The United World College of the Atlantic is the closest to utopia I have ever encountered. An institute of learning. A group of people dedicated to serving others. A forum for discussing issues, philosophy, theology, life, the universe and everything. A base for action for the betterment of mankind. The sheer beauty of the concept of a United World College and the fact that these colleges exist is astounding.
Atlantic College was founded in 1962 by Dr. Kurt Hahn (of the Salem School and Gordonstoun) and a former NATO commander Air Marshall Sir Lawrence Darvall. Their vision was to create a school where the youth of the world could unite to learn about different races and cultures (Note that this is in the height of Cold War paranoia), the college was a "practical response to the search for new and peaceful solutions in a world driven by political, economic and social divisions"*. The founders saw the late teenage years at a time when idealism flourishes, so the college was founded (initially as an all boys school) for students aged between 16 and 19. The initail establishment of the school was a struggle for all involved: imagine trying to get funding for such a venture! The building - the twelfth century St. Donat's Castle - was donated to the college, and the grounds were gradually extended, for example the sports fields come from the playing fields association. After a few years, girls were admitted and the uniform of blue shirt and jeans was dropped. The college began to expand, evolve and develop into its own. Other United World Colleges were founded around the world, in Canada, the US, Italy, Swaziland, Singapore, Venezuela, Hong Kong, Norway and India. There is space set aside for a UWC on the Israel-Jordan border in the middle east, but so far progress has been hindered by funding and the volatile political situation.
Students come to Atlantic College from more than 80 countries. They are admitted on merit and enthusiasm alone: the college and various 'national committees' do their best to provide scholarships for all who need them -this can even extend to money for clothing and beer! Students study the International Baccalaureate (although when the college was founded A levels were the norm), which was actually developed partially with the college. Lessons, called 'codes' take place in the mornings, from 0800 until 1320. In the afternoon and evenings, community service, activities and trips to Llantwit Major, the nearest town, to illicitly purchase alcohol go on. The emphasis at the college is not on academics, although study does become more prevalent in the final semester when exams are approaching. To illustrate this - missing a code is generally acceptable, you get ticked off by a staff or maybe the director of studies. Missing a community service session is just. not. done. The social ethic is so strong that it is virtually unheard of to skip service. This perhaps says something about the value of such activities...
Service sessions take place in the afternoon or evening, the duration varies depending on which service you do (although the average is about 10 hours per week). There were 10 services, however this has recently been reduced to 9 as HM Coastguard suddenly closed down the college coastguard station. The remaining services are the Inshore Lifeboats (RNLI lifeboats that students crew - ask blubelle!), Lifeguards who patrol the swimming pools and local beaches, the Extramural Service which runs courses for disadvantaged people, Estate Service which runs the college farm and maintains the grounds, Arts Centre Service where students help with the on site Arts Centre, Design Craft and Video service help in local schools with crafty type things, Schools Education Service help in schools with allsorts, and finally photographic service, who get college events on film for the rest of the student body to enjoy!
The social life at the college is quite eclectic. There is much social going-on within activities, sporting, creative or otherwise. In the evenings there is the social centre - "sosh" for want of a better name - which has the licensed bar (it has a private club licence which is why under 18s can drink), a pool table, sound system and dance floor, TV room and coffee lounge. Friday and saturdays nights see a pilgrimage to The Horseshoe Inn at nearby village Marcross which is overrrun with drunken students, who then make their way back in the rain to sosh. Private and cultural group parties are common (ie. a 'south east Asian supper' event, or a Celtic students' party) and tend to take place in the castle. In-house events are also quite common (student accommodation is arranged in 7 co-ed houses of about 50 students with dorms of 4 each), either house parties or 'dorm meals'. Due to being situated on the edge of a big cliff in the middle of the country, the staff have to make provisions for the students' safety so there is a 'check-in' each night at either 2215 or midnight, where students have to be in house. Although quite a constraint, this is not so bad as everyone has to do it, plus there is lots of 'night-riding' - leaving the houses after check in.
I had the most fantastic two years at Atlantic College. It is near impossible to convey the depth of relationships which develop so quickly (probably half due to the communal showers!), and the pain when they are torn apart after 2 years when everyone goes home. The immense liberation of being able to explore paths of religions and culture that would be taboo at home. The freedom to express ideas, and have someone else contribute and build on them. The motivation of being surrounded by hundreds of people who want to change the world, or just to learn about it. The challenge of exhaustion, of failure, of discovery...