Diana Huynh (Norway/Vietnam, AC 09-11)
If you ask any UWC student about the many qualities that they have gained over two years, you won’t be surprised to hear that a sense of ‘international and intercultural understanding’ is one of them. This is an important value we are encouraged to embrace while being at a UWC, and continue to nurture throughout our lives. However, as our world is constantly in transition, we often forget that people, too, move forward with the forces of globalization; with the new generation emerge changes in cultures that the rest of the world has yet to grasp.
No one is expected to understand cultures in its entirety, but I believe UWC students should strive to understand each other based on our current states as it is today, and not on the events that belongs to the past, which often defines a culture or a nation. It takes time, but then the UWC movement was founded with the assertion to meet challenges of the future. Few other secondary institutions in the world can take pride in having a student body represented by more than seventy-five nationalities. Few other institutions can say they educate students across a spectrum of socioeconomic backgrounds in order to unite them for a peaceful and sustainable future. Yet, the diversity in which we are surrounded by in our daily lives at UWC is at times taken for granted. The differences are, without doubt, recognized – but to truly understand the mélange a UWC is, we ought to go beyond the border of awareness and step away from our cultural comfort zones.
Most UWC students are probably familiar with the term ‘cultural insensitivity’; I can only speak for Atlantic College, but perhaps it is becoming a part of the run-of-the-mill jargon elsewhere as well. As a second year student, I have long been adjusted to the conventions that each national group seemingly adopt and foster while being at this UWC. We present the stereotypes during National Evenings; we laugh at and with each other, but did we ever start off being that sensitive in the first place?
The actuality of my UWC experience recently started to become more apparent as we were approaching the holidays. At Atlantic College we have an annual tradition to have a ‘Secret Santa’ – while counting down the days for departure, each and everyone receives a housemate to pamper. This year, however, the concept was identified by student as exceedingly promoting Western culture. It was said that although most of us might return for Christmas Holiday, many go back to countries where Santa Claus is unheard of. It is these minor details that make a difference to what it means to have ‘international and intercultural understanding’.
In order to become more cultural competent we have to embrace that our unique experiences, values, beliefs and language affect our perceptions and approaches to the two years at a UWC. We must not forget that the culture that often becomes most apparent is that of being a teenager. Certainly, students learn new things about cultures they never have been familiar with, but ‘international and intercultural understanding’ aside, it essentially comes down to individual understanding; as long as we can effectively combine the two, the UWCs can then prepare students for the demanding environments of the twenty-first century.