Reflections of a newcomer
Carma Elliot CMG OBE, College President, UWCSEA
17 December 2019
As we head for the end of term, I have been reflecting on the things which I have been part of as a new UWC family member, and which have had the biggest impact on my thinking. Chief among these, in November, I attended the governance meetings for UWC International at UWC Atlantic College in Wales. Those of you who have seen photographs will know that the very first of the United World Colleges has its home in a medieval castle on the Atlantic coast. It is a dramatic setting, with a distinct feeling of Harry Potter and Hogwarts, and indeed our deliberations had some of that dramatic intensity, with the long-term sustainable future of the movement our main topic of conversation.
But in the midst of that intensity, there was a moment that for me defined what it has been to join UWCSEA and the UWC movement. In the 14th century dining hall, visitors from around the world gathered together to raise their voices in a song in the Welsh language, which we learned phonetically as we went along. It was a rousing anthem, celebrating the culture and spirit of Wales, and though I’m sure there were some who found their tongues challenged by the double consonants and, to our ears, flattened vowels of this ancient Celtic language, everyone found celebrating the spirit of Wales easy. It was very moving to see and hear everyone joyously embracing a culture not their own, and for those few moments everyone in the room was Welsh (or wanted to be!).
It put me in mind of the UN Night and CultuRama celebrations at UWCSEA in Singapore. In the same way, we see students perform dances that are not from their own culture, and there is no sense that the South African dance is only for South Africans, or that Irish dancing is only for the Irish. The idea that all cultures are accessible to those from other cultures is profound; that we can know and understand each other to the extent that there is no proof of passport required to participate in a celebration of a culture or nation—that is truly liberating. In this age where fear of cultural appropriation can sometimes (and often rightly) make us question our right to participate in some cultural expressions, it is encouraging to see our students work together and slip into cultural celebrations that are not, strictly speaking, their own.
Why does the UWC community do this so easily when other communities can’t? The answer lies in the relationships between individuals and groups that is at the heart of the whole UWC ideal. Lester B. Pearson said in 1964, “How can there be peace without people understanding each other; and how can this be if they don’t know each other?” UWC is about bringing people together so that they can start to know each other; and in knowing each other, they come to understanding; and with understanding comes not just acceptance but celebration. It seems so simple, and yet so necessary.
During the meetings at Atlantic College I was frequently asked for reflections on my first months at UWC. How was I finding UWC? Of course the answer is that I am finding it fascinating and am enjoying it immensely. I explained that I was spending time meeting individuals and groups to build my understanding of UWCSEA and more closely define my role as President, and my potential contribution to the College. I have attended meetings with government Ministers; spoken in the Primary School about adoption, and the perspectives of an adopted child in class; and delivered a keynote speech at the Women in Leadership in Education Conference in Hong Kong. I have met with incredibly generous donors and senior volunteers; and spoken to individual students about their interest in a diplomatic career. And I enjoyed the riotous alumni reunion in my first few weeks, which gave me the opportunity to meet and hear from a small number of our far-flung alumni who returned to Singapore to celebrate ‘milestone’ anniversaries this year.
What all these interactions had in common was something that is my biggest takeaway from my first few months at UWCSEA: the quality of the relationships in our community is truly very special. Both within and between stakeholder groups there is trust and respect, and a strong sense of community shaped by a commitment to mission. It is a community which is purposeful and seeking positive impact in all that it does. Of course there are occasional tensions—that is a function of a community holding itself to account. But fundamentally, we rely on the quality of our relationships to ensure the peace and sustainability that is our common purpose. This is what allows us to have the more difficult conversations and to still dance together the next day.
The central relationship in our community is the student-teacher relationship. In schools, there is always a lot of discussion about teachers: how we know when they are successful; how to look beyond grades and scores to measure their impact on students; and how we ensure that all teachers receive useful feedback that supports their professional learning. Governors recently spent time with educational leadership discussing our approach to teacher professional growth. Throughout the conversation, what was never in question was the importance we all attach to that central student-teacher relationship.
As in all things, it is good to use students as a touchpoint. Earlier this term, I heard students speak at Open Days about their experience at UWCSEA. Each of them, in different ways, spoke about the influence their teachers have had on them. Sometimes they described the sparking of passion in a particular subject. Sometimes they spoke of a life lesson a teacher supported them through. Each time, the significance of that relationship shone through. An alumnus recently described one of his teachers in the 80s (who only left the College a few years ago) as the person “who gave me the skills that made it possible for me to survive life, then and now.” What an extraordinary compliment.
I finish my first term at UWCSEA with a strong impression that it is the nature of our relationships that make us who we are. The relationships between individuals are at the heart of the UWC mission and our College is doing much to provide that the individual becomes the universal. The Māori culture has an expression “He aha te mea nui o te ao. He tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata” (What is the most important thing in the world? It is people, it is people, it is people). UWC has always known that and knows it still today.
Lester B. Pearson (1964). “The Four Faces of Peace and the International Outlook: Statements”, McClelland and Stewart.