Mental Heath and UWC

Article by Matthew Zheng (UWCAC 2016-2018)

In searching for a revolution, the United World Colleges promised an expansive vision of an educational future; a vision that offered a taste of an education that treated us like adults, guiding us into becoming equipped stakeholders in increasingly uncertain times.

While doing so, UWC built a lifetime partnership with the International Baccalaureate. These two organizations; one based on curriculum, and the other based on experience, seemed to complement each other well. And for a time, they did – the IB and UWC strove for a uniquely international education while also supplementing a core curriculum.

Unfortunately, it may be that some students at UWCs around the world are feeling that the promise was an illusion. Instead of finding an education based on Kurt Hahn’s forward thinking principles, many have instead felt that UWC is just another academically-obsessed, high-stress environment. Rather than discovering themselves or what the world has to offer, many students feel locked into a world of obsession – obsession with university admissions, grades, and resume building.

Of course, many individuals flourish under this system; in the context of some fields of study, this may even be an absolute necessity for future success. But for many students, being cornered into having to pick 3 Higher Levels accompanied by IB exams may actually serve as a disincentive for hard work. Those seeking the lifetime experience of UWC are faced with a Catch-22; in choosing one, they lose the ability to opt out of the other.

On the occasions where there is academic literature about the IB, it presents positive conclusions. In 2006, a researcher at the University of South Florida analysed the stress caused by the IB onto students, and its impacts on their life satisfaction. With some exceptions, the IB enhanced academic responsibility and produced students capable of externalizing stress in healthier and safer ways when compared to general education students. While this study holds statistically sound, it is important to note that the IB in the context of the UWC movement is vastly different – here, we lack the support of our typical family structures (which the study notes is vital for success in the IB), and experience a whole slew of unique problems with language, learning conventions, and newfound cultural norms.

The IB portrays itself as an almost postmodern interpretation of education, it seems that it now suffers from issues that plague other popular secondary education systems worldwide. It is true that the IB employs a critical thinking curriculum lacking in many other systems, but still maintains conventional emphasis on test taking skills and achieving high grades. In many places, it is commonplace to exclude students from experiencing the different facets of the IB based on their predicted or progress IB scores.

Here at Atlantic College, we are faced with a continued issue of mental health. Without officially published or recorded statistics, it is nigh-impossible to speak about these problems objectively. Yet, it is still indisputable that the wellbeing at AC is at a relative low. Students (2nd years in particular) are facing such intense levels of stress without an appropriate outlet that they are resorting to self-destructive or self-harming behaviour. With the loss of mental health/sick days, absences have become an all too expensive premium for many. Taking a rest from our oft-intense environment, then, has become a luxury that should be a right. Beyond the walls of our castle, UWCs must create a new effort to evaluate the mental health of its students, while also reorienting themselves away from the dangerous paradigm of treating students as the enemy.

Undoubtedly, issues of mental health and wellbeing extend far beyond just curriculum and the IB. It is an issue of how some UWCs and their organizing staff may be approaching their students and their needs for a remarkably unique environment to preserve their mental health. In spite of this, it seems undeniable that UWC must diversify itself – while eliminating the IB from the rota is likely too rash, it is essential that UWCs leave behind the educational thinking of the past, and push itself yet again into the Hahn-esque thinking of the future. Why shouldn’t students be able to focus on their artistic or authorial careers, or pursue volunteerism as their primary experience at their colleges? Why does “diversity in education” necessarily imply the aggressive workload the IB can levy on its students? How do IA’s and EE’s prepare students on a universal level for the challenges of the diverse paths they may choose?

The movement retains its magic; waking up in a dorm with people from 3 countries, going to class with people from every continent, and getting the chance to travel the world is an experience that disrupts all known conventions. Because there is still a chance – we, UWCs around the world, must call for a global refurbishment; for the evaluation of the International Baccalaureate, and for the protection of the promises made by our movement.



6 thoughts on “Mental Heath and UWC

  1. You are not alone at AC. Sadly, UWC over the years has morphed into just another school where the sole focus is on academics. The residences aspect of the UWC experience will always be an amazing natural product of having so much diversity and then there is CAS. I believe that Kurt Hahn would be deeply disappointed with his creation. CAS has become no more than an unwanted chore.

    It is understandable why mental health is a growing issue. Massive pressure on students from both schools and family to achieve ‘one more point’ and a ‘better’ University has destroyed the UWC movement. UWC has possibly gone past the point of ‘global refurbishment’ and it might be better to re-invent the complete system based on what Kurt Hahn designed.

  2. The UWC administration is hiding a mental health crisis brought on by their questionable indoctrination practices and high demand academic program. Pearson College has had many incidents of students becoming depressed and suicidal and the response by the administration has been slow to respond. Atlantic and Swaziland Colleges both student suicides in 2014. In 2014, there was a climbing accident that resulted in a students death in Costa Rica. Where is the pastoral care? UWC Voices on tumblr post show the high level of mental anguish and distress on a daily basis. UWC MENTAL HEALTH REFORM conference on Facebook revealed chilling statistics and online video testimony as to the indoctrination practices of the UWC movement. One participant confirmed that there have been many UWC alumni suicides because the burden of the UWC mission is too great. I urge those who know the truth about the damage caused by UWC to report it to the local child protective agencies to launch independent investigations .

  3. What happened to Hadil Marzouq (UWC MAASTRICHT 2012-14)? reported

    DORSET, Vt. (AP) – Vermont State Police say the death of a Bennington College student whose body was found in the waters of a Dorset quarry has been ruled a suicide.

    Police said 21-year-old Hadil Marzouq left a residence where she was staying on Dec. 17 and didn’t return. She was reported missing the next day. Divers found her body on Dec. 21. Police said the cause of death was drowning.

    The Bennington Banner reports ( Detective Lt. Reginald Trayah says Marzouq’s journal was found in her vehicle, which had been found parked at the quarry shortly after Marzouq was reported missing. A passage inside the journal led police to believe she took her own life.

  4. The UWC Thailand in recent times had expelled students, who suffered from mental health problems and in recent time there was a girl who broke few rules but most of them were minor, however, she was scrutinized and ashamed by the school admin, she became mentally ill after the incident. she was forced to leave the school. instead of rehabilitating the girl, she was instead forced into isolation, she was given a separate room, which obviously degraded her mental health. if you think UWC is the sort of place where change happens, you are in for a rude awakening. mentors don’t keep your secrets, admin make fun of your family issue and worst, the information spreads and suddenly you are hated by everybody.

  5. Mental problems related to the UWC experience seems to linger on endlessly in the subconscious. Expressed, e.g., in nightmares of having to go back to redo x exams, being re-enlisted in dreams as a student, deceased or old room-mates telling one in dreams about some special subject that one did less well in etc. I guess any education will leave you with some of those ‘afterscars’ for life. However, in comparison with the stress induced by the whole set-up, I still today think that the educational philosophy was grossly uninteresting for a pioneering project such as the IB. Then again, the need to impress any worthwhile Universities back then (and now?) probably meant more to the creators of the IB than trying to change the secondary school system for good. Juxtaposed to this, some national educational authorities at the time actually thought so poorly of the IB and of some of the less ‘elite’ IB-schools (the latter supposedly trying to cheat their students through the exams), that they translated the IB-exam results into failure of entering their national Universities! It was all hush hush and nobody told you about it beforehand, which lead to some wasting their precious time and ultimately lead to the thought: “Was it all worth it?”. Theory of Knowledge was a bore imho, some teachers literally sucked and extended essay seemed a bridge or two to far with all the other stuff going on. My all time hero, the late Nobel laureate cytogeneticist Barbara McClintock, once mused: “Let them swim or let them sink” – well, we learned (most of us anyway) to swim and use all necessary tricks to get through those two years. Worth it? Still can’t tell … probably should have followed my first hunch, which was to leave after the first two weeks of the first year first term!

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