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Educating Young People for a More Equitable Future

15 April 2019

Hans Cabra (Colombia, UWC Red Cross Nordic 2003-2005) has dedicated his life and work to creating educational opportunities for youth, promoting social justice and equal opportunity for all. Growing up in Bogotá, he never imagined his life would take him to some of the most prestigious educational institutions in the world, where he would learn how to best serve his home community and others like it. Read on for Hans' story of perseverance, self-discovery, learning and service:   

"I met Juan José, a bright 8-year-old boy, in a soccer training programme in Medellín, Colombia in 2013. I still remember Juan José, because he was special. He had just recovered from a brain tumour treatment. His doggedness to learn by playing soccer and his keenness to share with other kids later became core principles of the out-of-school programmes I began to work on. The story of Juan José strengthened my idea that perseverance is the main driver of happiness. In fact, his story paved the way to use my life story to inspire at-risk kids to pursue their dreams. Knowing - not from books nor from lectures, but from my own experience - that inequality feeds on lack of opportunities and poverty ignited my passion for social issues and is the reason why I am pursuing a PhD in Education and Policy Studies at the University of Vermont. 

Growing up in one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods in Bogotá instilled in me a gloomy idea about life, that the future was not a choice but rather a curse. As I look back at my life before 2002, I was only destined to finish high school. There was no prospect of going to college, because my parents could not afford to send me to college. It was almost a mathematical formula: Growing up in poverty would mean living in poverty; it would mean making a living to survive. However, that idea changed with a leap of faith towards an educational opportunity. In 2003, I was awarded a scholarship to attend UWC Red Cross Nordic to complete the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme.

I could not believe it was me on that plane. I remember the only phrase I could say in English: "Hi my name is Hans and I am from Colombia" (it was written on a piece of paper in case I got lost). I still remember how hard it was to do my homework as I was learning the language. I still remember how many times I felt like giving up. But I could not. I carried my family, my friends and the hopes of my neighbourhood on my shoulders. Thanks to my teachers (especially Mariano, Aseem, Angie, Barbara, Bruce and John Lawrenson) and friends I was able to learn English and make it through, even if I did not believe I could. "Be the eagle, my son", my mentor, friend and role model Daniel would say. Though my level of English was an impediment at first, it did not restrain me from learning.

In Norway, I learned that education is a process of self-discovery oriented to build resilience and foster leadership. Thanks to my teachers and to two special people (our college counsellor, Bruce, and the dean of admission and financial aid of Middlebury College, Mike Schoenfeld) for believing in me, I got a scholarship to study at Middlebury College in the United States. At Middlebury, I became curious about studying issues such as poverty, inequality and cultural diversity and their relationship with social justice. This curiosity was further fuelled by the fact that though coming from a very poor family, I was attending one of the most prestigious schools in the United States. This made me realise that such problems needed to be analysed holistically. Thus, I began looking for courses and programmes that would help me gain knowledge and hands-on experience on social policy issues.  

In 2009, I attended a three-week professional training programme on social development at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. These three weeks helped me develop not only the skills to design and evaluate development projects but also to reflect upon how I could apply that knowledge to help my community. This profound inquiry took me one step closer to home. I returned to Colombia on a full scholarship to study a Master's degree in public policy. This transition was not easy because I had to confront myself with a harsh reality: I was attending a private university while still living in a place where most people (included my family and friends) had to struggle to make a living.

Being mindful about my position motivated me to learn about inequality and poverty from the standpoint of children and youth in my neighbourhood. Hence, I wrote my Master's thesis on substance abuse in young people in Bogotá (including my neighbourhood) using a mixed-methods approach. I chose this topic because while growing up, I witnessed many of my friends being trapped in a vicious cycle of drugs and delinquency but I never understood why. My research took me far: I identified major risk and protective factors associated with substance abuse such as lack of out-of-school programmes in vulnerable neighbourhoods and lack of family involvement in youth development.

Encouraged by the results of my thesis, I implemented (along with my longtime friends and my brother) an after-school project in my neighbourhood. Activities ranged from play writing, music composition and sports; to workshops on how to design a life project. The results were stunning. Kids began to develop soft skills such as empathy, assertiveness, compassion, ability to listen, perseverance and enthusiasm for the future. This project gave me the chance to travel abroad to speak about leadership and to work in the design of summer school programmes for NGOs in Colombia and in Chile.  

My work experience has been devoted to understanding social issues. Ranging from volunteer work at the Ridderrennet Special Ski Olympiads in Norway (a winter sports week for people who are visually impaired and have multiple disabilities) to being a policy advisor, I have always dreamed of unlocking the potential of communities. Thus, I have mainly been interested in jobs where I can work with and for communities. For example, I have worked on corporate social responsibility projects for the private sector, on social policy analysis and implementation at the national and local government level regarding at-risk youth, education, and community empowerment, with NGOs that work with at-risk youth, and taught English at my own high school. At their core, all these jobs have required me to “candidly put myself into someone else's shoes” before making a recommendation about a policy or project. By doing so, I have gained a better understanding of my role in society. Though diverse, all my professional experience has taught me one important lesson: the purpose of knowledge is to serve others.


"Indeed, the education that I received at UWC not only changed my life but it gave me the tools and the grit to try to make the world a better place for young people."

Driven by a heartfelt conviction that only by fully understanding a problem can one come up with its solution, I decided to embark on a new educational journey: a PhD. In 2018 I was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to complete a PhD in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the University of Vermont. My dream is to further understand social policy issues related to education and inequality so that I can better inform policy makers and academia on evidence-based policies and best practices to tackle social problems that involve children and youth. One topic I am interested in is out-of-school programming and its impact on cultivating grit, bridging the learning gap between less advantaged kids and more advantaged kids, and providing social entrepreneurial skills for underserved youth. I am currently working on an education project in Chile related to summer learning and the use of online courses at the high school level to enhance learning outcomes.  

As I look back at how this journey started, I can confirm what Nelson Mandela said about education: “it is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world”. Indeed, the education that I received at UWC not only changed my life but it gave me the tools and the grit to try to make the world a better place for young people. Last week I taught my first class at the University of Vermont. It was a class about inclusion policies in educational settings in Colombia and the role of social entrepreneurship. Standing there in front of 77 undergraduate students was magical: I remembered the days I spent in my room or at the library trying to do my homework and thinking that I would never make it. That day, I reminisced about what Daniel taught me: “be the eagle”. I can only thank God, my family and friends, my neighbourhood and UWC for teaching me the importance of caring for others. Without a doubt, UWC instilled this idea that education has a social purpose - to serve others - and I will always carry that with me. I think that I have learned to fly."