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‘Not what I imagined’

First-year United World College-USA student Yeabsira Bizualem of Ethiopia prepares for class in a Montezuma Castle hallway on campus. (Gwen Albers/United World College-USA)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

For almost an entire semester, Lwandile Dlamini logged into classes at United World College-USA (UWC) well into the late afternoon and from a desk halfway around the world.

From her home in Durban, South Africa, Dlamini faced a tremendous physical and time gap compared to her classmates, most of whom were on the UWC campus in Montezuma, just outside Las Vegas, New Mexico.

“I was struggling to study as a distance learner,” she said.

Dlamini is one of UWC’s more than 200 students hailing from dozens of different nations across the globe. The boarding school, which students attend for two years, is renowned both for its diversity and its rigorous curriculum, as well as an emphasis on community service.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic – a global phenomenon that has killed more than two million over the past year – put a kink in the school’s operations, where students live closely together in congregant settings. Students were sent home in March 2020 following health orders issued by the state government.

UWC President Victoria Mora said the school aimed to maintain in-person classes for the next year and avoid having to cancel classes a second time. With 200 teenagers living together in one building, she knew it would be a challenge.

The school soon realized that, if students were to remain in a bubble with one another, the only possible outside source of infection would be via staff members, a much smaller group for the school to manage.

“The most likely introduction of the virus would be through this staff,” Mora said. “We formed protocols based on that very simple, but crucial, insight.”

Nicholas Nazari of Huntingdon, Pa., left, and Diego Dorantes Sanchez of Mexico walk down the steps from the Montezuma Castle on the United World College-USA campus. (Gwen Albers/United World College-USA)

As a result, UWC students have not been allowed to leave campus since August, except for outdoor field trips. Students who arrived in August were required to quarantine for two weeks, remaining in their rooms while the school brought them their meals.

This did not include all students, however.

Many international students, such as Dlamini, found it incredibly difficult to travel to the United States for the next school year, with various nations implementing travel restrictions.

Dlamini said she struggled to get the visa necessary to study in the U.S. and that working with the South Africa Department of Home Affairs became nearly impossible.

“I had to constantly email them over and over again to give me lenience to travel,” she said. “I had to ask for a personal favor.”

Eventually, she got the requirement to travel to the U.S., but not until after weeks of difficult distance learning.

Another student, Tianyu Chen of China, said he had to travel to Cambodia to get a visa to travel after former President Donald Trump placed a travel ban on those entering the country from China. Chen quarantined in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh before travelling to the U.S.

He said he really enjoys the UWC community and that he plans on attending college in the U.S. after graduation. However, there are certain aspects he misses compared to his time there last year.

“I would say the biggest difference is we no longer have Walmart runs,” Chen said, adding it gave him and other students opportunities to interact with local residents.

Kita Ueno, left, Tae Sakazaki, center, and Taisei Yokoshima, all from Japan, participate in the annual Welcome Ceremony at the United World College-USA. (Gwen Albers/United World College-USA)

But some students still haven’t had the chance even to see their campus in person.

Melissa Bachet has been attending all her classes online since the start of the school year.

From the Cayman Islands, a small island nation in the Caribbean, Bachet has also found it especially hard to navigate the difficulties of obtaining a student visa. The nearest embassy is in Jamaica, requiring her to quarantine and also that one of her parents accompany her.

As a result, she has been attending classes online, often the only one in her class doing so.

“When I applied, this is not what I imagined,” she told the Journal in a virtual meeting. “It is difficult, especially when my classmates are on campus doing things I should be doing.”

Students currently on campus have had to make sacrifices, too. They said restrictions are very tight and that many of the activities typically offered by the school are no longer feasible, among them community service projects in and around Las Vegas.

Sophia Cowan, a student from Portland, Oregon, said many of her classmates have felt an impact on their personal health, especially on the couple of occasions they’ve had to quarantine.

In addition, the International Baccalaureate exam, the final test students take at the school, won’t happen this year, which has caused stress among students.

Kenya native Rita Menja, left, now of Edmond, Okla., and Nigerian native Ajanigo “Jani” Anya Amaka Wodi, now of Marietta, Ga., take advantage of the mild weather to study outside at the United World College-USA. (Gwen Albers/United World College-USA)

UWC Communications Coordinator Gwen Albers said students spend two years study for the test, the results of which determine how much in scholarships they receive for college.

“It’s like the last test that determines your graduating score from the school,” Chen said before it was learned the test would be canceled. “If we don’t have that, the teacher will give us predicted grades, which is not going to be good.”

However, students said the restrictions have been worth it so far, because it helps ensure their classes can remain open for the time being.

Mora said the campus has had no communal spread thus far, thanks to the restrictions.

“It’s really been a labor of love and international cooperation to allow this to happen,” she said.

Despite the pandemic, Mora said so many students are eager to attend this year, not only because of UWC’s community, but also for the educational opportunities. Students come from myriad socio-economic backgrounds and the quality of education sometimes exceeds what is available in their home country.

“(The students) really pride themselves on thinking about education as a force for good in the world,” she said. “What better laboratory for exploring what that might mean than during a global pandemic?”

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