Friday, February 17, 2012

Culture Share: International -The United World College of the Atlantic

This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, where writers share their experience of world cultures. Emily Mah Tippetts discusses life at the United World College of the Atlantic, an international school in Wales.

The United World College of the Atlantic
I was seventeen when I left my home in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and went to live in south Wales to attend the United World College of the Atlantic. There are now about a dozen United World Colleges around the world. Atlantic College, as we called it, is the founding campus. It was also one of the first schools to adopt the International Baccalaureate program. The term “College” is here meant in the British sense and refers to the last two years of high school.
The school had: 1) A medieval castle as its main building, 2) about 350 students from over 80 countries, and 3) an international staff of teachers who were devoted to the school’s goal of promoting world peace through personal connections. My first year I had roommates from England, Egypt, and Romania, and my second year they were from Uzbekistan, Kenya, and Italy. As students we had little in the way of personal space or possessions, and this was by design. We could decorate or own little corner of our room, and had one closet sized locker and a cubby in the communal bathroom. Even the showers were communal.
The idea, I believe, was to take us all out of our comfort zone so that we would rely on each other emotionally and socially, and to a large extent this worked. The student body ran the gamut from the hyper-religious to the militantly secular, from the strictest conservatives to the most flamboyant liberals, though given the mission and aim of the school, most of us were left of center. It also provided a top class education, so when Oxford and Cambridge interviewed prospective students, there was a large contingent of us there. Many private school educated Brits looked askance at this boarding school that churned out people with their jeans torn and their hair dyed with henna.
On top of the usual strains of living in close quarters with each other, we had to work closely with one another as well. All of us were required to do some kind of service, and of the several options, I chose to work on the farm. This means that while I had a full academic courseload, I also learned to drive a tractor and birth lambs, and yes, I had to get up in the middle of the night to serve my watches during lambing season. You haven’t lived until you’ve been up at three a.m. with someone swearing at you in Spanish because you’re having trouble turning a lamb so that it can be born, or had a Mandarin girl write in your yearbook that the time you yelled and screamed at her to tear the amniotic sac before the lamb suffocated, then wrote on the board that she had been a hero was one of the highlights of her year.
While many have asked me how we all found a common ground in this environment, I think it’d be misleading to say that we did. Our social circles were diverse and overlapping, but learning to cope with other cultures was something we had to do one on one. Everything from what distance on approach it was appropriate to look up and nod a greeting to how to express annoyance without causing offense was an ongoing project for all of us. There was never a day when I felt I had it all learned, and I don’t think anyone did.
The culture clashes could happen within a culture as easily as they occurred between the cultures. I know all six of us from the United States wished at times that we could disown each other. A person from the Pacific Northwest might find themselves more comfortable with the Canadians, and the Mexican students and I shared a lot of food and celebrated Cinco de Mayo together.
Did we come out of the experience equipped to spread world peace? In some ways, but I also feel an odd kinship with people I see on reality tv shows like Survivor. At times we were stretched to our utmost and we had to find a way to work it out. We weren’t allowed to vote each other out of the school, though sadly, some students elected not to stay. Sometimes it was because of inter-student politics, but it could be real world politics as well.
Together we saw South Africa have their first free elections, and on that day our South African economics teacher, decided to tell us about his past. As it turned out, he had been on Robben Island, in work camps, and eventually was exiled. People had spread rumors about him for years, but that was the day he confirmed them, and then got up and resumed the economics lesson. Together we saw NAFTA signed, and then the Mexican peso crash. We saw South America begin to conquer hyper-inflation. I’ll never forget the time my Argentinian friend returned from break in tears, because for the first time the money she had in her wallet when she arrived at home could still buy something. We saw the Eurozone progress as people planned their futures with fewer thoughts about borders than their parents had. We saw the tiger economies roar and were the first generation of students to have email addresses.
We learned how to recognize a language from how someone answered the phone, which was necessary in a house of 50 students, 40 nationalities, and one pay phone. The person at the other end was likely paying through the nose for the call (there was no Skype back then), so one would often hear the desperate shout of, “I need an ___ speaker!” We learned what rude gestures insulted which culture groups, and who would want a kiss on the cheek in greeting, and whether it would be one or two.
We learned to recognize national flags at a glance, and would fight over what cultural activities we should be allowed to have as privileges. We Americans always wanted to watch the Academy Awards after curfew, but the school said no. They let us have the Super Bowl instead, even though several of us didn’t know the rules to American football. The student body demanded an American prom from us, even though we were the types who’d ditch our own proms back home. Every year we’d reluctantly meet up, come up with a theme and decorations budget and give them a prom. A prom where alcohol was served and no one had a dress that cost more than $30.00.
People often ask what was the most difficult part of the experience. It wasn’t the racial insults or heated cultural disputes. It wasn’t the times when global politics split open rifts between roommates and best friends. It wasn’t the heartbreaks or the traumas we inflicted on each other as adolescents. The hardest part, for me, was saying goodbye at the end of two years. Even though the rise of the internet, Facebook, and Skype have made much of the world a global village, there were some of us from corners of the world so remote that I will never cross paths with them again. The hardest part of the two years, was that for some of these friendships, it was the only two years we’ll ever have.

Emily Mah Tippetts currently lives in London, England.