Abroad But Not Alone: United World College At Brown

ALEKSANDRA LIFSHITS

July 7, 2005

For every five international students at Brown, one most likely attended a high school part of the United World College program.

Approximately 15 percent of Brown students hailed from abroad this academic year, representing a total of 115 countries. One hundred forty-seven out of the 794 international undergraduates participated in the UWC program, said Lisa Donham, the University’s liaison to the Davis Scholars Program.

The Davis Scholars Program is a scholarship fund that supports UWC alums who attend U.S. colleges and universities by providing up to $20,000 in need-based financial aid for each academic year of undergraduate study.

UWC is a system of 14 high schools located on five continents. The program was created in 1962 to bring together students from different sides of the Iron Curtain, so that they could later collaborate and improve international relations. Today, UWC has expanded its mission beyond the Cold War context and aims to foster peace through “positive social action to build a more equitable and fairer world,” according to the UWC website.

Brown has one of the highest concentrations of UWC alums — in 2008, 2011 and 2012 the University won the Davis Cup, an award given to the American university with the most UWC alums matriculating that year, Donham said.

Interviewed UWC alums praised their high school experiences, highlighting the friendships and the learning that took place inside and outside the classroom.

UWC “was the best period of my life,” said Anna Pierobon ’16, who hails from Italy and attended UWC South East Asia in Singapore. The program allows students to simultaneously retain their cultures and change through diverse interactions with peers, Pierobon said. The school “becomes a second home, a second family,” she added.

Being surrounded by students from all over the world “fosters a great sense of international awareness” and creates lifelong friendships, said Michelle Kwok ’15, who grew up in Australia and matriculated to Li Po Chun UWC in Hong Kong, adding that she easily identifies with the other UWC alums she meets.

Chezev Matthew ’15 of Trinidad and Tobago, who attended Pearson College UWC in Canada, said UWC students have a deep interest in different cultures that extends beyond superficial interests in “the food you eat at home.” While Matthew is concentrating in biomedical engineering, she has noted a growing trend in which UWC alums major in the humanities, particularly in international relations.

UWC inspires students to make an impact, “since international problems were affecting your close friends,” said Thomas Yim ’15, adding that his roommate was a refugee from Afghanistan.

Reflecting on the experience of being one of the only Americans at UWC Atlantic College in Wales, Michael Manning ’17 said, “It forced a lot of perspective really quickly.” He described the people he met there as open-minded and ambitious – both about their travel plans and fostering world peace. While many refer to college as a time of expansion, for Manning the “explosion” happened when he attended UWC.

By surrounding themselves with peers from around the world, UWC students learn how to make the world a more peaceful place, said Horocio Ferrandiz ’15, who hails from Spain and attended Pearson College UWC in Canada.

UWC has the potential to integrate people in conflict areas, said Stefan Minic ’17, referring to his experience at UWC Mostar in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the effects of the Bosnian War of 1992-1995 are still felt.

While many alums expressed satisfaction with their social and cultural experiences with UWC, admission experts highlighted the program’s financial benefits for both applicants and institutions.

Like most of its peer institutions, the University is not need-blind for international applicants, though it strives to implement universal need-blind admissions as a long-term goal.

Despite taking international applicants’ financial need into account, the University strives to attract a diverse student body from around the world, said Panetha Ott, international admissions officer at the University. If as an international student “you do not need financial aid, it can help you. If you do need it and are among the very best applicants, we will take you nonetheless,” Ott said.

“When we look at the international student body, we look at people who are interested in helping the world in some way,” she said. Like many Brown students, UWC alums are excellent students and are involved in many activities outside of the classroom, she added.

UWC provides a financial solution for its alums in the form of the Davis Scholars Program. “Need for financial aid is determined in accordance with Brown’s financial aid policy,” Donham said, adding that if the University decides a student is eligible for less than $20,000 in aid, the program will provide funds up to the determined amount.

“Since admissions are not need-blind, having UWC subsidize financial aid definitely has an effect,” Mathew said.

Felix Biver ’18 expressed concern that the Davis Scholars Program incentivizes institutions to accept UWC alums over other international applicants seeking financial aid who may be just as qualified.

“Money matters,” said Biver, who hails from Luxembourg and attended UWC-USA in New Mexico, adding that “universities do not say it that way.”

Steven Goodman, an educational consultant for Top Colleges, echoed Biver’s concern. Though the program offers some clear benefits to UWC alums, “the real question (is) who is not benefitting from the Davis Scholars Program,” Goodman said. Accepting UWC students through the Davis Scholars Program leaves fewer spots for other international students, he added.

International students benefit entire campuses by adding a different set of life experiences and perspectives, said Richard Khalenberg, admission expert and senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a think tank that analyzes economic, political and social institutions. But since most of the world is less economically advanced than the United States and most universities are not need-blind for international applicants, the international student cohort often lacks diversity and is not representative of the world population, he said.

“UWC is essentially a low hanging fruit for Brown,” Goodman said. The program enables the University to increase international representation in the student body without paying as much for international recruiting efforts, he said.

Many UWC alums at the University said they would not have been able to attend an American college without the financial help from the Davis Scholars Program.

“When I was in Italy, my perspectives for the future were limited,” Pierobon said. UWC helped her become fluent in English and provided her with $20,000 for each year of undergraduate study through the Davis Scholars Program.

In addition to subsidizing financial aid for UWC alums, the Davis Scholars Program also saves admission officers trips to multiple high schools overseas and saves “a lot money on recruiting costs,” Goodman said. Undergraduate admission frequently relies on this economically feasible model on a smaller scale nationally – feeder high schools provide large pools of high academic achievers, he added.

UWC is attractive to universities because it allows them to establish footholds in countries they are not typically able to reach, such as Sierra Leone, said Brian Taylor, admission expert at Ivy Coach.

Visiting local schools – where students are instructed in the local language, rather than English – around the globe is expensive and structurally difficult. Though the University’s admission officers try to visit local schools abroad, it is often much simpler to make appearances at English-speaking international schools, Ott said. A lot of the local schools “don’t have the tradition of admission officers visiting,” so they don’t have systems established to welcome these officers, she added.

Brown admission officers often visited the Li Po Chun UWC in Hong Kong, Kwok said.

UWC “automatically makes it easier for you to get in touch with colleges,” said Victor Brechenmacher ’18, a German who matriculated to UWC Mahindra College in India, noting that a level of prestige is associated with the program.

Though universities face obstacles in recruiting students from far corners of the globe, they should take advantage of opportunities to attract a more representative student body, such as by encouraging students with high scores on exams to apply, Khalenberg said. Universities have improved on the domestic front by attracting students from all over the country, but “it is time for them to be proactive internationally, too,” he said.

Beyond facilitating admission officer visits, the UWC program also helps alums write better applications by challenging them academically, supporting them and giving them more opportunities, several interviewees said.

“It was a big opening gate,” Biver said. Guidance counselors at his school advised him during the application process, and the program also gave him many opportunities to get involved in extracurricular activities, he said.

Some students said UWC signals to institutions a certain standard of academics and open-mindedness. “By having UWC on my app, it was clear that I had ideals that inherently aligned with those of Brown,” Manning said.

Other students said UWC pushed them to even consider applying to college in the United States. “It is not common for people from a developing country to apply to an elite school in America,” Minic said.

“I dreamed of going to college in America,” Ferrandiz said. Attending college in the United States did not seem possible when he was studying in Spain because he did not know English well and went to a public Spanish school, Ferrandiz said, adding that UWC prepared him well for the rigors of Brown classes.

Standardized assessments such as the International Baccalaureate can often play a large role for UWC alums hoping to matriculate to U.S. colleges and universities. While admission officers said the Advanced Placement program can enhance students’ applications more than IB, several UWC alums said they thought IB prepared them well.

Admission officers inherently trust the AP system more than the IB, Taylor said. “If a student gets a five on the AP, this signals to the admin that the student can succeed in the University,” he said. Since the IB exams occur in May after traditional college acceptance dates and predicted IB scores are often overly optimistic, it is hard to gauge how successful students will be through the IB diploma, he added. AP exams can be taken before a student’s senior year of high school.

But the high concentration of UWC alums at the University demonstrates that “Brown is starting to have faith” in the IB schooling system that UWC employs, Taylor said.

Most UWC alums interviewed praised the IB system for introducing them to the difficult academic load that they encountered at the University.

The IB program consists of seven classes in different subject fields, requires students to take a foreign language and features a service component and a final research paper. “IB forces you to be a lot broader,” Kwok said.

“IB was a lot better than the public school curriculum I was in earlier,” Manning said, though he noted that it gave him less freedom when choosing classes.

But before participating in the demanding IB program, students must gain acceptance to the UWC program – not an easy feat, according to some.

Some alums pointed out that the application process to UWC schools is flawed, in that committees in each country design their own application processes and allocate their own financial support. This system creates a disparity in which developing countries do not have the resources to send students representative of their nations’ socioeconomic levels, Kwok said.

“This gives some students who went through more difficult application procedures a sense of injustice,” Brechenmacher said. Developed nations have larger financial aid budgets than developing countries, whose applicants may need more support, he said, adding that “This asymmetry needs to be addressed.”

With 147 alums on campus, the UWC cohort at the University remains very vibrant.

Though some elements of international life at the University may seem exclusive, such as Buxton House, the community understands and “supports itself quite well,” Pierobon said.

UWC alums on campus share a strong connection, since they all went through similar transitions before coming to College Hill, Minic said. This connection can serve students when networking to with the hopes of obtaining internships or jobs.

While UWC alums may be tempted to exclusively form friendships with each other, some stressed the necessity of greater engagement. “It is very important to step outside of the UWC bubble,” Minic said.