Conversations with Alumni — Vol. 1

Learning beyond the classroom

A conversation between Céline Zahno and Levin Stamm — prompted by a few questions asked by Marie Caffari*


Céline Zahno and Levin Stamm went to the Gymnasium in Biel; Céline graduated from UWC Mahindra India (muwci) in May 2020, Levin Stamm went to UWC Costa Rica and graduated in 2019. Both are now studying in the Netherlands: Céline is in her first Bachelor year in Political Science at the University of Amsterdam; Levin currently pursues his second Bachelor year in the Liberal Arts and Sciences Programme at Amsterdam University College (AUC).


Marie: In the past four years, three Swiss UWC graduates went to a university in the Netherlands to pursue a bachelor’s degree. Dutch universities recognize the IB more liberally than Swiss universities, which do not accept candidates with, for instance, “arts” as an IB subject — regardless of their (excellent) results otherwise. But this is certainly not the only reason for this choice. Which are the specific qualities you have found in your studies in Amsterdam?


Levin: The small-scale environment of my bachelor’s degree is definitely one of the aspects I appreciate the most. We have an average of approximately 20 students per course allowing for a lot of interaction- and discussion-based learning instead of the usual chalk-and-talk teaching at universities — something that I have come to appreciate at UWC and am happy to continue with in my current studies.


Céline: Yeah, I think the small-scale classes are really great at AUC. I also started my studies at a liberal arts college, but the whole system of constantly choosing my classes did not end up working for me. I then changed to the University of Amsterdam, which was a great decision. Sometimes I miss the small-scale discussions that Levin mentioned, but I just love large lecture halls and professors talking about what they are passionate about. At the University of Amsterdam, there are great options concerning subject choice. I get to choose from various specializations within the field of political science and the university offers various options for minors; it was important for me to get some diversity into my studies. Moreover, I grew up in the suburbs of Biel and the UWC in India is located next to a village in the middle of hills — so needless to say that I was very excited to move to a big city! Studying in English was also a big plus for me, since due to the IB, that was the academic language I was used to.


Marie: How has your UWC experience influenced the way in which you go about studying?


Céline: I think my two years at a UWC had a huge influence on the way I approached university. The education I got in muwci was amazing. Not because of the IB specifically (although the programme itself is great in preparing students for university education) but more due to the quality of discussions that took place in class. For my three Higher Level classes (philosophy, literature and theater), I was extremely lucky with the kind of teachers and classmates I got. We often had class outside and many lessons took place completely student and discussion led. Because everyone was so curious and interested, I now think that the input I got from these classes was way beyond the level of what you would expect from high school education. The switch to university was then a bit daunting in the beginning. The sort of education you get at uni is very different from highschool. It’s much less based on organic learning and way more focused on the culture of academia. But once I got the hang of that a little, it turned out to be interesting in very different ways. But I still think that the things I learnt in my classes at muwci accompany me to this day.


Levin: I absolutely agree with Céline. At UWC, the education we received transcended the classroom walls and shaped every aspect of our lives. We also felt very much in control of our own learning, as academics felt more like a complementary component of the total learning experience. Now at university, they are clearly the central pillar with little space for outside exploration. Neither is there the same sense of a close community of learners. I have to say though that AUC with its total of 900 students, about half of them being international students, is still much more intimate than the average university. In this sense, it is somewhat a continuation of the UWC model, even though not with the same intensity.


Marie: You have been studying in partly disrupted conditions because of the current pandemic; what have you learnt from that situation? How do you make sense of it? What gives you hope?


Céline: I still go through phases when I get extremely frustrated everyday I open the news. There are other phases when I completely disassociate from everything going on in the world. It’s a privilege that I get to do that, just ignore the news for two weeks straight. It gives me the space to make a bit more sense out of everything because I have time to produce my own thoughts rather than just get input from outside all the time. This example of my relationship with the news stands for my whole viewpoint of this crisis. I think at this point I cannot discern what I learnt. Probably many things, but a few years will have to go by so I can take a step back and see the whole thing from a bit more distance. Right now it’s hard for me to be hopeful, since I observe so many things in the world that concern me and it’s hard to say where the overarching trend is going to take us. I wonder though what your relationship to reading the news is, Levin, and more generally, to the whole Covid crisis, since you work as a journalist and you are thus very involved in the media industry yourself. Do you think you can make sense of the situation in a different way?


Levin: Especially the societal polarization that currently takes place definitely worries me. I always experienced Switzerland in particular to be a place that greatly appreciated a pronounced culture of discussion — opinionated and hard, but always fair. Now, it seems for the first time that people with different perspectives are not even able to engage in a dialogue with each other anymore. It is as if they lived in two different realities. I believe that the totality of our diverse media landscape holds a crucial, reconciling role in this very matter. They have it in their hands to give voice to different opinions and to help them engage with each other.


Céline: Interesting, that’s actually also the first thing that came to my mind when I thought about all the things I am concerned about! Since we both study political science outside of Switzerland and the political culture of direct democracy that we are used to, I think it gives us a special viewpoint on the whole issue. Do you tend to have a lot of hope for the future, specifically concerning the issue of polarization that seems to occupy both our minds?


Levin: Looking at the pandemic itself, I am quite optimistic that daily life will even out into a state that we will consider normal again. There may be certain changes to pre-pandemic times, but that is historically not unusual at all and something we need to accept. I am a little less hopeful on the issue of polarization. The way our consumption of media is transforming — with established media outlets increasingly struggling to survive — is likely to amplify echo chambers even more.


Marie: Are you critical of the UWC in some regards, when you now look back? If so, what would you change?


Levin: I can obviously only speak for the UWC in Costa Rica, but I believe that we often did not make enough use of the environment we were placed in. Obviously the “bubble” also has beautiful aspects that I alluded to above, but I really wish we would have built more meaningful relationships with the communities that lived in proximity to the college. It starts with learning the language and continues with getting to know the very particular circumstances that each community is exposed to. The fact that we lived there for two years would have really given us the time to get to know them, to work with them and to learn from them. It would have added a precious layer of learning at UWC that is very difficult to recreate once you are at university. Of course, I could have taken more initiative myself, but I think there would be great benefits if the school was more encouraging in that regard. How did you experience that on the “hill”, Céline?


Céline: I agree with you. I think both our schools were in a very special environment that in my opinion, would have demanded more nuanced interaction with the local community. By nuanced, I mean in more reciprocal, mutually beneficial as well as enjoyable ways. I think in muwci we were on a good path though. I was quite involved in some extracurricular projects in which we were in close contact with the local community. I learnt a lot from that, and it felt like the school became more embedded in the local communal fabric through such projects. Other than that, I am definitely critical of some aspects of UWC. There are issues with scholarships and the national committees’ resources to send the students that would benefit most from a UWC education. In many countries, the selection of candidates depends on their own financial situation. This is a problem which cannot easily be solved since many national committees lack the resources to pick students from more diverse socio-economic backgrounds and give them a scholarship. Also the colleges themselves give out financial aid to students every year, but similarly, not all UWCs have sufficient funds to do so. I really wish that a UWC education can become more easily accessible to students with less privileged backgrounds as it is currently the case. This is something I think the movement needs to work on.


Marie: I work for an arts university, the notion of being “embedded” within the social fabric around us is very significant there too, as are questions about the privilege of higher education. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this important issue! And last but not least: do you already have plans for your (near) future?


Céline: For now I am just focusing on my studies! Consistent planning ahead has never worked out very well for me, so I am yet to see what I will be doing after my bachelor’s degree!


Levin: I am currently quite involved in my university’s student newspaper and hope to take over as editor-in-chief next academic year. I hope that I can also gain some experience working for other publications. Concerning the more distant future and my studies, I am on the same page with Céline! Liberal Arts and Sciences students tend to be more driven by curiosity than by clear plans — as such I just want to keep learning as much as possible for now.


Marie: Thank you both for this conversation!



January 2022



*Marie Caffari graduated from UWC Atlantic in 1986. She has been the chair of the UWC Swiss Association since 2017 and works as a lecturer and is responsible for a bachelor degree course at the Berne University of the Arts.