I was seventeen years old when I left my parent’s home in the Philippines and moved to Costa Rica to share life, learning and boarding school with over a hundred teenagers from roughly seventy different countries. It was a life changing, mind stretching, and heart strengthening experience – my first solo adventure that began as a two year education but evolved into a way of living and being.
The school was called the United World College Costa Rica. It was 2006 and I was joining the pioneer class of the school. Our school was but one new piece, a part of an international movement of many schools all across the world that were using education to change the world in a very special way.
Last night, I fell into the vacuum of looking through old photos from that special season of life. My intention was just to find one photo to share in celebration of UWC Day, but that intention turned into a couple of hours of flipping through the digital albums. The experiences felt like they happened so long ago, but as the photo flipping went on, I felt like I was living in those moments all over again.
Because so much time has passed since, I struggle to write about the experience with balance. I don’t want to downplay the impact nor exaggerate it, but it was truly beyond and beautiful – the intensity of which remains unparalleled in my adult life, mostly because it all happened when I was so young and had at that time I had still experienced so little.
There are years worth of storytelling that I can share from my time at UWC. Even as I write this, I don’t know where to start or how to bottle it up and express it. I look back with joy, wonder, amazement, nostalgia, pride and love.
I was a shy teenager on her first trip away from her family. I can’t believe I had the privilege to go the distance that I did, and I can’t imagine what my life would be like if I hadn’t.
At UWC I discovered what I believe in. Every day, my ideas and ideals were challenged, questioned, nurtured, tested, strengthened or broken down – in the classrooms, yes, but more significantly in the regular day to day life on a UWC campus. From the moment you woke up, you were immersed in diversity. I shared a room with two other girls, the three of us representing three distinct continents. On our floor of twelve girls, we could collectively speak about seven or eight different languages. In our literature class where we discussed colonialism or the slave trade, romance or family ties, we had a room of fifteen students speaking up for fifteen different cultures and ideas. Every meal in the dining hall (which was basically every single meal you had) was a meal with the world.
We were all young humans, only half-molded into the adults we would later become. Living the way we did would leave a mark on us, even on those that didn’t want to be changed.
It is still so magical to me – the simple method of bringing young people together the way that UWC does. The idea has not grown old, not in the eleven years since I first stepped on campus, not since the fifty five years when the movement first began. And if you’ve been watching the news, you know we still need more of these experiences that build friendships and understanding between differences.
Even after so many years, I hold on to many memories. As I looked through my photos last night, trains of recollections ran through my imagination. Here are but a few: Meeting one of my best friends while brushing our teeth on our first night in the dorm, mouths foaming and toothbrushes poking out of our smiles. My first informal salsa lesson. Lining up at the outdoor pay phone so I could call home with a phone card (Yes, a pay phone. Yes, a phone card with the scratch out code!) Shedding tears because the cafeteria food was so bad one night. And then the surprise of friends bringing a cheeseburger to you late at night to make up for the bad meal.Tequila shots for 500 colones each (roughly $1). Sleeping outside on the beach with your friends. Holding somebody’s hand. Learning to speak up when you don’t feel like it. Being a Spice Girl. Joining late night impromptu worship sessions in the music room. Dancing in the ampitheatre to let out steam. Learning how to read another language using the packaging of instant noodles as you wait for the water to boil. Learning how to make pre-columbian style pottery from scratch. Learning the tinikling from online videos (was it YouTube already back then?) and then teaching it to your friends. Going into the neighboring “forest” area with the college gardener and his machete, to gather bamboo for the tinkling performance. Getting a scorpion in my hair. Carrying my country’s flag around town during the independence day parade. Performing for Queen Noor of Jordan, talking to her about my art. Walking in the rain forest looking for tiny frogs with funky patterns on their backs. Late night conversations on the hammock. Late night conversations after watching strange movies. Impromptu dance parties in the dorm room. More late night conversations. Going out for pizza to celebrate my roommate’s country finally being internationally recognized as a country! Weeping at graduation – from the joy of having made it to the finish line and for the despair of life apart from some of your favorite people in the world.
You will later gratefully discover that life allows you to keep those precious friendships – for this I am incredibly grateful.
As for keeping the UWC spirit alive, as an adult it becomes a choice you have to make – to continuously draw near to the heart of the movement or to snuff out whatever spark of it was left in you. After all these years do we only hold on to memories and ideals – or have we also transformed these into action and impact?
Thank you, UWC, for the ounces of courage and compassion in my heart that were a gift from you.
If you know someone young who could use a grand adventure to mold, stretch, challenge life – consider inviting them to apply to UWC through the UWC Philippines National Committee here: www.ph.uwc.org.
If you would like to contribute to the movement and help send more Filipino scholars to UWC campuses around the world – consider donating to the UWC Ph National Committee. You may also visit www.baa-ul.com where you can benefit the UWC cause just by shopping for gifts – use the discount code UNITEDWORLDCOLLEGEPH when you check out. The code will give your FREE SHIPPING* and 5% of your purchase will donated to UWC Ph.
Today there are 17 UWC campuses in 17 different countries. Students from 150 countries are sent to those campuses every year, with a growing alumni of over 60,000 people, after about 55 years of the movement.
*Free shipping to Philippine addresses only