For UWC Thailand, the disruptivity of 2020 was compounded by an existential funding crisis here at home. In mid-January, the school’s founder and staunchest supporter for over a decade, made a heart-breaking call to the board chair, “We needed to find alternative funding as of June 2020 for UWC Thailand.”
The situation went from bad to bleak with campus closures, online learning, businesses closing around the island, tambon lockdowns, and families with sick—or lost—loved ones. Yet through it all, our amazing community did not sway in their belief that UWC Thailand was a school worth saving.
Thanks to their belief, and the hard work of countless people I now consider heroes, we stand here today: campus open, kids learning and playing, the mindfulness centre busy, national committee students arriving weekly from across the globe, a new school board in place — a new “normal.”
Of course, the road to get here was anything but normal.
Not long after we learned of the funding challenge, we began talking to a small group of parents, brainstorming what it would take to purchase the school’s land and buildings from the current landholder; our neighbour and ongoing partner, Thanyapura. While the school had always operated independently, without being in control of our own physical assets, we felt we would never truly be in control of our own future. In one of those early conversations it was pointed out that the Chinese character for crisis is a combination of two other characters — “danger” and “opportunity” — and so here amongst the danger, we found our opportunity.
In a matter of just a few weeks, this small group of parents took up the mantle of humble heroes as they worked with the school’s leadership and the team at Thanyapura to create the broad outlines of a deal to purchase the land and buildings from Thanyapura on behalf of the school’s foundation. This point was key because in order to set the school up for long-term success, we were not looking to be bought by parents or any single-family, but to raise funds so that the foundation could purchase the land and buildings itself. Fundraising is what we needed and that is exactly what we got.
Once the broad outline of the deal was put together, we determined that we would need the equivalent of US$10 million in order to purchase the physical assets and provide a financial cushion for our UWC student scholarships and any operational shortfall in the first two to three years. We launched a giving campaign open to both loans and donations and we managed to raise the full amount in just over three weeks.
Once the money had been pledged, from March until the end of July, a small group of parents — more heroes — worked endlessly to craft all of the documents needed to complete the loans and finalize the transfer of assets; work that would have cost the school hundreds of thousands of baht had we needed to pay for the services rendered. This is where the true magic of the story comes in.
While it was incredible to have raised nearly US$10 million in such a short period, the reason that Project Independence was ultimately a success was because this community believed — as our founder did more than a decade ago — that UWC Thailand is a different kind of school; the kind of school that the world needs. While there are more than 11,000 international schools world-wide according to ISC Research, there are only a few that actually aim to make an impact on students so that they can positively impact the world. UWCT is one of those schools.
I recently spoke at a parent event about the fact that while all schools teach reading, writing and math, and some incorporate elements of service or outdoor education, almost no other school on the planet (outside our sister schools across the United World College movement) combines a world-class IB education and a commitment to making the world a more peaceful and sustainable place. At UWC Thailand, we add mindfulness to that equation in an effort to know ourselves, so that we can act on that mission.
The parents who donated countless hours, expertise, support and/or money, did it not out of convenience or financial gain, but because UWC Thailand is raising their children in an environment where they feel a sense of belonging, while also becoming what the world needs; caring thinkers, with a side of grit, who are willing to take action.
If you’ve been on the island of Phuket awhile, you may have heard us described differently in the past, perhaps as a bit of a “hippie commune where no one wears shoes and academics aren’t a focus.” (Insert head-nodding here if you have heard that one before). We reject that characterization entirely. And not just because it is incorrect (which it is), but because it is dangerous for our collective future to believe that qualities like kindness, curiosity, collaboration, and emotional intelligence are somehow less vital to our childrens’ future than skills like arithmetic, coding and test-taking.
In her 2019 article for Forbes, Natalia Peart covered, “The 12 Most Important Skills You Need To Succeed At Work”. They are: learnability, resilience, agility, collaboration, verbal communication, written communication, empathy, creativity, problem-solving, leadership, negotiation and technology. We think if Peart lived in Phuket, she would have put her money behind UWC Thailand too, because our students have those skills in spades — as well as IBDP scores well above the world average.
Those skills are exactly what sets our students up for success after UWCT as our amazingly diverse students leave us for scholarships to Stanford, Yale, Cambridge, UCL, McGill and more each year. The further pursuit of these 12 skills are also why we support students who don’t have university attendance as a goal or who want to take a gap year to figure out where their passions lie. Some of the world’s most successful people took a path that didn’t involve university, but they all found a space where they belonged. Every year, we see it’s not just possible to nurture the heart, mind and body while helping students realize their dreams, it’s essential.
More than any year before, when all the odds seemed stacked against us, our community doubled down on their belief in what we do at UWCT. They heeded our call and they came with their savings, their investments, their salaries, their skills and their friends. They came because what we do is different in a way that matters, in a way that warrants the opportunity to thrive, just like our students do on campus each day.
If you want to raise your child to make a difference for themselves, others and the planet, then I welcome you to stop by our campus for a chat and a coffee from our student-run cafe, the profits of which go to support other student projects that align with our mission. (Of course it does. Shakes head again. Then clicks on www.uwcthailand.ac.thto book a tour.)
By Jason McBride,
UWC Thailand Head of School