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A perspective on a year of change: UWC Dilijan

Gabriel Ernesto Abad Fernández, head of college at United World College (UWC) Dilijan looks back at 2020 from the lens of a diverse IB World School in the heart of Eurasia. The college supported more than 200 students, while educators managed the impact of both COVID-19 (Coronavirus) and a war in Nagorno-Karabakh taking place less than 400 km (250 miles) from students. Ensuring student safety and working closely with families became a priority on two fronts. 

A perspective on a year of change: UWC Dilijan

By Gabriel Ernesto Abad Fernández 

At United World College (UWC) Dilijan, we had great expectations for 2020. Early in the year, we were preparing to celebrate the college’s five-year anniversary. I believe this milestone is a great achievement for the first international boarding school in Armenia. We had a lot to do and a lot to celebrate. Our anniversary fundraising campaign marked our first attempt to secure five million dollars in multi-year pledges. These funds enable us to ensure true geographic, social, economic and cultural diversity among our students. This ideal is a cornerstone of the UWC international educational movement to which UWC Dilijan belongs as one of its 18 schools.

Dilijan rests at a crossroads of Europe and Asia along the ancient Silk Route. Centered in the Middle East and Russia, it holds historic significance as a place of peace and harmony which inspired the international community in ancient times. We are also the first international school in this post-Soviet space and our founders, Ruben Vardanyan and Veronika Zonabend, believed our location could play an important role in delivering the UWC mission when they established the college six years ago.

“Our aim was to demonstrate and solidarity and it became a real celebration of the UWC Dilijan spirit”.

We have over 220 students of 80 nationalities in grades 11 and 12 studying the Diploma Programme (DP).  We are also proud that our first cohort of alumni were graduating from universities in 2020, demonstrating the impact of our mission in action.

The impact of COVID-19

Like everybody around the world, we were hit with the news of the pandemic and in mid-March, having organized an impromptu graduation, all the staff joined in an effort to dispatch our students safely back to their families. Around 25 students had to remain on campus as they could not join their families either because of political or health situations in their own countries or due to other circumstances.

With safe departures under control, we concentrated on putting systems in place for our beautiful and spacious campus to be an exemplar of good practice in relation to COVID-19 (Coronavirus).  We also had to regroup and upscale online teaching to be able to continue classes online and ensure that students could graduate and be accepted to universities.

Having students in a variety of circumstances, we had to be mindful that they sometimes had to resort to extreme solutions to find stable internet connection or a quiet place to study. Nevertheless, by mid-April we were settled in the new learning and teaching routine, while working out potential scenarios for the future of our young school.

A perspective on a year of change: UWC Dilijan

As a truly international school in Armenia without expat community families to rely on for admissions, there was a threat that all the work we had done in advancing our school and establishing it as a player in international education in the region and globally would slip away.

Starting a new school year

The question was, would we have students in September? Who would want to send children here with the pandemic raging around the world? How do we cope if families requested a refund of fees or decided not to send their students back, even if we opened in September?

UWC schools and colleges, which have a unified admissions process, joined forces to evaluate the feasibility of facilitating students at sister schools closer to their home countries, and we started putting a plan in place to maintain engagement with our parent and student community via a series of weekly town hall meetings starting from April 14: one with the participation of our epidemiologist-parent and board members outlining the options, one on university admissions, one on emotional aspects of dealing with the situation etc. We also decided to issue our newsletters every two weeks instead of every month to make sure that our parents and wider community saw that we were persevering and doing everything we could to continue having their trust in the college and its leadership.

This was also the time for our 2020/21 applicants to confirm their applications and our communications campaign was targeted at maintaining their interest in the school. An important aspect of this work involved getting the support of the Ministry of Health and Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Armenia to validate that the campus was COVID-ready and that visas for our students would be issued even if the country was closed. We did not know at that stage if there would be flights to bring our students to Yerevan, Armenia.

“We focused on keeping in touch with the parent community via town halls and written updates”.

At the end of the academic year, on the previously scheduled graduation day, we held an online end-of-year global gathering and invited our students, alumni, parents, supporters and wider community to participate. Our aim was to demonstrate resilience and solidarity and it became a real celebration of the UWC Dilijan spirit, alive even in the virtual world!

Returning to campus

Everyone had to vacate the campus in July to allow for a thorough deep cleaning of the facilities, while our admissions team was keeping in touch with families to reassure them that UWC Dilijan was ready to receive our current students back and to welcome a new cohort of students.

A perspective on a year of change: UWC Dilijan

The old and new staff were back in early August, and students started arriving around mid-August. Of course, some of them had logistical difficulties and had to wait and see if the situation in their own countries allowed travel. We organized color coding bands for each person depending on the stage of quarantine they were in, worked out the appropriate bubbles, developed protocols for every activity from meal times to pool use and put in place every precaution possible. So far so good, by mid-September we had 220 students out of 226 on site taking online lessons guided by the quarantine rules in our home country. We had to close our campus to visitors and suspend any activities outside the campus to keep everybody safe.

We focused on keeping in touch with the parent community via town halls, written updates in relation to quarantine and being personally available to answer any questions they might have had. Ironically, we had a few false COVID-19 positive tests apart from me, head of college!  By the third week of September, we started face-to-face classes and were cautiously optimistic about the future of the college by planning virtual open days and announcing 2021/22 admissions.

The war in Nagorno-Karabakh

On 27 September, the hostilities on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border turned into a war over Nagorno-Karabakh and the government of Armenia announced martial law. For those not familiar with the situation, the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan has its origins in the early 20th century. The present conflict began in 1988 when the Karabakh Armenians demanded that Karabakh be transferred from Soviet Azerbaijan to Soviet Armenia as the Soviet Union was collapsing. A ceasefire was signed in 1994, and since then there were frequent small-scale exchanges of fire on the border. This time, however, the situation was extremely serious.

Apart from concerns for the safety of our students and intense communication with the student, staff and parent community to reassure them that this conflict would not affect UWC Dilijan being 400 km away, we had to cope with the politics of it. We have 10% of the student body who are Armenian and 45 out of about 70 staff are Armenian. We are not a regular international school for expatriate children, we are a UWC school with “deliberate diversity” of students and teachers learning through understanding that other people can hold legitimate differing views. And while we felt for our staff, students and Armenian friends, we had to try and maintain a balance.

A perspective on a year of change: UWC Dilijan

It made me proud that our Armenian students, without being prompted, initiated a session on explaining the conflict to their fellow students and despite the emotional atmosphere, the students were very measured in their presentations and the subsequent discussions. Our Turkish students sent a message of solidarity to the Armenian community which was well received. We then concentrated on doing something positive—helping internally displaced people (IDPs) in Dilijan, raising money for the children affected by the war and making sure that this situation was a learning experience for us all. To me this is what a UWC education is about—international and intercultural understanding and mutual responsibility and respect. Only this type of engagement can bring the peaceful solutions we all wish for not only in this conflict but elsewhere on the planet.


What has 2020 taught me as an educator based in Dilijan, Armenia?

Open and honest communication with students, staff and parents is paramount and the more we explain and share good news and bad news, the more we are trusted.

Keep all contact information current at all times.

Plan for all eventualities.

Maintain links with embassies and international organizations to have access to important information.

Foster a direct relationship with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to ensure that there is awareness about the large community of resident foreign nationals.

What has 2020 taught me as a human being? The world is an even more fragile place than I thought, and health and peace are not token notions that I would ever take for granted.

A perspective on a year of change: UWC Dilijan

Gabriel was born in Málaga, Spain. Upon graduating from Malaga University, he started his career in 1996 as an assistant lecturer in the modern languages department at the University of Northumbria in Newcastle, UK. He moved to Singapore to work at United World College South East Asia (UWCSEA) where he was a Spanish and theory of knowledge (TOK) teacher, deputy houseparent and boarding community senior houseparent. After 16 years at UWCSEA, he moved to Armenia to join United World College (UWC) Dilijan as its head of college. Gabriel loves reading, going to the cinema and playing chess.

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