Peter Howe and the UWC boutique

Leonardo Goi (Italy, AC 07-09)


Peter Howe, Canadian, is one of the youngest principals of the UWC international board, and he is currently headmaster of the United World College of the Adriatic. During the UWC heads meeting held at Atlantic College, Wales, he discussed the future of the UWC movement, focusing on the challenges and obstacles hindering the path towards the attainment of the UWC mission: to make education a force to unite people from all over the world, under a unique flag of hope and understanding.

One of the biggest issues related to UWCs is their ideological frailty within the local communities. Adriatic College is very different from AC, since it’s actually set within a small village called Duino. How does that ease the relationship between the college and the community?

Being set in a village undoubtedly has its advantages: the 200 students studying at the Adriatic are likely to be easily considered as part of the local community. However, you can’t change much of the locals’ minds. The north east of Italy is one of the most conservatives regions, and as such there will always be a portion of the population looking with angst at people coming from all over the world, with different religions and different cultures. I am talking about the eldest layers of the society, those which may still be influence by sparkles of the fascist era.

And it is towards the elderly people that the Adriatic community services are focused.

Adriatic differs a lot than AC in terms of services. We cannot boast ourselves for being lifeguards or ILBs. I’m afraid our community aid is much less heroic.

Rather than being afraid, you should look at the other side of the issue: one of the greatest problems of AC is that most of our services do not actually have the desired impact upon the community: in few words, we do not help as much as we should.

In this case Adriatic can be proud of his own peculiarities, I guess. And, to a greater extent, we could look at this as a metaphor for one of the greatest questions hindering our future.

The lack of effective help?

The lack of realism between the UWCs. We still hold the suppositions that all our students will become diplomats, or politicians, and we delegate positions to them in hope for the future. But times, and alongside them the whole system of politics, have changed. We may run the risk of seeing our students ending up as pieces of clothing in a boutique. The question is: are we sure that they will be able to change things? Diplomats or politicians have now lost their predominance. I wonder whether that will lead us.

How would you implement the UWC system? Referring to my personal experience, I was shocked when I heard of the fall in the number of applicants in the Italian national committee during the past few years.

My experience has taught me that this is not a trend confined to Italy. Although I come from the same country, I had never heard about the Canadian UWC, although this has been established since the 1970s. I guess the blame for this lack of knowledge ought to be put on pathetically protective parents trying to lessen the chances of possible competitors when their sons/daughters try to apply for the UWC network. As long as this problem persists, we will not be able to change the situation. Yet the issue is now extended to nations and governments: UWCs tend to be economically avoided, in terms of support, whilst they should be treated as testimonials for democratic status by the nations hosting them, especially for rich countries such as Italy. 

Do you think that expanding the UWC movements with other colleges is the best solution to tackle this issue?

Once more, this is the question. The UWC in Maastricht will be a good indicator of the future trend. UWCs should be advertised, and much role should be put on the international board. We have come to a turning point of the UWC history: most of us heads have not come through the traditional UWC path: studying in a United World College, going to University and then come back to the same college and become teacher and possibly headmaster. We are all young, and as such eager to foster the network with new ideas coming from outside the UWC boutique.

I particularly like this metaphor.

It’s sinisterly accurate. UWCs and UWCers have become clothes to be exposed in shops, as a status of political superiority. But how much can they actually change and improve the system? If we want to be effective, then let’s look at the conflict areas – the Middle East, for instance, rather than building new UWCs in the richest nations on earth. The United World College in Mostar was built upon the same feelings.

And the Adriatic, I presume.

The UWC of the Adriatic was built in the middle of the barrier between communist world and Western Europe. As a challenge, I guess we accomplished a lot.

Are there still frictions between sons and daughters of the west-east cold war?

Europeans constitute just a small portion of the actual alumni body: most of our students still come from the Balkans. As such, we are lucky to witness the relations between the outcome of the cold war generation and the world of today.

What makes us different from an international boarding school?

This is one of the most nagging questions for the International Board. Celebrate ourselves and our idealistic creed is pointless, since by doing so we would end up being like every other international school. We need to remind ourselves that only UWCs can replicate students from 80 countries. We need to foster the role of service aside the IB diploma programme. As a personal feeling, I found it liberating to be told, once in the Adriatic, that I must engage in community service as part of my job: I strongly believe we all benefit from it, no matter where it is aimed to. But most of all, we need to make our mission central to the UWC core. The question we should ask, we questioning the validity of a certain issues within the network, is not whether or not these are central to the IB: focusing on the diploma would make us lose the ideological strength we all share, and therefore lessen our chances of reaching our goals.

As a last question, what is the current role, and what will be the future role, of the UWC movement?

The most urgent task we have been given is to reimagining our mission. UWCs have to make students the ethical leaders of the world. Times have changed, but ethics need to be at the core of the mission. We shall reassess everything bearing in mind the believes sustaining our institutions, enabling students to set off to carry out our idealistic changes. It will be a united, fundamental mission, and not just an experience peculiar to colleges as separate entities: we need to remind ourselves that this is all about joining a movement, a movement destined to turn idealism into practice.


– United World College Student Magazine –


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