A Life-Changing Experience
United World College (UWC) is an educational movement that strives to make education a force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future. It has schools and colleges in 17 countries with national committees in more than 155 countries. For two years, I had the privilege to study at one of the UWC colleges, at the UWC Maastricht in the Netherlands. At UWC, we take the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IBDP), which involves taking 3 Higher Level and 3 Standard Level subjects, with additional requirements such as the Theory of Knowledge, writing a 4000 words personal paper and taking up Creativity, Action and Service (CAS) clubs or activities.
My UWC journey had ended less than a week ago, and as I started to reflect on the journey, I realized I no longer just have one place I can call home, where I can return to for comfort, for support and encouragement. I realized that for me, home is now not just one static place. Home for me, exist in places, in memories and in people. I find home in my birthplace Malaysia; I now find home in a small island in the Netherlands occupied with dull-grey buildings, yet within those buildings were where I found myself, and realized the vibrant colours that life can offer. Within those buildings were where I could stretch and pull myself to overcome challenges, and where I got to realize the beauty of trying and the importance of challenges. I found home in people from countries that I never imagined I’ll ever meet, I found home in my roommates that became more than just ‘people who live together’, but who became my sisters. I found home in friends that inspired and empowered me, I found home in my resident mentors that were not only my guardians but who became like my mother and my father, and I found home in the smiles, laughter and voices of my family I made in UWC Maastricht.
I’m Emi Lee, and I have graduated Tenby International School in 2015, and recently, also became a graduate of UWC Maastricht, Class of 2017.
UWC Maastricht is in a small yet beautiful city of Maastricht, Netherlands, what we call ‘our small island’, surrounded by a moat where families of swan and ducks call home. The moat is also known as a mysterious place where unknown habitats are yet to be found beneath the surface of the strange-coloured waters. It was at this place where I spent two years of my life, challenging my inner self, questioning questions I never thought I would ever had the courage to ask, and making deep, life-lasting connections with the people I now can call my family.
Two years were both short and long, both fun and painful. Yet in those two years was what shaped me into who I am today. Even after leaving the island, I still wonder how a place and experiences can really change people. I remember when I took the first step into this UWC journey, saying goodbye to my family that I thought I would never leave, and travelling to a new country that I never thought I would ever visit. I remembered being so nervous and afraid when I was at the airport, shaking hands to new strangers, and being intimidated by everyone’s confident smiles and self-introduction of ‘Hi, I come from … , what about you?’ I always felt critical and despised myself for not being able to be as confident, for being shy, for being so nervous at public speaking. I couldn’t forgive myself for having fears. However, one workshop I attended at UWC taught me to not run from my fears and to instead embrace them, and to dance with the dragons (fears) inside me. It was then that I started to challenge myself to try, to not be afraid, and to overcome my fears of judgements, of speaking in public. I started joining a conference organizing team, started being part of various clubs ranging from Aikido club to Operation Smile Club where we raised funds for children with cleft palates, to expose myself to as many things I could get myself in, and to increase my communication with as many people as I could. I learned so many skills such as fundraising, organizing, communication through these experiences, although I remember having time management issues trying to balance my time between the IB deadlines and the other non-academical commitments I had to be in. Although I learned a lot, I also learned the hard way to have proper time management and to not be overexcited and involved with too many things. Nonetheless, I am grateful for all these opportunities as now, I have learned to appreciate myself for who I am, and to not look at my fears in a negative light. I have learned to see my fears as my strengths, as it is due to my fears that I realized my capabilities. It was due to my fears that I got the incentive to try without being afraid of failure, and learned that our fears are often just in our minds. All it takes is a courageous step forward, and you will see how your fears can change into your passion or something that you would love for the rest of your life.
Life in UWC is hectic, and it makes you wonder how you can feel so many different emotions at once. One minute, you’re having the time of your life dancing and lip-synching to Spanish songs wearing funky clothes with a hat the shape of a squid in the cafeteria; the next moment, you find yourself having a breakdown stressing out about the piles and piles of deadlines awaiting you in the next week, and in the next minute, you find yourself smiling and feeling a sense of hope and motivation at your roommates encouraging words of ‘You can do this, I believe in you.’ Every day, constantly, something is always happening. Having to organize a conference back to back right after exams, being part of the Asian-Pacific culture week, planning with the other Malaysians about which Malaysian dish to make or teaching Malaysian-English to the community, and having your Norwegian roommate end up finishing most of her sentence with ‘ah’ and ‘lah’.
However, IB really was not an easy mountain to climb. Its waves of stress and deadlines hits you when you least expect it. Although an intense course, the IB teaches more than just how to solve questions, it taught me to question the ‘why’ and the ‘how’, it allowed me to learn, not only about the wide and deep syllabus of the 6 subjects, but also allowed me to discover myself and to test my own capabilities. Through CAS, which is known as Creativity, Action and Service, I had the opportunity to join the African Dance Club, and fell in love with its music and energetic moves. I was also able to challenge myself to start my own club, the Happiness Club. Due to CAS, I was given the opportunity to volunteer at an elderly centre, to have conversations with refugees at a refugee centre and to cook, play music and dance with these incredible, empowering individuals. IB has its stressful sides, but at the same time, gives space for us to try and to learn beneath the academical surface. IB was a tough mountain to climb, but it was these deadlines, stress, sleep-deprivations, failures and disappointments where I learned to organize time better, to ask for help when I need it, to help others especially at times when I was stressed. Most importantly, due to these tough experiences of IB, I learned to appreciate the people around me, and the importance of staying positive and how much one can get lifted up by simple words of ‘Is everything okay?’ or ‘Everything will be fine.’ Because of these downfalls and failures, I made such deep relationships with people. Looking back, I believe the reason why we all at UWC Maastricht became a big family was not only because of the happy memories that we shared, but more importantly, it was because we were each other’s support and comfort during the tough times we faced.
UWC for me, is my home, my place for growth, and a bubble containing memories that I will carry with me for life. This is my UWC journey, and I am proud to say I was part of this adventure.
And as one of the resident mentors on campus would always say: ‘It’s all about the experience!”
Don’t stop dreaming and don’t stop believing in you! Whatever insecurities or fears you have, hold on to it, and overcome those mountains in front of you. Don’t be afraid to try, and don’t be afraid to fail, for those failures and trials are where you learn the most valuable lessons in life.
‘Follow your dreams. The world is yours!’
Emi Lee Ai Yuen
UWC Maastricht Class of 2017