Partners in Global Understanding and Peace
April 28, 2010
International and American students create ties that transcend national identity through the Davis United World College Scholars Program.
by Romel Hernandez
Nearly every day for seven years, as the morning sun rose over Swaziland, Kemiyondo Coutinho passed a roadside market opposite her bus stop. As she waited to catch her ride to the United World College in Mbabane, she barely gave the wooden stalls a second thought. Then one day she crossed the street to talk with the women selling mangos and melons under enormous multicolored parasols. Their stories intrigued her, moved her, and compelled her to write.
The result was a one-woman play, Jabulile (“happiness” in Siswati and the main character’s name), which Coutinho, a Davis United World College (UWC) Scholar, brought to Lewis & Clark this year. As she moves gracefully across the stage, Coutinho brings a bit of her beloved Africa to campus, telling the humorous and heartbreaking stories of her characters, giving voice to their hopes and dreams, as well as to their day-to-day hardships.
Coutinho is one of 31 Davis UWC Scholars studying at Lewis & Clark during the 2009–10 academic year. The Davis UWC Scholars Program aims to promote international understanding by enabling students from around the world to study in the United States. Thanks to the vision of philanthropist Shelby Davis and his wife, Gale, every year nearly 2,000 graduates from the UWC international network of schools receive scholarships to attend select U.S. colleges. Lewis & Clark was the first school in the Pacific Northwest to be asked to join the initiative.
Now in its tenth academic year (and sixth year at Lewis & Clark), the Davis UWC Scholars Program is going strong, creating a win-win for everyone involved. Through students such as Coutinho, American students are exposed to new ideas and perspectives in their classes, residence halls, and campus activities. At the same time, international students from across the globe get the opportunity to receive a high-quality undergraduate education in the United States.
As Shelby Davis once said in an interview about the program that bears his name, “I wanted to do something that would bring the world together and help young people cross borders—not only physically, but in their thinking as well.”
Greg Caldwell, director of international students and scholars and a 34-year veteran at Lewis & Clark, describes the program with a string of superlatives—“unprecedented,” “bold,” “transformative.”
“The impact it has on the international students’ lives and on the schools they go to is so impressive,” Caldwell says. “For us, the program helps bring a different type of student to Lewis & Clark, and that really enriches the diversity of our campus.”
Coutinho, a spirited 20-year-old sophomore from Uganda who goes by “Kemi,” made her stage debut as a youngster playing Mercury in a school play about the solar system. The theatre is her way to connect to Lewis & Clark. “You need to get involved,” she says. “Just going to class and returning to the dorm was not going to cut it for me. When I started auditioning for plays, that’s when Lewis & Clark became home.”
Coutinho says students are genuinely curious about Africa, and she welcomes the chance to serve as an ambassador of sorts for her continent. She received a warm response when she performed scenes from Jabulile on campus during Africa Week in February. She hopes her audience was educated as well as entertained by her play: “Instead of going to a lecture about Africa, why not come watch a play for an hour?”
Coutinho has matured as a playwright and as an actor under the guiding hand of her campus mentor, Stephanie Arnold, professor of theatre. Coutinho rewrote and restaged Jabulile with Arnold’s help, delving more deeply into the play’s themes of struggle and empowerment. In intensive one-on-one rehearsals in the Black Box theatre, she honed her performance under Arnold’s creative direction.
Arnold says their connection is “fun, lively, and provocative.” The pair will travel together to South Africa this summer to stage Jabulile at a theatre festival, where Arnold will also gather research about traditional and contemporary theatre in Africa. “This is one of those great Lewis & Clark faculty-student relationships,” she says, “where there’s a genuine exchange, where we get to learn from each other.”
That dynamic plays itself out again and again when it comes to the Davis UWC Scholars.
The Davis UWC Scholars who come to Lewis & Clark arrive uniquely prepared to contribute to campus life. They have gone through the International Baccalaureate program at their respective United World Colleges, so their academic preparation and English skills are solid. And because they have attended cosmopolitan schools, they tend to be worldly—secure about who they are, yet open-minded about new people and experiences.
The United World Colleges themselves are unique—they are not “colleges” in the American sense but rather rigorous privately funded high schools that draw their students from all over the world. Conceived at the height of the Cold War, the United World College network was founded by a group of educators to draw together young people from diverse national backgrounds with the idea of promoting world peace. The first United World College opened in 1962. Today there are 13 institutions in a global network that extends across North and South America, Africa, Asia, and Europe. Each United World College, regardless of its location, draws an international student body, with an average representation of 70 nationalities.
To be eligible for a Davis UWC Scholarship for U.S. study, United World College graduates must be accepted at a university or college on their own merits. The scholarship covers a good chunk of tuition—as much as $20,000 per student for each year of a fouryear undergraduate education. Davis UWC Scholars may attend one of 92 institutions across the country; Reed and Whitman colleges are the other participating schools in the Northwest.
At Lewis & Clark, the program is credited with boosting diversity. For example, 13 out of the current 15 African (not African-American) students on campus are Davis UWC Scholars. Lewis & Clark, with its international focus, is a perfect fit for the Davis UWC Scholars Program. As Arnold notes, “Having students like Kemi here is simply essential to the kind of institution we aspire to be.” The faculty can’t say enough good things about the Davis UWC Scholars.
“They’re the best ambassadors you could ask for—outgoing and open to new experiences,” says Michael Broide, associate professor of physics, who’s had five Davis UWC Scholars in his courses. “Really good things happen because they don’t come to Lewis & Clark with chauvinist ideas; they come here with goodwill. They break down barriers.” He half-jokingly adds, “At a minimum, they give me more credibility when I tout the metric system.”
One Davis UWC Scholar Broide singles out as “unbelievable” is Andrea Liamzon of the Philippines. A senior majoring in foreign languages, she is also a member of the Pamplin Society of Fellows, the college’s most prestigious honor society.
“Amazing” is how Liamzon, 23, describes her time at Lewis & Clark. “The education speaks for itself. I’m a nerd. I love my classes, and I’ve had amazing opportunities to travel [on overseas study programs to Russia and Ecuador]. My days are full of inspiration.”
The Davis UWC Scholars also help open up the world to their less-traveled classmates. “The real reason Shelby Davis is doing this,” Caldwell notes, “is to educate Americans.” He adds, “I find that the American students are most surprised by the things they have in common with the international students. They have similar problems, similar goals, yet they see the world in different ways.”
Certainly, it’s one thing to have a roommate who grew up in California, Arizona, or New York, but it’s quite another to befriend someone who grew up in Ecuador, Ukraine, or—as Wade Higgins discovered—Afghanistan.
Higgins, a first-year student who hails from Marin County, California, didn’t expect to strike up a friendship with a student who grew up dodging bullets in Kabul before the Taliban forced his family into exile in Pakistan.
Tawab Malekzad moved back with his family to a rubblestrewn Kabul in 2002 after the Taliban was driven from power. His background was relatively privileged—his father is a highranking official in the current government—but he still recalls having to attend school in an overcrowded classroom (a “zoo of boys,” as he remembers it), where the students and teachers were forced to sit on the ground because there were no chairs.
“From my childhood, I don’t really remember many good experiences,” says the first-year student. He is strongly motivated by a desire to one day return home to rebuild Afghanistan.
“I really want to serve my country,” Malekzad says. “The world knows Afghanistan is suffering. I want to be a voice that speaks up and says what is wrong and what is right.”
As a boy, Malekzad learned English watching Bruce Lee and Sylvester Stallone movies. Attending the Pearson United World College in British Columbia, he says, transformed his life. According to Malekzad, it was a Lewis & Clark recruitment poster showing the campus with Mount Hood in the background that enticed him to come to Portland. The 20-year-old asked to live in a residence hall where he would be completely integrated with U.S. students, so he could enjoy a more “American experience” and improve his English skills.
“I like hanging out with American kids,” he says. “I like telling them the truth about Afghanistan, like that we don’t ride camels to school. I don’t mind at all. I feel that’s why I’m here—to tell them the way it is, to tell them the truth.”
To Higgins, Malekzad is just the college buddy he took home to meet his family and friends and to celebrate Christmas over winter break. While on campus, they spend their free hours playing video games or making midnight runs to a nearby diner. Higgins accepts that his friend is different. “He’s the only guy I know who’s fired a rocket launcher,” he notes. But mostly he thinks of Malekzad as a regular guy, “perfectly sane” despite the trying circumstances of his youth.
“The fact that we’re from different cultures, different upbringings— those things are pretty apparent, but I don’t feel they affect our friendship,” he says. “I like Tawab because he’s a good guy, and he’s fun to be around.”
Higgins adds, “Tawab never fails to be interesting. I know that wherever he goes in life, and wherever I go, he’s definitely going to stay a good friend of mine.”
Although they were born many miles apart geographically and culturally, Higgins and Malekzad seem on track to maintain their friendship beyond Lewis & Clark. They are mindful of their roles as citizens of the world. And for Shelby Davis and those who run the Davis UWC Scholars Program, that’s the whole idea. ■
Romel Hernandez is a freelance writer in Portland.