[COMMUNITIES] Melissa Aratani Kwee's Take on Ethics
- Can you carry on the UWC Ideals in the Post IB World
by Melissa Aratani Kwee (Alumni & Former Chair of the Community
There are some people who believe that ethics are privileges one
aspires to when one is able; a satirist once remarked "he couldn't
afford them." There are others who believe that ethics and the
practice of one's principles are more an inherent right of each
individual, the principles and actions that define a person's life.
I tend to agree with the latter school of thought.
I find it a hopeful irony that ten years after my own graduation,
there are still seniors sitting in a large hall debating the
relevance of our UWC ideals. The same questions abound; `Do we
understand what `UWC ideals' really means?', `Are ideals just
impractical and hard to maintain?', `Are the UWC ideals really
feasible in the `real world'?' `Is there really a place for
practicing respect for other peoples and service to the community
when you've got a job, bills to pay and a family?"
The questions we asked were the same and largely I believe, because
what we understand as UWC ideals, are beliefs that are so great and
momentous that reaching them would go beyond our wildest
imaginings. Our ideals loom so large that even living in search of
them daunts us. Our movement's patron Nelson Mandela said in his
1994 Inaugural Speech "Our deepest fear is not that we are
inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond
I think this is especially true for young people, myself included.
The power and energy of idealism, the blazing blind faith that every
individual matters and can make a contribution to the well-being of
our society and ecology, is what fuels student movements that change
governments, that influence global economies, and show the world
what a few concerned individuals can do. This is the possibility
that scares us.
* * * *
So what does the post IB world look like? And why does it seem so
hard to retain or practice the UWC ideals? Life after school is
still about learning, but learning in a very different way.
Academic institutions formalise our education, instruct very
clearly, grades us, and provide us with a menu of extra curricular
activities. "Work life" or "real life" as it mistakenly referred to,
is just like that but with different metrics. We just measure our
grades with salaries, our activities with time spent on hobbies, and
our teachers are now friends, colleagues and even strangers who
provoke us to learn about different issues, our selves and others.
The landscape seems to change, but actually, there are more
similarities than we often perceive.
Our perceptions are what help us make sense of the world, and yet
letting go of certain perceptions is what helps us break new ground
and move beyond our perceived limitations. One perception that
needs to be reconsidered in light of our question about the
feasibility of our UWC ideals, is the idea that UWC ideals are only
being practiced when one is engaged in direct service work to
alleviate suffering or promote world peace. We have this
perception, that the only real UWC-ers are the people who work in
multi-lateral organisations like the UN or the Asian Development
Bank; or who join non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as the
Red Cross, or the Peace Corp; or some small grassroots group helping
to save dying llamas in Peru. I know this perception exists,
because I once subscribed to it.
When I was 15 and doing my GCSEs, I learned of the terrible famines
in Sudan and Ethiopia and I wanted to quit school and run off to
become an aid worker feeding the starving thousands. Strongly
advised by parents and teachers to stay put and finish my schooling,
I reluctantly did. Then again, in my IB, I was exposed to the
devastating soil erosion in Nepal which stripped the land of its
fertility and the people of their subsistence
I used to think that the only real way to make the difference I so
desperately wanted to make was to get out there and do it myself,
get my hands dirty, so to speak.
An anthropology degree, a post-graduate fellowship, a new language,
and several bouts of dysentery later, I can say, I have been there.
I have been "in the trenches" and it has not been without its own
politics, human frailties, and obstacles that we face in the "real
world." It was my own awakening.
My realization that I wish to share is that it is not what one does
that makes a difference but rather how one does it. The greatest
changes are made up of millions of tiny steps, small fragments of
effort and care that make the mountains move. I believe all of us
whether in the private, public or not-for-profit sector, have the
capacity to enable others, to show them care and respect, to offer
an inspiring vision, or defend a defenseless person. These small
actions are what define our UWC ideals as universal ideals, and the
pursuit of them not an elusive privilege but a right and a joyful