I remember the time I ran early in the morning to class but stopped to look over the ice-layered fjord mirroring the mountains and being passed by five others who also stopped, breathed in the frozen air and became completely mesmerized by the view for a moment and then ran off to class. It was beautiful for many reasons. My United World College (UWC) experience goes under an umbrella of idealism, beauty and unity. For that time I sat by the rock looking over the campus from above and thinking how small it seemed and realising the world (was) so much greater than this place and that whichever problems we were facing on campus were extremely small in relation to the world’s issues – yet we were a part of it. For that beautiful time when I had a late night conversation on gender equality in different parts of the world, and for the time I had a debate about the meaning of love with people that shared a completely different opinion from mine.
The consistent challenging of my ideals was something I now find beautiful. It broke down the walls of what once created my four sided “box” and allowed me to see the abstract world beyond it. It left me thinking about the world from more than a (single) perspective. Although it feels like it was yesterday that I arrived at Flekke, six months have passed since I left. Around two months after I left UWC Red Cross Nordic (RCN) I arrived at the airport in Phuket, Thailand. There I waited to be picked up and brought to UWC Thailand where I’m now an ‘intern for UWC development.’ When I stood outside the airport around four months ago I had no clue what to expect when I arrived on campus. I had no clue how this new UWC was structured or what my reality would look like. When I arrived on campus after 30 hours of traveling I found myself in a meeting room full of new teachers attempting to answer questions along with a few students whom I had just met on the topic: “What is UWC?” It felt quite surreal being asked by teachers about the essence of the UWC experience. I had just been a UWC student 2 months ago. It was then that I realised that I had arrived to an UWC that was still in transition and I was one of a relatively small team of staff with UWC experience. After all, it had only opened last year as a UWC.
It has not always been easy trying to promote what I believe turns a school into a UWC school when very few can relate directly to what you say, although the will to understand is there. My role here is to help the school develop its own traditions and culture with the knowledge I have as a UWC alumna. I’m very grateful having the opportunity to be here and being able to give back what RCN taught me to this new member of our UWC family. Change does not happen overnight and it takes time to create a community where all members share the same values and interact in a positive manner. There is still a long way to go, but progress is being made. We just celebrated the first ever European cultural show and more are on the agenda in the near future. It’s just one example of an initiative that brings a community together. It makes people step out of their comfort zone and perform in front of a crowd and, at the same time, share culture through their performances. UWC taught me a lot of things, one of them is that if you want to get something done you must do it. Things do not happen by sitting by. I guess this is also something I’m learning to understand now – that actions must be made for any community not to become static. There is no limit to a community. UWC is an inclusive community as we do not only welcome differences but celebrate them – or this is what the aim must be. But this does not happen overnight and people have many preconceptions and biases they must overcome in order to be able to celebrate difference.
UWC Thailand is structurally very different from RCN. For example, here there are students from the age of 18 months. An effective way to spread the mission and values down to the youngest members of the UWCT community will take time to develop. I’m realising that there are many things that will never be similiar to RCN. Here there are day and residential students. Although the experience might not be exactly the same as mine as a residential student at RCN I do think the outcome is the same because you have deliberate diversity of students and for Diploma Programme you have National Committee students that come into the last two years from both deliberately diverse cultural and socio-economic backgrounds, which I believe is a key factor making the UWC movement different from any other international school movement.
One of the pillars of UWC Thailand is mindfulness. This is what makes UWC Thailand unique within the UWC movement. The focus on social and emotional learning I believe can be a great benefactor to the mental wellbeing of all members of the community. Last month I completed a 72 hours silent mindfulness retreat with a group of students and teachers. For me this was a life changing experience, making me understand the importance of silence and meditation. This, I believe, is very important in today’s society especially within schools where stress can easily accumulate. Meditation allows us to calm our mind and body simultaneously. Thus it can reduce mental health problems as we observe our thoughts arising and disappearing and eventually finding us focusing on the present moment without our consistent thoughts.
My two years in Flekke flew by – the most transformative years of my life. The years where I grew and expanded my horizons in the shortest amount of time. RCN is in my eyes truly an ideal place created by people from all over the world that come to live together and share the same values. Values that still unite us today and will continue to influence our decisions throughout our lives. Living in Thailand where inequality is very visible has made me realise more the importance of universally accessible education. I find it hard to view inequality and injustice especially when it comes to the most vulnerable members of any society: children. This led me to further my interest in education and educational systems – as I believe education can play a key role towards a more just world. It also draws my attention to the vital importance of having schools like United World Colleges around the world aiming to unite people, nations and cultures for peace through education. It is my hope that the UWC movement will continue to grow successfully, always creating educational opportunities independent of people’s socio- and economic status.
Magnea Gná Jóhannsdóttir
UWC RCN ‘15-’17
For profiles and news of other students, alumni and friends of the College, click here.