Rachel Tan Wei Fen (UWCSEA, Singapore ’11-’13)
“And these tables, these black tables, these polished, slick black tables by the door of the main hall, they are only for the Grade 12s. Don’t ever sit there!”
Those were some words of advice I was given from two students who were to be my schoolmates in Grade 11 during my first visit to UWCSEA.
Social hierarchy is a prevailing element within the student community here at UWCSEA, and this is no secret. Accompanied by the prevalent age segregation by the difference in the colours of our shirts, it is with no doubt that segregation is an overhanging component here just like in almost any other community in the world we live in.
But what’s controversial, is the idea that such strong societal hierarchy exists blatantly in a United World College community – an educational institution comprised of students and teachers who are passionately dedicated to the UWC movement; the UWC movement is founded on Kurt Hahn’s guiding principles, passionately educating youth on the appreciation of cultural diversity and understanding of different perspectives amongst other ideals. How, then, can we let the glaringly obvious nature of the accepted hierarchy in our UWCSEA community prevail?
At the end of our Grade 11 year, some of our teachers performed a little skit using one of these black tables on stage during our assembly. What shocked some of us is that they advised us not to take over these tables till our Grade 12 seniors leave. Yes, we were advised that we should not be disturbing them during their final IB examinations, but yet it seemed as if they indirectly approved of the black table status-stating consensus.
Just like in many other communities, such social mindsets could be ingrained in people that even we do not realise it ourselves. When I went around asking many students in my Grade 12 cohort regarding this issue, several expressed that they felt there wasn’t much of an evident social hierarchy here, and even if there was, “it’s present everywhere, isn’t it?” However, to let it be present, accepted and widely abided by at our UWC does indeed question our values as a UWC student.
As I’m writing this and I ponder on what message I should leave this article with, my classmate remarks: “It seems like an official thing, that these tables belong to the twelve graders and if any other person sits on them, it’s assumed that a huge deal is made out of it. I think people should be able to sit wherever they want.” I guess this is what knocks on the door of the essence of a UWC education. No community is perfect and no matter how ideal the values of an education institution may be, it would certainly be a challenge to inculcate in every single student these exact ideas. However, in UWC, that is not exactly what we are trying to do. It is not the inculcation of ideas, but instead the encouragement of our students to construct a platform, guided by Kurt Hahn’s founding principles, which is open to diversity and understanding, ready for our individual expression.
Regardless of the social hierarchy present within our school community, it is nonetheless a portrayal of the real world we all will soon walk into. I certainly disagree with the prevalent social hierarchy of our school. However, with the birth of every society comes the establishment of certain behavioural characteristics naturally adopted by human beings – most significantly an innate desire of acquiring a sense of belonging, biased towards creating groups with the people we like, which eventually leads to some form of segregation. Yet we are fortunate, as we have the liberty of deciding our actions here in UWC. And as our mindsets have been touched by a very special type of education, a UWC one, we have to work as one UWC community, embraced by the values that we have been presented with, and go forth towards creating a more pleasant community, a better world with less discrimination and segregation.
-United Words Team-