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Armenia opens its arms to new ‘champions of peace’

Gayaneh Seiranyan, communication and partnership manager at UWC Dilijan, tells Matt Salusbury about the school movement’s latest addition

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CREATIVE CULTURE Dilijan has always been a popular city for artists and composers, and is surrounded by a national park with its own microclimate (Courtesy Danil Kolodin)

What is the history and philosophy behind the United World Colleges?

The United World Colleges (UWC) movement was founded in 1962 with the vision of bringing together young people whose experience was of the political conflict of the Cold War era, offering an educational experience based on shared learning, collaboration and understanding so that the students would act as champions of peace. UWC’s clear mission is to make education a force to unite people and cultures for peace and a sustainable future. A UWC college offers an educational experience like no other, in the sense that it is based on shared learning, collaboration and understanding.

It is a not-for-profit organisation, providing an IB diploma (aged 16–19), one of the most well regarded and widely known secondary school qualifications in the world, recognised by the world’s leading universities. Certain UWC schools also provide the IGCSE programme (for those aged 14–16), as well as other programmes for children as young as two, in order to introduce them to the values of UWC.

There are currently fifteen schools across the UWC network, with colleges in Armenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Canada, Costa Rica, Germany, Great Britain, Hong Kong, India, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Singapore, Swaziland and the US. UWC Changshu China will be welcoming its first students later this year.

UWC Dilijan is the latest UWC school to open. How was the decision made to open a school in Armenia?

It would have been easy to open another international school in Russia, America or Germany, but in Armenia such a concept had never been conceived of before. Moreover, a truly international educational project would foster tangible socioeconomic development in the region where it is located and in the country at large. As part of the philanthropic IDeA Foundation (the Armenian charity project set up by Ruben Vardanyan and Veronika Zonabend to contribute to development of Armenia and improve the standing of Armenia in the world today) it was decided that Armenia should have a voice on the future of education too, and hence UWC Dilijan College was formed. The college aims to be an integral part of the city of Dilijan and to have positive personal, local and global impact.

What is particularly unique about UWC Dilijan College is that for the first time in the post-Soviet space a school has opened where students from all over the world can come to receive a good education. The city of Dilijan, where the college itself is located, is surrounded by a national park with its own microclimate. Dilijan was popular for many artists, composers and other members of the creative elite, and visitors have included Marcel Marceau, Benjamin Britten, Dmitri Shostakovich and many more.

How does a school become a UWC school?

When registering the school concept at the IB Foundation office in Geneva it was advised to become part of the UWC network as the mission of the newly forming Dilijan school and the UWC network coincide. Later the founders got acquainted with the UWC representatives and the decision was made.

Tell us about the scholarship programme. I understand some of the applicants for the school apply directly and others apply through the national committee for the school, and that over 60 per cent of those coming in through national committee entry are scholarship students. Can you tell me how that works?

Applicants are selected for the UWC movement as a whole first, and only then allocated to a specific college. IB diploma admissions are organised via UWC national committees in students’ countries of origin. The all-volunteer selection committees consist mainly of alumni of UWC colleges, education professionals and community leaders around the world. Prospective students are assessed on their social activity and adaptability – they realise that they will spend a significant time away from their families and so the ability to join an intercultural and independent environment is key.

The first stage of the enrolment tests is submitting an application to the selection committee. Successful applicants will then have an online interview followed by enrolment tests (comprising live interviews, individual tasks and group activities). The national committee then nominates successful candidates to enrol in a particular UWC college, although the candidate may choose their desired college in their application.

It is also worth noting that UWC colleges accept students from all financial backgrounds and social groups. UWC operates on a needs-blind admission system, providing opportunities for children from families of modest means who frequently do not even consider the possibility of an international education.

In some cases, if there is no national committee in a country, direct applications may be considered. Students who are unsuccessful having applied through their UWC national committee cannot be admitted.

UWC student intake is deliberately diverse. Our bursaries, scholarships and fee structure aim to ensure a broad socio-economic mix within the student body that adds value to the student experience and the organisation. We aim to make it possible for all selected students to attend college regardless of their financial circumstances. Currently, more than 90 per cent of students at UWC Dilijan are on full or partial scholarships so would-be applicants should not be deterred from applying by the cost.

UWC Dilijan College’s policy is to try to meet all demonstrated need through a means-tested process. Candidates should concentrate on getting an admission offer in the first instance. Successful candidates will subsequently be subject to means testing, which will determine the required level of scholarship.

What about the English language proficiency requirements for entry to UWC Dilijan?

Typically, prospective UWC students should have a strong linguistic ability to develop English quickly. This does not mean that they necessarily need to be fluent to begin with, but students should come with a minimum standard of English that equates to a CEFR B2. As the IB diploma and all its subjects are taught in English, the students must be aware of this.

What proportion of the students enter through scholarship programmes, and what proportion of these are Armenian?

The majority of the students are provided with full or partial scholarships. For example, around 60 per cent of the first selection of UWC students (57 out of 96) received full scholarships, and around 40 per cent (38 of 96) partial scholarships. The average partial scholarship equals roughly 67 per cent of total tuition costs.

There are currently ten Armenian students with scholarship at UWC Dilijan College. Commencing studies in August 2015 will be another eleven adolescents from Armenia who will also receive full or partial scholarships.

I understand UWC Dilijan is an English-medium school. How does UWC Dilijan integrate Armenian culture and language into the curriculum, if at all? Are there any subjects taught in languages other than English?

Armenian is not part of the curriculum – the school is an international centre for education. However, foreign students wishing to study the Armenian language are provided with this opportunity, so they can freely speak with local residents.

The IB diploma is taught only in English, but at the same time the college provides students of Armenian descent with tuition in native language, literature, history and culture. The college also provides a wide range of other languages (initially French, German, Russian and Spanish).

What has been the most surprising and challenging thing about setting up a school in the middle of a forest in Armenia?

Logistically, it was a challenge, but one that we have relished. Working with the award-winning architect Tim Flynn, we chose the national park in which to build UWC Dilijan College, not least because of its aesthetic beauty. We did not want to disrupt the natural beauty of the reserve, and so designed the school to blend with its surroundings (‘living’ walls, green roofs, curved buildings that matched the hills, etc.). To make sure we remained as environmentally friendly as possible, all materials were locally sourced, and pupils must take part in green initiatives to replace those materials taken from the ground. In essence, the school has ‘put back what it has taken out’.

Arguably the most surprising aspect is the amount of positive reaction we have had since opening the school in comparison with the concerns voiced at the beginning of the project. It has given invaluable employment opportunities for the people of Dilijan and elsewhere, providing over a hundred jobs (including administrative, maintenance, security and catering staff) for the region.

The school is ambitious and we are by no means finished in our quest to make it even better. In the coming school year another 96 students are coming to Dilijan. In total, representatives of 63 nations will study at UWC Dilijan College. The Performing Arts Centre, to be completed in 2017, is unique to anything the region has seen to date. We have big plans to implement socially beneficial programmes, focussing on interaction between students and local residents, as well as the development of the city of Dilijan. A youth centre in Dilijan has been created in collaboration with UWC Dilijan. This centre serves as a platform for CAS (creativity, action & service – the IB diploma core) activities and community outreach programmes. The Youth Centre aims to help young people in Dilijan become socially active members of society and of their communities.

Our goal is to make UWC Dilijan college rank among the world’s best schools.