Living the mission on a grand scale
Living the mission on a grand scale
It was as if all my friends had gone deaf. At first, I would give my answer to that incredulous “How many?” sheepishly. After all, you can’t possibly get to know all the staff, let alone the students in a school that size, and how can such a state of
affairs possibly be a good thing? But now, as my first term at UWCSEA hurtles towards completion, I answer the “How many?” question with the quiet assuredness of Clint Eastwood. Not only do I look deep into people’s eyes when I tell them the UWCSEA enrollment, but I’m also perfecting a “You gotta problem with that?” stare to prevent further silliness about big schools being impersonal or unmanageable.
How wonderful, how worthy of celebration, how vital that we have so many students, so many staff, so many parents living and promoting the mission in the heart of the world’s most dynamic region. UWCSEA is crackling and fizzing with the movement’s values, and just as Singapore and East Asia rush into the future with outstretched, welcoming arms, so we must go forward with our scale, location and passion helping to further those values that brought most of us to UWCSEA in the first place. I’ll admit it’s not all fun and laughter amid the bright lights: how I sometimes envy the castle or cliff-top retreat of other UWC’s - especially when the traffic prevents me from getting from one campus to another in good time – but for every small wave of urban frustration there is a crashing sea of positive action, altruism and compassion that makes every day transformational.
Cheap rhetoric? On the contrary: my words undersell the reality. You might expect me to whip out the propaganda manual at this point and list a host of student achievements, but instead I’ll turn to the parents. I am writing this on a Sunday, and in the week just gone I attended three large events organized by and involving hundreds of UWCSEA parents, all of which raised money for UWCSEA Global Concerns in South East Asia. Significantly, though, I discovered many parents have established on the ground links with these charities. These are busy people not simply giving money – that’s the easy bit - but offering time, know-how, compassion as well. And they are engaging others so that they too might get involved. That’s the community I am discovering beyond the campuses. I am thrilled and, frankly, moved to discover the reality.
Inside the walls of Dover and East, the question has not been “How many?” but the more taxing “How are you finding it?” Well – and let’s keep that propaganda manual on the bookcase - I am finding it inspiring, unique, imperfect, mission-driven, occasionally believing its own hype, transformative, frenetic, outward-looking, often savvy, sometimes naïve, relevant, complex and, crucially, so intent on trying to do exactly what it says it does that I could cry with gratitude. I can see why lots of students and staff might not want to come here: I can see why everybody should.
It seems to me that you should steer clear of this place if you are a cynic, lazy, entrenched or out to change the world by preaching at people. (Or maybe such people should be forced to come kicking and screaming). This is a doing place. An active, impatient verb of a College, not some stolid noun that’s been in the dictionary for centuries, gloomily certain of its own importance. The mission describes impact rather than educational experience, and I am everyday meeting young people who are not afraid to change, to fail, to innovate. Resilience is thus bred alongside ambition. And because of that, ideals often become actions.
Nowhere have I met young people so engaged in the world beyond examinations and parties. Not that those two pillars of don’t have their place of course – not all my teenage red-eye mornings were due to revision – but here they know their place. The service initiatives – local, regional and international - are so varied I can barely credit their scope. There is a giddy, feverish whirl about the desire to get out and engage. And yet – this is the point that I still can’t quite fathom – there is a profoundly gentle and intimate quality to nearly all the human interactions I have witnessed around the College. It ought not to be like that in a College this big and this busy. But there are moments when UWCSEA can feel like a village school, and the bustle of Singapore becomes a rustle of leaves.
And if ever a College bore out Karl A. Menninger’s maxim “What the teacher is, is more important than what he teaches”, it is UWCSEA. I have already been astonished by many colleagues’ selfless examples of living the mission. This applies to academic, administration and support staff. What happens in UWCSEA classrooms is great; what happens afterwards and elsewhere is greater. A sadness is that no matter how hard I try to make it otherwise – and I will certainly try - my relationship with colleagues will inevitably be more like that of a University Vice Chancellor with his faculty (the comparison serves purely for scale): I will never get to know all staff well, anymore than I will get to know all students well. What I do know is that there is talent, brain-power and commitment here that would impress on Wall Street, in governments, laboratories, sports fields, the media, the Arts and a host of other spheres. I rejoice that such people chose UWCSEA. (And another thing: I suspect most colleagues don’t get “exciting” confused with “boring”, which is a surprisingly frequent condition in many schools).
Honeymoon over. The complaints have started rolling in. Disputes over matters of principle (and disputes over nothing at all) are peppering the in-box. In some corners, the end of term will doubtless witness stress, frustrations and panic. A few people will drive selfishly and make others angry. Surveys will repeatedly demonstrate there is never one hundred per cent consensus even though people will sometimes talk as if there is. In all those respects and many more, this is a school like any other.
But where it really counts, this is like no other school on earth. For all Singapore’s glass towers, the commerce, the getting and spending … Kurt Hahn would know us in a moment. I have surely come home.