Antidote to fear

Antidote to fear

Continent Veronika Zonabend
Veronika Zonabend Continent

We live in strange times, when adults are doing everything they can to protect children from colliding with real life. Teenagers are trying to protect themselves from «harmful» books, movies, the internet, from the slightest mention of drugs and alcohol, and, of course, from the issues of sex. The ideal student should live in complete isolation, moving around the city only when accompanied by adults. How young people are to learn the skills of an active, independent life is not so clear, and it seems that few people care. Thankfully, amidst this madness, there are islands of common sense and trust, such as the international school UWC Dilijan. Its co-founder, Veronika Zonabend, speaks to what an educational institution is truly capable of being for those young people on whom our common future depends.

When you commit to a goal that most believe to be impossible, the process of working towards its realisation necessarily shifts your understanding of the way things should be. Yet it’s crucial to remain true to your vision. Ruben Vardanian, (social investor and entrepreneur,—Ed.) and I originally wished to create an international school that would be free of the «Soviet» mentality. Here, I wish to be understood: the Soviet school grew out of the Russian humanist tradition of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and its foundation is in the principles laid down by great teachers such as Vygotsky. It’s primarily a pedagogy aimed at developing the personality and abilities of the child, a process in which the personality of the teacher plays a primary role. Unfortunately, practically everything the Soviet school emphasised is no longer effective. The primary aspects of the «Soviet» mentality are intolerance to alternative points of view, division of people into «mine» and «others,» and the formation of friendships based on a shared mutual opponent. We wanted to avoid this, because it’s impossible to survive in the modern world with these kinds of qualities. For us, the most important things are openness and the ability to communicate with diverse kinds of people, to understand and to accept other cultures.

The idea first occurred to us back in 2005. It arose out of the desire to create, firstly, the right school for our kids, and secondly, a community of children with common interests and aspirations. As a guide, we first looked to British schools, though we’ve long since left that behind. In 10 years, ideas of what education should be have changed radically. For me, the moment of truth was a speech given by Ken Robinson international expert on the development of creative thinking and education systems — Ed. in 2007 at the Young Presidents’ Organisation forum in London. He said that schooling shouldn’t be reformed, but changed completely, because the existing education system, created in order to serve the needs of an industrial society, was ill-suited for our post-industrial era. This coincided with my own views, yet prior to this, when I’d spoken of the need for change, others had perceived the idea as the fantasy of an extravagant person. So I was pleased to hear a similar viewpoint coming from someone in a position of authority. At that time, very few people were speaking about this, though today it’s on everyone’s lips.

Initially, when we discussed different models for our future school, we hadn’t considered the UWC system (the United World Colleges international education system –Ed.) We only came to it later. When we decided to create an international school in Armenia, the idea was met with universal skepticism: who are these foreigners, going to Armenia to study?! There were therefore two moments that were particularly emotional for me. The first was when the concrete walls of our school finally grew up from the ground. It had only a short time prior been mere drawings and layouts. The second moment was when I met our first students, coming from 49 countries around the world to Dilijan. It was an incredible feeling.

It’s probably the greatest satisfaction in life, when an idea that your own mind conceived and that the people around you thought was completely insane, even stupid, comes to fruition — you think something up, and are able to put the pieces together. Of course, this cannot be done alone, without partners. You rely on a large team, the people you’ve inspired and who’ve followed you. That it’s a joint project is a great pleasure; I love working in a team.

One of the most difficult questions we’re wrestling with today is with regard to what education should offer people. After all, we don’t study in order to pass tests. Most people don’t like school. For them, school is something boring that they’re required to do. The only thing they enjoy about it is the opportunity to meet friends, if they’re lucky, and have a good class. But education is so much more than just sitting in a classroom. Of course, when you’re responsible for a school and a group of kids, there has to be some manageable structure, especially if you’re dealing with creative teenagers who are exploring different things trying to discover who they are. So balance is very important: you need structure, with clearly defined boundaries on what’s permitted, but also freedom within those boundaries. With this in place, motivation and creativity arise within the kids.

We’re now discussing a program that would involve graduates and students in actual projects in technology and other fields. The changes we’re seeing in the world today have created conditions in which anyone can start a business, even without significant capital. We have young people who are creative, unconventional thinkers, with great potential and a lot of fresh ideas. Many of them, after graduating and being admitted to prestigious international universities, take an academic year off in order to begin implementing their own initiatives or to participate in existing innovative projects.

The problem with standardisation in the existing education system is that everyone tries to measure everything according to the same rubric. But of course, everyone is different, and it is necessary to develop each student’s individuality. There is, of course, a minimum level that a child should reach, but there are also other considerations — what he’s achieved and what his trajectory has been, relative to his origins. For example, we are teaching a boy from Lebanon, the son of refugees from Sudan, who did not even have a passport and whose first time ever boarding a plane was for the flight to Dilijan. For him, getting an IB (International Baccalaureate –Ed.) diploma is an incredible path to have taken. We also have children from very wealthy families for whom obtaining an IB diploma is not such a spectacular achievement, though here they’re able to enter an environment where they meet people they never would have otherwise, and where their parents’ financial situation doesn’t matter. It is very important to us to create a mixed environment in which children of diverse social backgrounds, of various life circumstances, can all learn from each other.

For them, this is a different reality. All of them come to us from their own countries, small or large, changing their habitual environment. These are very motivated children, with their own goals, with fire in their eyes. The uniqueness of UWC’s selection process is that attention is paid not only to achievements, but also to the child’s potential, motivation, and social activity. Therefore, it is important what the children do outside of school. Also important is their readiness to perceive the new and unusual, and to adapt to it. This quality is very important for them in their everyday life, because we have people with different habits, perspectives, attitudes, and behaviour patterns living together for two years. For example, we have children from Middle Eastern and South-East Asian countries, who are embarrassed to get dressed in front of their roommates, and then we have Scandinavians and Hispanics who are much less inhibited. And they all have to interact with each other. This is a very difficult, but very useful, and invaluable experience.

What’s unique about the UWC system is that it allows all students to remain who they are, unlike American, British, or French schools, where they attempt to reproduce bearers of the dominant culture. One of UWC’s key values is «celebration of difference»: what is different is welcome. I have repeatedly heard from many students that they developed a better understanding of their own culture at Dilijan, because here they represent it to the whole world and are responsible for it. They’re proud of who they are, and at the same time are able to communi- cate with representatives of other cultures.

One of the tasks of our school is to develop in children the desire to give, to create. The phrase UWC students most often utter is, «We want to change the world for the better.» Life for UWC alumni branches in many directions: some find themselves in international consulting companies (for example, there are many UWC graduates at McKinsey), one became a progressive minister, a great many work in charitable organisations. There are those who enter commerce, but their attitude to business is slightly different — it carries a social burden.

In a nutshell, UWC is, for our students, self-knowledge and personal transformation. By knowing yourself, you know the world. A person, first and foremost, must be interested in himself, interested in living, and at the same time must respect the interests of other individuals. In order to learn and achieve, you need to constantly leave your comfort zone, which is not easy to do. At first, you’re helped by teachers, mentors, and the school environment. Education’s most important goal, one that we pursue, is to launch an internal engine inside of the students, pushing them out of their comfort zone, forcing them constantly to develop and learn new things. Everyone who comes to our school, both teachers and students, are those who have left their comfort zone. Imagine an American or European teenager who independently decided to go study in Armenia! But even after becoming accustomed to this, there is still a long way to go; the experience gained in Dilijan removes many barriers and imparts an impetus for continuous, lifelong development.

I can say with confidence that children who study at UWC schools are more open to the world. One of our graduates, in responding to the question of what he’d received from his education at UWC, answered that no matter where he was in the world, he would have two or three contacts, to whom he could turn for help and support, and thus he wasn’t afraid either of travelling, or of going to work in another country. This imparts an incredible sense of freedom. These words have stuck with me, reflecting what the school means to the younger generation — freedom from fear of the unknown, willingness to take risks, and the ability to see opportunities in uncertainty.