Meet the Incoming Executive Director of UWC International: Faith Abiodun
Today, 1 December 2021, marks Faith Abiodun's first day at the UWC International Office in London, ahead of assuming full responsibility as Executive Director of UWC International on 1 February 2022.
A few months before he embarked on this journey, the Interim Executive Lead / Deputy Executive Director Advancement, Hannah Tümpel, took the opportunity to speak to Faith about his hopes and expectations for the role, the UWC movement and the community.
Taking a step back in time, can you start by telling us about how your UWC journey started - how did you first come across UWC? And what impression did it have on you then?
I actually remember the exact date I first came into contact with UWC: it was 9 April 2014. I was working with the African Leadership Academy at the time and had organised the inaugural Model African Union conference. We had invited students from across the African continent to reflect and to deliberate on the future of the continent. This included Waterford Kamhlaba UWCSA. I still remember the moment the teacher, Iain Pearson, stepped out of the bus he had driven all the way from eSwatini together with five ultra-confident young students. That’s when I realised what all the hype around UWC was about. The teacher seemed to represent so much in one: teacher, mentor, coach, bus driver, fundraiser, photographer. And over the course of the next few days, the students bowled me over with their swagger, their curiosity and the way they connected with others. They debated like they had been doing it since birth, and they cleared all the awards.
Every time I think of UWC now, that picture still sticks. It summarises everything I have found UWCers to represent: a passion for life, a joy that comes from doing, a willingness to take on challenges. Nothing looks too difficult to a UWCer. That level of inspiration courses through an individual and into everyone that surrounds them. Just as it did for me that day, and has continued to do since.
Having now had the opportunity to work with several UWC alumni in different capacities, I have come to think of UWC as the gold standard in international education. This admiration is the foundation that brings me into this movement, coupled with a determination to advance this organisation in the best way possible.
There is often a different aspect of UWC that draws different people in, can you speak a bit more about what specific aspect drew you in? What excites you the most about UWC?
It’s the fact that UWC offers an education that goes way beyond the classroom: it connects students to society. Many education systems still prioritise the acquisition or retention of knowledge. But UWC prioritises the application of knowledge. It doesn’t view students’ agency in the world as an add-on; it is core. It’s one thing to bring people together from all over the world, but I like that it’s not purely about representation for representation’s sake - it’s about creating experiences that connect students to the societies around them, to issues around the world and to the environments in which they live. That’s education! I could spend my days dreaming about that.
Soon you will not just have to dream about it, you will be able to ‘do’ it. What are you most looking forward to in your role?
I’m most looking forward to co-creating the future in this new role. And the future here is made up of different elements.
First, there’s the future of education, which is being shaped as we speak and I believe the pace of that change will be more rapid than the previous waves that we have seen. The world is rapidly evolving - and education must evolve alongside it. I look forward to co-creating this process with the leadership of the UWC schools and the education practitioners and to grapple with the difficult questions it brings up: around the continuous integration of technology into education, the need to review the ways in which we teach and assess, how to best prepare people to engage with global challenges, how to ensure that we are representing the best of diversity and inclusion within education, the list goes on. None of us can imagine what the world will look like in 5,10, 20 years, but we have the awesome privilege of helping to prepare the people who will shape that world and lead that world.
Similarly, I'm excited to co-create the future of the UWC movement itself. This is a movement that has thrived for almost 60 years. To keep this movement thriving, there are lots and lots of questions we have to think about. We need to keep finding the right support networks across governments and philanthropic bodies to ensure that this brand of education is truly accessible to every deserving young person across the world.
Thirdly, I’m excited to spread the word about UWC. For every one person who has heard about the amazing work happening at UWC, there are hundreds of thousands of people who have not. I see this role as one that will help to take this message into new spaces where it needs to be heard.
Is there anything that makes you feel apprehensive?
When it comes to this role, it would be fool-hardy for me to assume I have a clear idea of how the world will evolve and of my capacity to do all the things that will be required of me everyday. But apprehensive is not the right word, it is cause for cautious optimism. I am curious to see how we will collectively weather future storms.
[Laughing] So I do not feel any pressure whatsoever. [Laughs more] But seriously, I know I can deal with the pressure because in all the previous spaces where I have had a chance to create solutions, I have found success. I do not feel that I am stepping completely into the unknown. The scenarios and pressures and individuals might be different, but I can carry forward many lessons from prior experiences in which I was successful. If I continue in the same way, it is more likely than not that I will find success. And based on the incredible passion I have witnessed in this organisation so far, I know that I won’t be alone in my work. Therefore, I enter this next phase in my life and my career with the belief that collectively we can get as much done as we dream of.
And is there any particular message that you hope your appointment as Executive Director of UWC International will communicate within and outside the UWC movement?
I cannot ignore the fact that when people traditionally think about the image of a leader, it doesn’t always look like me. I stand humbled by that fact, and I am determined to make sure that I do what I can within my capacity to shift the dial a little bit on that traditional image. I want to help people recognise that lots of people from various parts of the world have the capacity to do the work that I will do. And I am determined to ensure that I can expand access even more for people from all parts of the world to feel equally represented within a movement that’s designed to embrace them.
I'm grateful that this movement has done the right thing in recognising that leadership can be found in all kinds of spaces.
Speaking directly to the UWC community now, what would be one gift they could give you during your first 6 months in your role as Executive Director?
First, I want to thank them for having given me one gift already: the gift of warmth. I have been positively surprised by the wealth of messages I have received from people who felt the need to reach out to welcome me, from alumni, students, supporters - the list goes on. They did not have to do that, but that is what defines a family. A family goes out of their way to look out for, get to know and welcome its new members.
Going forward, my only ask is that they share as many stories of their work and their experiences as they can. I want to be inundated with details of what makes this movement special, so I can listen and amplify them. I am a storyteller and I want new stories to tell. So put it all on me: I want to hear everything!