at UWCSEA, goes into his adopted Grade 4 class each week and seizes any opportunity he can to meet with the children. He and his buddy teacher, Paul Baird, communicate early in the week and plan activities for the last hour of class on Friday. In a recent session, Sten planned and taught the students some traditional Estonian games. He has formed a strong bond with the students while also developing his leadership skills. Sten has learned a lot too, “Never would I have guessed that these kids could teach me more than I can teach them. But that is exactly what has happened.”

The magic inherent in having older students visit a class, is in their ability to teach their younger peers and to be a role model for different qualities and skills valued at UWCSEA. NC students will share topical discussions ranging from issues they advocate for, to the value and method of taking notes with their Primary School buddies. The older students have a tremendous impact on their younger peers; lessons and skills being taught are suddenly validated by the more senior students. Luiza Britton, a Grade 5 student, recalls learning notetaking from Sena Kpodzro, her Grade 12 buddy: “Sena showed us her notes and talked about using bullet points to summarise key information. We saw that the skills we are learning in our workshops get used right through High School. Her Chemistry notes looked very complicated but precise.”

Similarly, Grade 11 student Djordje Petrovic helps his buddies in Grade 3 class with their writing skills every Thursday after lunch. Head of Grade Julie Day sings Djordje’s praises, “He engages the students in talking about their writing and supports them with their next steps. He models writing for them and gives them feedback.” Recently he has been helping students understand the different components of fairytales.

Cultural exchange

UWC’s mission to make education a force to unite people, nations and cultures is living and breathing in the Adopt a Boarder programme. Boarders are welcomed into their buddy class and encouraged to share their cultural customs. Some well-timed geography lessons and map skills are developed by the younger students as they eagerly look for where their boarding buddy is from. For many this is a first chance to learn about their buddy’s home country.

Although the Primary students are enthralled with their new understanding of their buddy’s culture; as is often the case, learning goes both ways. For many NC students, who arrive with limited English, the time spent with their buddy class provides a platform to practise speaking English in a safe, positive and encouraging environment. Savaira Drau has been paired with Mary Newbigin’s Grade 1 class for two years now. Her English skills have vastly improved since first moving from Fiji in 2015. Mary’s enthusiasm for her adopted boarder has not only provided opportunities for Savaira to interact with her Grade 1 students, but also to develop her confidence in speaking, and even practise giving presentations.

Family connections

UWCSEA East Joshi family with graduating UWC NC Scholars.

Adopted boarders often form bonds with families they initially met through their buddy class. Once introduced, families are often keen to build relationships with boarders from their home country—or even, as in the case of the Joshi family, their home continent. Kuntal and Sheetal Joshi hail from Tanzania and have sons in Grades 8 and 10. When their younger son was in Grade 5, they began hosting NC students from Africa.

The students were thrilled when the Joshi family invited them for dinner with the tempting dish of Ugali—a maize-based porridge renowned in many countries in Africa. Word spread—across campuses—and the dinner parties have grown to become regular calendar events: dinner with the Joshis, weekends at the Joshis, and students’ visiting families are even welcomed into the Joshi home.

Kuntal explains, “As a family, we welcome NC scholars from Africa and around the world to open our minds and hearts and share experiences about the world at large. We otherwise live in our comfortable cocoons and really don’t see the world in its true sense. Our family has gained a tremendous amount through these personal and group interactions … We find this interaction with African scholars very welcoming and we, together with our boys, find it heartening. We are truly enriching our lives … and this interaction and sharing really enables us to be global citizens.”

1 NC students have been awarded a scholarship by the UWC National Committee in their home country. There are currently 156 UWC National Committees around the world.