By writing this, I do not expect to dismantle the importance of past achievements of the movement, but to bring up a debate that we, as students, do not see often. Widening and popularizing the conversation on self-criticism is a way of ensuring that people are aware that no institution is perfect and that there’s always room for improvement. Although UWC’s values and history say to be aligned with making “education a force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future”, the reality of students coming from certain backgrounds is here to prove that institutional hypocrisy and an outdated motto can lead to issues like virtue signalling and misrepresentation of certain groups.
To understand the conversation I am proposing, I must point out that much of my inspiration came from a post made on the Facebook group “Decolonize UWC”. In the post, alumni from different schools were discussing the very little representation of students from the Eastern Bloc in the schools during the times of the Cold War – inspired by a section of the book “Schools Across Frontiers: The Story of the International Baccalaureate and the United World Colleges”, published in 2003 by Alexander Duncan Campbell Peterson, one of the founders of the IB. The quote shared on the group mentioned the impossibility of achieving the college’s motto of bringing together students from around the world “for peace and a sustainable future” as there weren’t soviet representatives in any UWC school.
From “Schools Across Frontiers: The Story of the International Baccalaureate and the United World Colleges”
In the comment section, reactions of surprise were the most common ones. For an institution founded in 1962, during the Cold War, under the belief that bringing together people from different backgrounds would help create a better world, not having students from the Soviet Union was quite surprising. Of course, travel restrictions were a strong actor of influence for the lack of Eastern Bloc students – at the end of the day, leaving the Soviet Union territory was not an easy thing. However, for the movement to keep the motto as if they were actually able to bring diverse people together reveals the institution’s objectives not only to be outdated, but also based on a virtue-signalling complex that perpetuates as an institutional problem until nowadays.
In order to get a deeper understanding of the context above mentioned in the book quote, I looked for the two students from the Soviet Union who, in a pioneering act, attended Pearson College as part of Year 15 (1988-1989). I managed to get in touch with one of them, Lucy Prasad, who kindly allowed me to hear from her own experiences and reflections about her time at the college.
On her very first message talking about her Pearson experience, Lucy pointed out that she “has always been very far from politics” and therefore wasn’t very active on debates of any kind. However, as her testimony shows, much of what she lived reveals hidden pieces of the movement’s history and modus operandi. According to her, for being the first then-soviet students at a UWC, she and her other Russian co-year enjoyed celebrity status – “newspaper and TV news interviews, phone calls from people with Russian connections in the neighbourhood, etc.”, she reminds.
If something defines the trajectory of these two students to get to Pearson College, it is confusion and misunderstandings. For example, Russian students eligible to apply to UWC were already in university, at the age of 20 as it was Lucy’s case, while every other student was between the ages of 16 and 18. Lucy was pursuing a degree in English and Philology at the Tyumen State University when she got the news that she was chosen to attend an exchange program in Canada. The description of what she was going to be doing on the other side of the world was quite vague, as she recalls thinking she was going to be studying at a university in Montreal, and, only when she arrived at the airport, was told that there was another flight waiting for her, leaving for Victoria. Only at her arrival – in November, over two months after the beginning of classes – she was told that she would be staying for two years and enrolling in classes she had already taken in her high school years back home. “Sounds like one big misunderstanding, doesn’t it?” Lucy asked me. For sure it does. For her, the last misunderstanding came during summer break. When she left campus, she believed she would come back – even left her personal belongings here. But, as she got home, she was told that she would not be allowed to return, as she had already lived the experience and should give her spot to someone else: “you’ve been once, let someone else go now”. According to Lucy, the college was very kind, trying to explain to the authorities that they wanted her back, not anyone else, but it was just not possible.
That story is, perhaps, what motivated Peterson to narrate the movement’s experience with Eastern Bloc students. But, here and now, more than that, it serves as evidence that UWC has been historically unable to act according to their own motto. Under the promises of making education a force to unite people, nations and cultures, the international organization has testimonies like this as a strong counterpoint to its effectiveness. To keep believing and stating that the movement is able to bring together students of different backgrounds, ensuring they all will have access to the same standard of education and moral values, while this is already proved to be impossible, can be understood as an intergenerational problem of virtue signalling.
From the online Cambridge Dictionary
For an institution with so many past achievements, it is important to say that, often, virtue signalling can simply be the expression of its utopic dreams and, therefore, should not be condemned. Anyhow, with this text, I believe that my intentions are not to bring up a bad image for what the schools have already achieved, but to propose a conversation on what exactly is UWC dreaming about. Is it possible? Is it still appropriate? And, maybe even more important, is the movement actually working towards it, or is it just a nice concept to advertise with?
It is also worth highlighting that virtue signalling is a new concept, not fitting perfectly to describe past issues due to anachronism. Nonetheless, comparing past and present problems in our community is still a valid way of bringing evidence to the discussion, since the institution we are part of today has a rooted issue of advertising ideas they are not able to accomplish.
Understanding the previous incapability of the movement to accomplish their goals is an important first step towards a deeper analysis of what exactly are the actions being taken to make that famous motto come true. As both Lucy and Peterson mentioned, there was a four years-long effort to make the experience with soviet students possible, revealing important work to ensure nationalities of the Eastern Bloc were represented. However, much more work would have to be done to ensure, for example, that those students had been fully integrated in the program and the community they were part of, being able to study and graduate as everyone else. Here, it is worth highlighting that the shock current students and alumni had by finding out about the lack of representation from the USSR is just a small part of all the issues of mis- and underrepresentation existent in UWC schools.