Ru En

Closer to the stars

Veronika Zonabend UWC Dilijan College, Armenia
Until recently, most of us had only head of the quiet Armenian town of Dilijan thanks to the film “Mimino” – where the lead character played by Frunzik Mkrtchyan reflects on his home town during an ordeal in a snowy Moscow. But for three years now, Dilijan has been constantly featured in the business press as a shining symbol of the new trends in education. There is now an ultra-modern student campus with living green walls and roofs covered in a lawn, repeating the curves of the mountains in the distance. This vision from the future is home to the talented children of UWC Dilijan College. We talked to one of its founders Veronika Zonabend about the school, education of the future, the courage to be yourself, and just how much one person can do achieve.

UWC Dilijan College is part of the United World Colleges (UWC) network. Social investors and entrepreneurs Ruben Vardanyan and Veronika Zonabend say that this was a family project.
“We wanted our children to receive a good education and remain committed to our values.”

It is not by chance that Armenia was chosen as the location for the school, it is all part of the founders’ plan to develop the region. “We wanted young, active, creative people to come here. We are also very happy to see that people, for whom Armenia was just a dot on the map, have taken it to their heart.”

The college offers a two-year college education (students enter at the age of 16 or 17) taught in English following the IB Diploma Programme. This means graduates are free to apply and be accepted by the world’s leading universities. In order to get here, you need to pass a complex selection process which consists of several stages including the initial application, a Skype interview, psychological testing and creative tasks. “Our school is suitable for socially active young people,” Veronika says. “In the introductory tests we look primarily at the potential of candidates. It is important for us to find the ideal harmony – someone that suits us and for whom we can be of use.” Schooling at the school is quite costly, but there is a blind selection of candidates. “When making a decision on admitting a student, we don’t know whether he or she is able to pay for their studies. We have a scholarship system, which can provide up to one hundred percent of tuition fees.”

The main educational issue facing today’s parents is how to improve a child’s leadership skills, how to raise them successfully. What do you understand by the concept of success?

The most important thing is not to be successful, but to be happy. Don’t we want to see our children happy above all? Success comes to those who are engaged in doing what they love. Unfortunately, we live in a society with a distorted system of values, in which success is determined by external and very standardized criteria.

People are more focused on how they appear to others, rather than fulfilling their own internal expanse. But you can’t build your own life according to someone else’s plan. The ability to create is what brings real joy, and that is inherent in every human being. It is important to keep on the right path in our society of consumption, which is aimed at quick results with minimum effort. Perhaps then there will be less unhappy people who are dissatisfied with their lives.

How will education change in the future?

Look at how rapidly the world is changing. Eighty percent of the jobs people used to do are being replaced by completely new professions. There is a lot of demand for professionals in newly emerging sciences at the intersection of different fields (in the sphere of biotechnology, for example, which has been actively developing in the last five years). Today, the overall trend is that it’s not enough to just be a well-qualified specialist in your own field – you have to have a good all-round education too.
Look what is happening in architecture, new materials are enabling space to be created in a totally different way. But to do this the architect has to be able to not only to design projects, but also to have a deep understanding of chemistry, physics, biology, psychology, and many other things seemingly unrelated to the creative disciplines. Only a well-educated person with a store of cultural knowledge will be able to find unique and creative solutions. And what is already in demand now, and certainly will be in demand in the future, is the ability to think outside the box.

The new reality in which we live and which our children will have to live in, requires continual development. Twenty years ago our education was completed at forty years old, at the latest, if we took some further courses after graduation. Now this is impossible – to be in demand, you need to constantly develop your skills throughout your whole lifetime, not being afraid to radically change your occupation. Modern education is based on three “pillars”. Firstly, language as a cultural code, and, it goes without saying that no electronic translator that can replace a human. Secondly, mathematics as the universal logical tool. Thirdly, history as a way of knowing the laws of human society, but not as a list of dates and events. It is important to learn how to synthesize and analyse information. It is necessary to learn, feel, hear nature, yourself, understand your body. And to develop your imagination.

What qualities do you think are necessary above all to develop in students, taking into account the changes occurring in the world?

Adaptability, flexibility, the ability to take risks, thinking outside the box, a creative approach to solving any problem, the ability to express thoughts and ideas well, are the essential components of success. It is very important to develop skills for interacting with people of different social groups, nationalities and races.

That is why my husband and I, after visiting more than 20 educational institutions across the world, chose UWC. Its ideology is based not only in giving students a fantastic education, but in teaching them to understand people from other cultures without losing their own identity. For that, the school has to be really international.

Students from 72 countries are studying at Dilijan. You can’t imagine how different the kids are that we get, not just from all across the world (US, Canada, Europe, Asia and Africa), but from different social classes. Some have got on a plane for the first time in their lives. Others had already seen half the world before they came to us. In one room you can get young people from countries which don’t have diplomatic relations, or which are engaged in armed conflicts for example, from Palestine, Israel, Turkey, Armenia, India, Pakistan, the US and Iran. For them, lessons on “Global Politics” are not just theoretical exercises, but the consideration of political relations between countries of which they and their families are a part. These dialogues allow going beyond the images of an enemy presented to us. It’s a unique opportunity to learn how to listen, understand a different point of view and come to an agreement. For example, for students from Turkey the history of the Armenian genocide which occurred 100 years ago during the Ottoman Empire was a revelation. And the views and attitudes of American and European students about Russia improved when they had the opportunity to hear another point of view to that which they were given in their own country.

An interesting process occurs, when getting to know other cultures and their differences allows better understanding of yourself and your culture.

The UWC movement started during the Cold War as an attempt to raise a new generation of people for whom respect for another world view is an integral part of their culture. This aspect has never stopped being relevant, since unfortunately today we are again experiencing a cooling of the world political climate.

What do parents have to know when they are planning the path of their child’s education?

Don’t forget that the goal of any educational process is not to get the best results or to get 100 percent on your final test. The main thing is to awaken a thirst for knowledge in somebody, to show that studying, learning new things, developing, living, is interesting. A person with burning eyes and an open heart will always be able to find their place in life.

How to do that? I don’t believe in a universal recipe for everybody. Everyone has their own educational path and personal potential to develop. Here I will repeat again and again how important it is to teach children to understand themselves, their strengths and weaknesses, to be conscious of and express their desires, develop their capabilities and find their purpose. Parents often provide guidance based on their own unrealized ambitions, pushing children on a path that it seems to them will lead to success. But not everybody needs to go down the same road, even if it leads to university. There are so many graduates of prestigious universities who, after getting an expensive education, can’t find their place in life simply because they don’t know what they want and from the beginning they didn’t know why they were heading off to study. Without motivation and desire you can’t do anything.

So not everybody needs higher education?

There is a catastrophic shortage of people who are able to do something with their hands in the world. After all, creativity is the ability to think of a non-standard solution, to do something that nobody has done. In Finland, which is thought of as a leader in the educational sphere, 50 percent of middle-school graduates go to technical school at the age of 16. This is no tragedy and they don’t attach any stigma to it, unlike us. They choose well-respected professions. If you think about it, a plumber who can work with any modern system needs the same level of qualification that an engineer needed 20 years ago. In order to be a gardener, you need to be able to understand the latest trends in landscape architecture and know biology. It is very important to allow a child to choose what their heart tells them to do, and accept their choice regardless of whether it is considered “prestigious” or not.

How do you put together your team of teachers?

An educational institution is above all a community of teachers and students. No beautiful building or the most modern equipment will be effective if the school director and the teaching collective don’t develop a creative atmosphere in the school. Any educational institution is dependent above all on good teachers. They can’t be replaced by a stunning campus or super-modern educational programmes.

Finding the right teachers is the most important task of any school. After all, being a teacher is not a 9-5 job. The job of a teacher is selfless devotion. A teacher has to be an instructor and mentor. This is really a service which requires complete dedication, which today is not a very popular approach to life. We collect our teachers like pearls from around the world. What kind of people are we looking for?

First of all we are looking for interesting, creative and widely-educated people who are prepared to not only share their experience and knowledge, but to invest their energy and love into the students, teach them how to synergize information and think creatively. It’s not important in what form they do it, through a football lesson, maths or theatre.

In our school, we have departed from the lecture system of the teachers giving a talk from the front of the class. Most often students come to the lesson already prepared and they demand a virtuoso initiation and moderation of class discussion. We do a lot of laboratory work, so that knowledge is not just an abstraction on paper, but is seen in real life. A physics teacher started a correspondence with Steven Hawking together with his students, who were interested in astrophysics. A biology teacher together with his students is studying the effect of music on the growth of seedlings. A drama teacher has put on a performance to the works of Shakespeare in which not only school students took part, but also local children from Dilijan, and a teacher and students from the art department made the costumes. That kind of work is interesting for teachers themselves, because they are creative, caring people who pass their enthusiasm and interests on to students and help them to uncover and develop their natural talents. A good teacher becomes a role model for students. Let’s recall an example from history, the Tsarskoye Selo Lyceum, whose teachers had received a brilliant education, sometimes in other countries. They educated Russia’s intellectual elite, who provided the country with breakthroughs in science, art, literature and diplomacy. Regardless of the new technology being invented today, the most important thing remains people. Even one person with a warm heart can change the system from within, and that means they can change the world too.

Interview by Maria Zhavoronkova