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UWC Day 2017 at UWC Maastricht 

21 September 2017

Speech delivered at the UWC Day assembly, 21 September 2017, by Lodewijk van Oord, Head of College, UWC Maastricht

Dear guests, students, parents, colleagues,

Dear friends,

Welcome to the 2017 celebration of UWC Day and the International Day of Peace. And to our visitors today: welcome to United World College Maastricht.

On this day, at the 17 UWC schools and colleges around the globe, students and graduates, teachers and parents, and many other members of the wider school communities, are coming together for a day of celebration.

As a global movement, we celebrate our mission to make education a force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future.

Simultaneously, we celebrate the International Day of Peace. By doing so, we recognise that UWC is not alone in the pursuit of peace, but that our mission is shared by countless other organizations and communities around the world working in many different way towards a more liveable planet.

These are grand and lofty ideals. There is no doubt that they are hard to accomplish. But here at UWC Maastricht we are convinced that our mission is achievable. And we demonstrate that education can indeed make a significant contribution to a sustainable and more peaceful society.

So please allows me to use the following minutes to explain how here in Maastricht this school and its partners put the UWC mission into action. I will take a moment to look back at how we got here.  To describe what we are currently doing and why we are doing it. And to sketch how we in the years to come hope to strengthen our impact, together with our many supporters and partners in this region.

Three weeks ago, on the 30th of August, just one day before the return of our students for the new academic year, UWC Maastricht’s teaching and non-teaching staff came together to reflect on the development of the school over the past couple of years and to look ahead at the year about to begin. We talked about the joys and sometimes pressures of working in a United World College and considered how we can best connect our personal ambitions and talents to the UWC values and mission.

We concluded that the past academic year in many ways marked the end of the first chapter of UWC Maastricht. Many of you in the audience have been a part of this chapter. But others here today are, like me, relatively new to UWC Maastricht. Let me therefore take the liberty to briefly summarize the opening chapter.

I remember the opening lines of this chapter very well, when in December 2005 the then mayor of Maastricht Gerd Leers visited UWC Atlantic College in Wales. I was working at Atlantic College at the time, and as one of two Dutch teachers I was part of the team welcoming mayor Leers and his team to the College.

The Maastricht delegation had travelled to Wales because the Dutch UWC Foundation, Stichting UWC Nederland, had launched the idea to open a UWC school in the Netherlands. The mayor and his team, which included members from the city council and the university, were determined to bring this new school to Maastricht. The city indeed won the competition, and the history of UWC Maastricht began.

If we compare the school to an airplane, we could say that in the years that followed the decision to establish a UWC in Maastricht, the airplane remained parked at the gate. Many ideas came and went, sponsors were sought and often found, but the airplane did not move.

Eventually it was decided to merge two existing international schools, the Joppenhof Primary and the International School Maastricht, based at Porta Mosana, with a residential student community selected on promise and potential regardless of their parents’ ability to pay. This merger would lead to one unified school community embracing the UWC model of education.

The engines were started and the airplane was pushed back from the gate. But as it taxied along the airport grounds the destination was still unclear. Initially the school would be based at the Tapijnkazerne, a campus it would share with the University College Maastricht. When this location turned out to be unrealistic, the convent on the Tongerseweg came into sight, another idea that never materialized. The airplane taxied on. After a temporary location at the Nijverheidsweg UWC Maastricht was guided towards an entirely new runway here at the Discusworp for take-off.

Finally, UWC Maastricht went airborne on its purpose-built campus with a grand opening in October 2013. This campus was made possible through structural support from the Province of Limburg, the municipality of Maastricht and a group of generous companies and foundations. We honour our early supporters, and remember their contributions on a special plaque at the entrance of the school.

For UWC Maastricht, these take-off years have been characterized by rapid growth in terms of student numbers and the steady development of a curriculum based on the UWC mission and values. The school has now reached cruising altitude, with our student enrolment at capacity of over 900 students and a dedicated and increasingly stable team of teachers and support staff.

Passengers and crew are well aware that the take-off is the most intense and potentially dangerous moment of the journey, as the airplane revs its engines and passes the point of no return. As the fasten seatbelts sign goes off, there is a feeling that we have reached the end of this first chapter. Our destination is defined by the UWC mission, but exactly how and with whom we get there is a matter for conversation.

It is with this conversation that we begin the writing of chapter 2.

You have come to UWC Maastricht today because you are, in one way or another, contributing to the writing of chapter 2. And it does not matter whether you are a student, a parent, an employee, a donor, a board member, or a representative of one of our many partner organizations in Maastricht and the wider region – you are invited to be part of the conversation and welcome to contribute to who we are and to what we might become.

UWC makes education a force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future. We embrace Nelson Mandela’s creed that “education is the most powerful weapon which we can use to change the world.” For many years, Nelson Mandela was the honorary president of the UWC movement. The father and grandfather of numerous UWC graduates, he was outspoken in his belief that the UWC schools and colleges were indeed that powerful weapon for positive change.

But how do we turn our aspirational mission statement into a school curriculum? What do we do to ensure that our students indeed become the changemakers of today and tomorrow?

It starts with the understanding that the purpose of education is not merely to serve the individual advancement of our students. We believe education plays a crucial role in the pursuit of the common good. Yes, we educate individual students, but we educate them to serve their communities and the world.

To this end, the UWC Maastricht curriculum can perhaps best be visualized as a butterfly with a body and two wings. We want our students to fly, and in order for them to fly successfully and sustainably we need to grow and strengthen both wings. In each section of our school – in primary, middle secondary or upper secondary – our curriculum consists of, on the one side, an academic programme and, on the other side, what we could call a “social impact” programme. These are the two wings that enable the student to reach the sky.

In the academic programme, students gain the cognitive knowledge to read the world we live in. At a level appropriate for their age, they learn to understand the challenges of our time and discuss ways in which these problems can be addressed. Academic knowledge is important, as it is hard to imagine how someone can contribute to a fairer and more peaceful world without a thorough understanding of the complexities of society. In our increasingly interconnected world, topics are more and more studied at a global level, as many of our major challenges cross borders and affect people regardless of their nationality or location in this world.

But knowledge is not enough. In order to make a difference, it is important to also learn how to act. Being able to “read the world” is a great thing, but developing the skills and attitudes that allow you to “write and rewrite the world” is even greater. Students therefore need to develop the affective knowledge to empathize and collaborate with others, and the practical skills to turn an idea into practice and make change happen.

This is the purpose of our social impact programme, the butterfly’s second wing. Although students can learn how to act and empathize inside the classroom, our social impact programme more often than not takes students outside the classroom. Our senior students, for instance, participate in Critical Engagement workshops, where they engage in dialogue about Identity, Diversity and Social Responsibility. They take part in weekly service activities, where they work with real people in real circumstances in Maastricht and the wider region. Students learn to serve, to commit themselves to a given goal and develop resilience in the face of challenging situations. As part of our Youth Social Entrepreneurship programme, students discover how they can see global problems as creative opportunities, and learn to develop social enterprises for the common good. And then there are the many student-led conferences, enabling teams of students to independently organise weekend conferences on topics of Peace, Sustainability and Global Affairs.

Both the academic programme and the social impact programme, the two wings of the butterfly, are essential in our educational pursuit. And although they sometimes compete for time, they do not compete in educational value. Just as a butterfly with one wing will not be able to fly, we believe students will not be able to contribute to a better and more peaceful world without a full immersion in both dimensions of learning. There is little point in knowing the world, if we have not also learnt how to live peacefully in this world. There is no point in knowing each other, if we have not also learnt how to live together. Only if we simultaneously learn how to know and how to act can we truly read and write our world.

UWC aims to offer its curriculum to a deliberately diverse community of students. We want to be as diversely diverse as possible.

Having over one hundred nationalities in the school is a wonderful thing. But the real divide of our times is not necessarily between people with different passports. The real divide is between those who have a passport and those who don’t. Between those who choose to leave their country for a holiday and those who are forced to leave their country to survive. Between those who have every opportunity and those who don’t see any. Our hope is that UWC Maastricht can bridge that gap, by bringing together students with promise and potential from a wide range of backgrounds and from the refugee communities in this country and abroad.

This is a wonderful but not a cheap ambition, and we hope to reach out to many organizations, companies, foundations and individuals who want to play a role in the fulfilment of this ambition.

Because this is how UWC Maastricht makes education a force to unite.

We provide students from diverse social, economic and ethnic backgrounds with a shared experience. Our founder Kurt Hahn preferred to compare a school not to an airplane but to a ship. And if a school is a ship, he said, then the students are the crew and not the passengers on board. We create situations in which students have to demonstrate their own initiative, and we ensure they can only succeed if they work and act together. We celebrate our diversity and, in the process, discover our commonality. This is why student initiative plays such an important role in our educational programmes.

At UWC we strongly believe that people – despite their many differences – can live and work together in the pursuit of a peaceful and sustainable world. People don’t have to agree on everything in order to work together towards the common good.

We learn that the pursuit of a peaceful and sustainable planet is difficult and at times uncomfortable. We discover that not all of our attempts will be successful. But when we succeed to overcome our set ideas and prejudices, then the lessons learnt will stay with us for life.

Let me conclude.

You have come to UWC Maastricht because, in one way or another, you are interested in taking part in the next step of our journey. We have read chapter one, and now we are all invited to help write chapter two.

Please get your pens and pencils out, and let’s start writing.

Thank you for joining us today. Welcome on board.