One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world
Malala Yousafzai

Alumni Class of 2016

Lochlann Atack, an alum from the Class of 2016, reflects on volunteering at the UWC Maastricht Summer School. 

The incalculable value of my experience as a volunteer at the Summer School was, in many ways, centred around a new understanding of the 'journey' that is the period of time impacted by living in UWC. I am incredibly grateful to all of those involved in the Summer School for giving me the opportunity to help some new travelers with the beginning of their journey, and in doing so greatly helping me on my own, longer one as an alumnus.

As a volunteer, my primary responsibility was to act as a kind of liaison between the professionalism and wisdom of the 'teachers', and the never-ending (but ever-beautiful) curiosity of the 'students' (I use the scare quotes because the respective parties used these labels only when necessary-which was very little). So my responsibilities varied from organising and supervising activities to talking about how to use washing machines to conversing with the students about their day to reminding them to arrive in class on time. The emphasis, of course, was on increasing apprehension of and confidence with the English language in all spheres of life- hence the fantastic motto of the Summer School: 'Uniting through language'. I had a knack for applying this emphasis because my proficiency in any other language but English is equal to that of an oak tree.

Sure, there were lots of nuts and bolts to take care of: the volunteers would meet every morning for a couple of hours to plan/clarify the day's structure; a handful of frantic 'what is happening now?' moments; perhaps most memorably, waking the students up for 8 AM class each morning. Also, on my part at least, I often burdened myself with reflecting on, behind all the fun and befriending, what was at stake here. Finding a balance between healthy reminders that these students are speaking a language they (mostly) feel profoundly uncomfortable with, and that they left their homes literally days ago, and becoming terrified at the gravity of that situation, was the primary struggle for me as a volunteer (and as you, reader, can testify, a habitually verbose one at that).

But the structure and ethos of the Summer School was excellent in its aliveness and sensitivity to these factors. Quite frankly, I was very surprised that, in only its second year, things worked so smoothly and effectively. As a volunteer, I was at first frightened with the freedom I was given to shape the nature of the Summer School- given my inexperience. But there was just the right amount of prearranged structure in the opening few days for me to get used to my role, so that I quickly became comfortable with contributing my own ideas and initiative. Instrumental to this was also how democratic and respectful Niki Cooper and Agnieszka Tolloczko were of the volunteers. This element especially helped me realise the way in which successful extracurricular language acquisition works: within a number of important guidelines, it does not so much matter what the students are doing, but the way in which they are doing it. And so the previously daunting task of asking as teacher/student liaison quickly became an unadulterated joy.

The best thing about the experience was how humbling it was. Having become interested in education at the start of the year, I read some theoretical texts in an effort to inform that interest. But having actually partaken in an educational project myself, I now realise that my understanding of education was hopelessly lacking in nuance and appreciation for the constant work educators do 'on the ground'. On the more personal level, it was wonderful to be reminded just how special UWC students can be. Within the first week, all it took was some sustained and sincere prompting for a student, extremely uncomfortable speaking English, to astound me with almost four pages of handwriting containing intimate and articulate reflections on colonialism. And I certainly did not expect to be discussing the merits of communism in Southeast Asia by the second week with my roommate. In general, I was humbled and impressed with how mature and clued-in the students were in adapting to their new lives in Maastricht- far more than I, a fluent English speaker, was at their age. It was also wonderful to witness the process of 'bridge-building through language' before my own eyes. The students became more comfortable with one another at an almost exponential level over the first days, and the sense of collective spirit and community was also established relatively quickly. It was telling that these developments were proportional to the students confidence with speaking English to each other.

As an alumnus, the experience was interesting in a number of ways. Firstly, it was great to be back on campus to partake in the 'UWCM atmosphere' and once again. There was that indescribably magical feeling of reconnecting with a couple of my fellow volunteers and coyears from Maastricht, served on a daily basis for two weeks. It was also interesting to observe some ways the school has changed in the short time since I had left- and I never tire of seeing bigger trees and more profuse foliage on the island every time I visit. Admittedly, sometimes it was challenging to keep to the 'volunteer' role- I had to remind myself a number of times that I was the one enforcing check-in time, and not the one trying to evade it anymore! i.e. maintain the genuine friendships with the students but at the same time retain some degree of authority over them.

I will finish with some considerations about the future. Firstly, I am concerned about how the Summer School students will fare in the drastically different environment that is the first term of UWC. They became extremely comfortable with each other, and also became used to a certain amount of attention from concerned 'staff'- and that's to say nothing of now having to also study for the IB. Going from a group of 20 peers and only English class in the morning, to a full capacity UWCM and at least 4 IB classes a day will most likely be another shock to the system for them. I also wonder how much further the 'ELL Movement' within UWC will progress. I was astonished when Niki told me that ELL has only been seriously pursued within the UWC movement for less than a decade. It seems tantamount to hypocrisy to at once proclaim that as an educational movement you seriously value diversity without (at the very least) ensuring that those students least capable in the lingua franca of your movement the opportunity to 'build their own bridges'. Without sufficient support for English language learners (and I see Summer Schools as an essential part of such support), the UWC movement on an annual basis systematically interns young people to profound isolation. This thought greatly disturbs me as an alumnus of the movement. However, it gives me great comfort and optimism with regard to the above concerns to know that UWC Maastricht has such an exceptional and pioneering ELL department. I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to cooperate with, and befriend, both Niki and Agnieszka- they and the department are doing very special work indeed.

And yet, despite this being the third- and most fulfilling- time I visited the campus since graduating last May, I am still unsure as to where my relationship with the school stands as an alumnus. I still can't shake off a profound feeling of 'imposter syndrome' when I see the current DP students and my previous teachers walking around the place I lived in not so long ago. Maybe this is just part of that thing they call growing up.

Share this article:
Imagine finishing school in
The Netherlands