If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy.
Then he becomes your partner
Nelson Mandela

UWC Maastricht Alumni

Sofia Vargas Aguayo

Sofia Vargas Aguayo is a DP1 student from Santiago, Chile. From a young age, Sofia has been a passionate human rights activist, and a firm believer in the power of education and of children’s rights to mould and shape what they learn. In 2017, Sofia was nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize by Amnesty International Chile (https://kidsrights.org/nominees/sofia-vargas-aguayo). The road that led her to this nomination is long, winding, and full of immense determination.

Human rights and political discussions took a prominent role in Sofia’s life from a very young age through her family. Her mother’s birthday falls on the same day as Protest day (September 11th), a day where the people of Chile remember all those who disappeared during the dictatorship of Pinochet. With this serendipitous connection always being present in her family, in combination with a growing passion for human rights activism and education, Sofia paved her way forward.

In 2011, the student revolutions were revived in Chile, and it was a time when more and more young people were choosing to speak up and discuss local issues. This sparked a fire in Sofia, and she spoke to everyone she could about it, to find out more, and see how she could become involved. She ultimately ended up leaving the formal education system when several establishments rejected her as being “communist and revolutionary”. Sofia, as a result, ended up having to taking charge of her own education, choosing which schools to apply to, and wanting to be in schools where she could share her thoughts and have meaningful discussions. With time though, she came to realise that in order to be as active as she wanted to be in the student protests and impact social change, she needed to leave the formal education system. Sofia then started to do home schooling, and joined the leadership of the student protests, where she became a representative of the movement, bringing their issues forward to the municipality.

In 2015, Amnesty International contacted her and invited her to join a 3 day workshop focused on student movements. On the final day of the workshop, she and her friends decided to speak up and take control of the discussion as they wanted to share their experiences on the ground rather than only discussing it from an outsider’s perspective. This left an impression, and after the workshop she was invited to work with Amnesty where she became the coordinator of a number of different projects with them. In this time, Sofia travelled a lot with Amnesty International. She was also a representative in the Ministry of Justice’s project “Education in Peaceful Resolution of Conflict”. Together with the Education Commission of the Supreme Court, they demonstrated that young people can also share formal spaces and voice their opinions and concerns about education. Sofia then also met with the President of Chile to discuss the importance of youth participation in planning the country's education system.

This time in her life was full of momentous occasions, but at the same time it was a very difficult time for Sofia as she, at such a young age, was speaking up in very important forums and had to carry a lot of responsibility. She was often in problems with the police, and there was a lot of violence during the protests. She shared that during this time, some of her friends who she protested with even went missing and she hasn’t seen them since.

“Speaking out for me is not a conscious decision that I think about, it is something that I have to do. If I don’t talk, no one will. It’s the only option I have.” 

She found that when she came here to UWC, she was able to see how much fear she had at the time of being alone on the streets, and from always speaking out as she did. It was dangerous, and a lot of the time you did not know what would happen to you as a result. When she came here, she also became aware of how much she feared the police. In comparison, it is quite shocking to be here in the Netherlands where the police is viewed as a support system and it is safe to be outside in many different spaces.

Applying to UWC

Sofia heard about UWC during a summer programme she attended in Santiago. The coordinator of the program was a UWC alumnus from Red Cross Nordic. He told her all about UWC, and she was inspired by his story and his initiative to try and bring the UWC experience back home to Chile through summer programmes and workshops. Sofia was 15 years old when she first applied for UWC, and initially she didn’t receive the needed scholarship. However, for Sofia, UWC was her chance to finish her education as she was not going to be able to do so in Chile anymore. She eventually decided to apply again, with the support and encouragement of her friends and family, and got accepted to UWC Maastricht.

Life at UWC Maastricht

Sofia has now started her first year here at UWC Maastricht in the IB Diploma Program. It has been a bit of a tough transition for her as she had promised herself never to go back to a traditional schooling system, and yet the IB is quite traditional in its academic rigour. The combination with the UWC approach though convinced her to apply and re-join the two worlds.

“UWC is not perfect. But I also don’t want to live in a perfect place. UWC is like the world, with many different beliefs, socio-economic statuses, religions… it is chaotic. And that’s the real experience of UWC; having a discussion with floor mates who think completely differently from you, and then also being surprised to find that some people from completely different places can actually think very similarly to you. I wanted to come to UWC because it’s a total mess – and that’s the world. Here you have no idea what to expect from people, and that is the adventure.”

She finds that she is inspired by her teachers who choose to work outside of the structure of the IB and encourage more in-depth discussions and interactions. She is challenged by her teachers and friends who come from a range of backgrounds, whether culturally, or socially, or politically. She came into the UWC experience with no expectations, and this for her has been refreshing. At UWC Maastricht, Sofia is involved with Amnesty International with the University of Maastricht, and also on the Karongo GoMad project with fellow students; a project focused on education in Burkina Faso, instilling the importance of education in the local population.

Being so far away from home has been an adjustment for her as well. Her family is very proud she is here, and it definitely wouldn’t be the same if her family didn’t support her as much as they do. She sometimes thinks about how hard it is and how sad she is that she cannot go home in these two years. Then she speaks to her Syrian friend who hasn’t seen her family in three years, and she is reminded to take perspective.

“UWC teaches you that whether your glass is half full or half empty, don’t complain, because at least you have water.” 

She ultimately wants to go back home to Chile and work in the educational sector. This is where she thinks she can have the most impact. She describes one of her previous travels in Patagonia, where she was sent to teach a program created by Amnesty to the indigenous people. While she was doing this, she could see how different the two systems of education were. Her mother always used to tell her that all people have the intuition to know what it is that we need to learn, but we lose our intuition in the traditional education system. This is something the indigenous people of Patagonia still have a strong connection with. Sofia believes that a balance between the two forms of education is what needs to be found. When she came with the Amnesty programme to Patagonia, she knew that she would also need to adapt it to the local context and this helped it to be more impactful.  

International Children’s Peace Prize nomination

The nomination for the International Children’s Peace Prize has meant very different things for Sofia. She both felt ashamed initially, as she thought she was not important enough to earn this honour, but at the same time she is very proud. Something she has realized with time, is that these nominations help people to realise in themselves what people of that age and background can do – it gives people belief and hope that they too can make a difference wherever they are and no matter how old they are. This is the part that she likes about the nomination, and that makes her feel proud – that for others it could give them faith in themselves that they too can do something.

When Sofia first joined the Amnesty International board, she was the youngest member. Now there are a number of 14 year olds joining the movement, and this is something that she can be very proud of. Congratulations Sofia!

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