Karuna Ganesh says she would never have met a Pakistani person in her daily life. Perhaps because of that, the young Indian was well-schooled in prejudice against all Pakistanis. "We are taught they are bad just as they are taught we Indians are bad," she explains.
Now, however, Karuna is a second-year student at the United World College just outside Las Vegas, N.M. - and Pakistani students are among her good friends. "We are so much alike," she says, "We look alike, we dress alike, we eat the same foods."
Most important, she adds, "I now understand why Pakistanis think as they do, and knowing this is the only way we will ever resolve our problems."
Creating such understanding is the reason the United World College exists. With one campus in the United States and nine other campuses in Wales, Canada, Singapore, Hong Kong, India, Venezuela, Swaziland, Norway, and Italy, the school was created to encourage a network of future world leaders - or, at the very least, men and women from across the globe who know each other face to face.
The idea was the brainchild of Kurt Han - who also founded the experiential learning program Outward Bound - and came about during the middle of the cold war era. Nuclear annihilation seemed possible - and founders thought it advisable to foster greater international contacts between young people.
Despite the tremendous shift that's occurred since then, school officials say the need is no less urgent to unite students from around the word.
The world is experiencing a "new world disorder," says Philip Geier, president of the United World College. "The world is tremendously fragmented. It's splintered into every ethnic and racial division possible."
At the New Mexico campus, which was established in 1981 by
international financier Armand Hammer, 50 American students are joined by 150 students from 79 other countries for the two-year program. All between the ages of 16 and 19, they enroll in courses that prepare them for an International Baccalaureate, a rigorous, internationally recognized pre-university degree.
To qualify, students must be highly motivated and academically strong. They take all their classes (on all campuses) in English, although students also study one other language.
Situated in a small former railroad town, the school's home is the site of Montezuma Castle, a once-elegant hotel and spa. The 1885 structure had fallen into disrepair, but recently, the 90,000-square-foot castle was listed by the National Trust as one of the 11 most endangered historic sites in the country. The college is trying to raise the remaining share of the $10 million required for renovation. In the meantime, students use other buildings on campus.
For many of the students, cultural differences hit home right away. Karuna says the "touching" issue was difficult at first. For Cristina Albers, a lively young woman from Venezuela, "you always hug your friends." But for Karuna, such physical intimacy was a tremendous shock. "In India, not even brothers and sisters hug," she says.
"Now everybody hugs on campus," explains Lucas Josten, a teenager from Bonn, Germany. "You're considered strange if you don't."
The academic and cultural experience also contrasts sharply with what many of them would find in their local schools.
"In Botswana," says Kago Kgostietsile, a slight girl with long hair pulled back in tight braids, "I would be sitting in a large lecture room with 60 students taking notes."
"My economics teacher," insists Said Al-Nashashibi, of Amman, Jordan, "would turn the business class into a nightmare. It was sort of like search and destroy when she went over our homework."
Many students say they are impressed by the high quality of teaching. Brad Pennington, who hails from a suburb of Denver, gave up his senior year and an opportunity to play football on a winning team at his former school, but he has no regrets. "It's been wonderful to get to know people from all over the world," he says.
Students have plenty of opportunities to do that outside the classroom. In addition to sharing a campus, they engage in a wide range of activities and spend time hiking and camping in the neighboring Pecos Wilderness. Some students are trained to serve on a local Search and Rescue team. But Kago, not a fan of the outdoors, is involved with other community service projects, like working with children or the elderly in nearby Las Vegas.
All students receive complete scholarships, including airfare to and from their countries, which opens the school up to teens from different economic backgrounds.
The funding comes from benefactors, many of whom, says President Geier, are "people who want to save the world."
Students are very active in international projects. Teens fundraise for groups like Amnesty International and an AIDS orphanage in Malawi. They hold dances, stage chess competitions, and sell popcorn at the movies.
Campus activities include Culture Days, where Asians, Africans, and Europeans work together to showcase their culture through music, dance, food, and artwork. Other assemblies are more serious. Palestinian and Israeli students recently joined to discuss current events with the entire student body.
All students take at least one course in conflict mediation. Once the castle is renovated, it will house a Center for Conflict Resolution, which will be used by regional and international political leaders.
Students are realistic about how this familial experience differs from the tenor of their daily life. Indeed, after spending time on the campus, the culture shock can come from returning home. "You can't tell your friends, some Israelis are OK," says Said, of his home in Jordan. "They don't believe you. They don't want to listen." Kago adds, "Here you can talk openly about everything, but back home, you have to be very careful what you say."
Students - almost all of whom go on to college after the program - plan on a variety of careers once they return home. Kago says she wants to be an accountant. Cristina, from Venezuela, says she hopes to be an international journalist.
But whatever their career plans, all expect that their international experience will contribute to a new perspective on the world around them.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society