One-of-a-kind education produces one-of-a-kind solutions
This year marks the UWC movement’s 60th anniversary and presents us with an opportunity to reflect on the unique qualities of the movement. At the end of 2021, those qualities came to the forefront when we experienced a crisis at UWC ISAK Japan. Prolonged Japanese border closures prevented our new international Grade 11 students from entering the country.
But hope was not lost. Thanks to the UWC movement’s incredible ability to come together, what started as a crisis became a golden opportunity for the UWC movement to find a unique solution for our students and show the world once again what makes the UWC so special.
Why our students couldn’t enter Japan in 2021
You may have previously read on our Leaders Beacon Blog about why our students couldn’t enter Japan, but here is a quick recap: Japan adopted some of the world’s strictest border measures during the pandemic. Even now, as of September 2022, Japan’s borders are still not fully open.
After starting the school year and running an entire semester of online classes, we were still faced with uncertainty regarding when this group of students could enter Japan. But continuing with online classes may have put their IB Diploma in peril, so we made the agonizing decision to transfer them all.
But this is where the magic began as the entire UWC movement worked tirelessly to find new UWC homes for this group of students. Finally, miraculously, most of them could transfer together to UWC Thailand, which generously proposed to take advantage of their newly expanded buildings to welcome our students. Read the full story here.
“Japan was my absolute first choice.”
When she got accepted to UWC ISAK Japan, Ada (USA) cried. She was the only student selected by the American National Committee to go to Japan. “It was a big deal. Japan was my absolute first choice, and I am the first person in my family to go to Asia. After the news spread, all my teachers and neighbors wanted to hear about Japan. They would find random stuff about Japan and send them to me.”
Nisrine (Morocco) also became very excited about Japan. She is an avid anime watcher, and her father practices martial arts. “I was very excited to experience it first hand. Japan will stay on my mind.” Finally, Adriana (Bolivia) has wanted to go to Japan since Grade 6. Before finding out about UWC ISAK Japan, she was looking for scholarships in Japan. “Learning that I got accepted to UWC ISAK Japan was the greatest moment of my life. I remember crying with my mother in the corridor,” she recalls. “So online learning became something I was ashamed of.”
A significant toll on students’ mental health
The dream finally ended with Japanese border restrictions following the omicron wave in the fall of 2021. This political decision left students and staff alike in limbo. International students started the year online while waiting for their visas. In December 2021, there was still no sign the borders would reopen anytime soon.
“I didn’t want to miss class,” says Nisrine. “The hardest part was waking up.” Taking classes in Japan meant being up at random night hours for most of our international students.
Ada expressed the immense toll this took on her well-being and social life: “I did not go to any community events. I felt like I was letting my family and community down.”
Adriana felt very alone since she wouldn’t see her family all day in her house. She wanted to participate in clubs after classes, which sometimes meant staying awake after classes finished until 8 AM. “I was living two lives, but none of them completely,” she expressed.
The resilience of Class of 2023 (then Grade 11) students’ amazed all of us on campus and beyond. No wonder the news of the UWC Thailand transfer came as a shock. Students had to envision their future in a completely new and different way, and some could not be part of this transfer and went to other schools in the UWC movement.
What “community” means
However, Ada expressed, “I could not have asked for UWC ISAK Japan community to be more supportive.” Even if some classes were at 2 AM for her, she found them very engaging, especially Global Politics with Mr. Earwood (2017-2022) and ESS with Mr. Wanklyn (2021-present). “We knew everyone at UWC ISAK tried their best, and we are still in touch with people there.”
Nisrine also appreciated the online community and the fun conversations she would have with her peers online at 2 AM. “The online community helped us keep going, and teachers were amazing.” Her short time at UWC ISAK Japan also fostered solid academic foundations in Film and Economics.
Adriana cherished her special relationship with Spanish-speaking Staff and Faculty, Floppy (Paraguay / Class of 2022). She also bounded with other international Grade 11 students in her situation, like Paolo (Peru), who transferred to UWC Mahindra, and Paula (Spain), who deferred one year and is now here on our Karuizawa campus.
Reflexion and gratitude
“I want to express a big thank you to all of the UWC ISAK Japan Community, says Ada. Not only to my teachers but also to Ms. Chien (2015-present / IBDP coordinator at the time) and my CAS supervisor Mr. Hinton (2015-present), for always checking in on me and supporting me.”
Nisrine added: “We might have lost contact with a few people, and we had to adapt, but we want the ISAK community to know they will always be in our hearts and minds. Before coming to UWC, I heard about these amazing values, diversities, and bonds; our story proves these aren’t just words. The agreement between two UWCs, UWC ISAK Japan’s sacrifice for our diplomas… Both schools made tough decisions for the students’ good. That’s what sets UWC apart, this big group of amazing people. It restored my hope in the world. I come from a conservative country where education is very top-down. I feel very liberated in this experience.”
After a challenging year, most Grade 11 transferred students feel at home in their new schools, and students like Nisrine feel stronger now.
If these stories are not everyone’s, we sincerely hope all students who transferred to other UWC schools are doing well and will keep UWC ISAK Japan in their hearts.