For those of us who learned about other countries in high school through textbooks, filmstrips, drowsy lectures and contrived international food fairs – or, if we were lucky, an exchange student or two who gave us a glimpse of a faraway land – the inaugural celebration at United World CollegeCosta Rica on Tuesday was a spectacular sight.
The new school’s 118 students from 64 nations, decked out in the traditional attire of their home countries, showed off their enthusiasm, dances, music and classwork to guests including Queen Noor of Jordan (another element missing from most of our high-school experiences). The two-year private institution, which opened last August in the southwestern San José suburb of Santa Ana as the 11th UnitedWorldCollege worldwide, seeks to help its 16- to 18-year-olds forge bonds with classmates from all over the globe while preparing to make a difference in their home countries.
David Opoku, a smiling 17-year-old from Ghana, took a break from watching photographers and fellow students swarm the elegant queen to tell The Tico Times his goal is to help Ghana improve its health care and infrastructure.
“The whole aim is to go out, assimilate the good things, and go back to your country (to help),” he said, adding with pride that he was drawn to Costa Rica in part by the chance to be a “pioneer” and help get a new school rolling.
UWC Costa Rica is the first-ever bilingual school in the growing network of residential, pre-university institutions for international students; more than 35,000 students have attended UWC schools since the first institution was founded in 1962. The movement, of which Queen Noor is the president, has schools in Wales, Singapore, Canada, Swaziland, the U.S. state of New Mexico, Italy, Venezuela, Hong Kong, Norway, and India, as well as a newly opened school in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Tuesday’s event marked the official integration of UWC Costa Rica, which offers the prestigious International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma, into the international network.
The Costa Rica site is also unique in that it combines the UWC model with that of another international organization, SOS Children’s Villages International, which provides education and housing to students from low-income homes. Both organizations were inspired by the needs of post-war Europe: UWC seeks to promote conflict resolution, while SOS was created to meet the needs of young people orphaned or separated from their parents by the war.
The sunny, five-hectare Santa Ana campus that now hosts UWC Costa Rica was, until August, the SOSHermannGmeinerInternationalCollege. The school made the transition to a UnitedWorldCollege last year by adding 70 students from five continents to the existing student body of Latin American students, as well as implementing structural and curricular changes such as eliminating its ninth-grade program (TT, Oct. 7, 2005). To continue the SOS mission of helping disadvantaged students, UWC Costa Rica continues to offer scholarships to help cover the $15,500 yearly tuition and boarding expenses.
Students apply through one of UWC’s selection commissions in more than 130 countries. If selected, they can then choose which site they wish to attend, Opoku explained, adding that he chose Costa Rica because he wanted to learn Spanish.
All students live on campus, as do several faculty members, while the rest of the international staff lives in Santa Ana, UWC Costa Rica director Mauricio Viales told The Tico Times.
This creates a warm environment that the students, many of whom are living thousands of miles from their families, certainly seem to appreciate.
“I have found that I am home,” Swedish student Nina Skagerlind told the hundreds gathered at Tuesday’s event. She said one of the best parts of her UWC experience has been “having a best friend from a country you have maybe never heard of.”
“We need more colleges like this one,” said Queen Noor (formerly Lisa Najeeb Halaby), a U.S.-born Princeton graduate who married King Hussein of Jordan in 1978 and has worked with UWC for 12 years. Her sweep across the lawn in a glittering tunic kicked off the ceremony, during which she grooved to a student performance of “Lean on Me” and appeared eager to get to know the talented students before her. “So many parts of our world are so lacking in what is in such abundance here: hope.”
The Queen’s daughter, Princess Raiyah, attended United World College of the Atlantic in Wales from 2002-2004; according to the queen, her daughter’s current career path as an expert in Asian-Middle Eastern relations is a direct result of her experience at the school.
The queen called peace-loving Costa Rica the perfect place for the new institution. “Surely there could be no more appropriate country to host a college that shares with all the United World Colleges a commitment to peace,” she said.
She referred to the students as ambassadors for their nations, a role they seem to take very seriously. Their work on display in a courtyard included posters about their countries of origin; one student from Russia had clearly tried to drum up enthusiasm about her home, anticipating the concerns her far-flung classmates might have.
“Remember, you are always welcome!” the poster declared. “Bears, walking on Siberian streets… Well, they are so FRIENDLY!”