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Diversity: different for everyone

Elizabeth Bray, Head of UWCSEA Dover and Dr Erin Robinson, Middle School Principal, East Campus
7 June 2019

World Cafe explores how to strengthen UWCSEA's diversity.

An individual has not started living until they can rise above the narrow confines of their individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” - Martin Luther King Jr

Martin Luther King Jr’s quote sits very comfortably within our community-wide conversation about why we value diversity at UWCSEA and we would be foolhardy to ignore important lessons from the past. The diversity of our community is most definitely one of our greatest sources of strength. Around the world, it is not difficult to find communities struggling with the fear and uncertainty of embracing difference versus the illusion of security found by closing the door and protecting the known.
Kurt Hahn’s vision for UWC recognised the power of an educational system that deliberately brought different people together for a shared purpose. At UWCSEA we welcome and embrace the beauty of our differences because we know that peace and sustainability will only be achieved through the combined strengths and differences of many. Recently, we have asked ourselves hard questions about the ‘look, sound and feel’ of diversity and inclusion on our campuses.

UWCSEA is unique in the world of international school education because we consciously cultivate a diverse student body through our K–12 day students, residential boarders and scholars. In an international school setting, many students will learn how to navigate cultural differences as their social skills develop. However, it is not enough to leave the development of intercultural competency to chance. Supporting students to better understand their identity and the role that cultural differences play in relationships and building strong communities are key themes in our Personal and Social Education (PSE) curriculum. You also see intercultural learning in our Service learning and programmes such as the Initiative for Peace (IfP). A core standard of our membership within the Council for International Schools (CIS) requires us to ensure that our Guiding Statements “endorse the school’s commitment to developing intercultural learning” and from the perspective of the CIS accreditation process, UWCSEA is in many ways a model for embracing diversity.

And yet we know that there is more to do.

Our mission compels us to strive for intentional and deep intercultural skill building. In turn, this drives our aspiration to have inclusive and equitable organisational learning environments and operational systems. It is because of this, the UWCSEA Strategy highlights diversity and inclusion as a strategic area of focus. As we began to explore how we might support diversity to flourish throughout UWCSEA in the future, our starting point was to engage with the members of our community to learn more about what aspects of diversity matter to them. The ‘world café’ process at the end of Term 2 this year created an opportunity for students, staff, school leaders, parents, governors and alumni to share ideas and contribute to outcomes of an Action for Diversity strategic plan. Structured dialogue provides the means to elicit deep conversation that is important at both an individual level and a collective level. It also allows the participants to deepen their understanding of one another’s perspectives.

What emerged from the two world café’s was fascinating, demonstrating first and foremost that diversity is valued by our community. Through dialogue, it was clear that diversity is complex. While one might initially think that an international school would focus on visual diversity such as nationality, race and gender, our community extends the thinking to embrace notions of cognitive, ability, language, political diversity and so on. Several of our boarding students also pointed to the differences in experience between day students who may have grown up as ‘Third Culture Kids’ (TCKs) and scholars whose childhoods are firmly rooted in their family’s culture. Our scholars are selected in part because of their ability to contribute to cultural diversity but their cultural identity is different from our TCKs in ways that may not be immediately obvious. This adds to the intricate tapestry of student diversity at UWCSEA.

More than once we heard the comment “it’s not about ticking a box” made with reference to the concept of diversity. It is clear that the community values these conversations and the opportunity to explore these ideas through dialogue, with a view to addressing bias and uncovering unconscious bias. There have been numerous requests to hold more world cafés and to further explore and develop opportunities in which our entire community can learn together. Conversation and making meaning together is also a powerful vehicle to raise awareness and push towards a greater understanding of one another.

We know that diversity and inclusion are intertwined in the minds and hearts of our community, and we hope to explore this further in the next steps of our project. In Term 3, parents were invited to complete a community survey that included diversity-focused questions. A similar survey will go to staff and students early in the next academic year. We expect that this will be followed by focus groups and additional community outreach. We are also engaging with experts in the field, both in education and non-educational sectors. Based on this work, in Term 1 next school year we will develop an action plan.

The peace and sustainability of our planet has always needed communities operating with a high degree of intercultural competence. With hindsight, all educational organisations should have been prioritising these skills and understandings at least as much as—if not more than—other educational priorities. Intentionally infusing intercultural competence throughout our school culture as well as into the individual actions of our students, staff and wider community is well within our grasp—one action at a time. Diversity has always been a part of the UWC journey and we’re thrilled that through a strategic focus our community will have the opportunity to deepen our individual and collective understanding of the power of differences.

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The UWCSEA Strategy aims to make a true UWC education, with its attendant learning programme, available for future generations of students in Singapore, regardless of leases, economic flux and external regulations. Visit our webpage for details on the UWCSEA Strategy and each of the four Areas of Focus: Education as a Force; Peace and a Sustainable Future; A United Community; Our Strength and Capacity.