Making the World a Better Place: Davis United World College Scholars at UF

Vedrana Damjanovic

uwc
The graduating UWC – UF class of 2016 pose with Bill Kolb (far left), Davis (middle) and Geier (far right) during the Spring 2016 UWC reception. Photo courtesy of the Davis Foundation.

They dream big. They achieve bigger. They leave their homes and comfort zones, mostly at the age of 16, to pursue a better education and develop their skills. Known for the inexhaustible sources of passion and drive, they strive for life-changing goals.

Five words: Davis United World College Scholars.

A proud and growing international portion of the Honors Program at the University of Florida is a group of young, global citizens from different United World Colleges (UWCs), funded by a full scholarship by Davis family philanthropy. Their presence and hard work provide needed diversity and enrichment, international perspectives and world-changing ideas. In return, the Davis UWC Scholars receive a great amount of resources, knowledge and practical skills.

The history of the UWC program goes far past UF. The program dates back to the Cold War, when German educator Kurt Hahn envisioned a solution for the global confl ict caused by all kinds of racial, religious and cultural bigotry. His idea was to bring together 16 to 18-year-olds from all around the world to live and study together in order to overcome the misunderstanding and tension. In 1962, the fi rst UWC opened in South Wales. This cross-continental educational environment brings more than 40,000 students from 180 countries to UWC. Today, there are 15 colleges around the world, including one in the United States – Montezuma, New Mexico.

So how did these students end up at the University of Florida? A big transition came in 2000, when Shelby M.C. Davis and Philip O. Geier launched a pilot project with five partner colleges and universities to bring UWC graduates to the U.S.

“When I was president of UWC-USA, I had the privilege of introducing Mr. Davis to the UWC and he quickly became a believer and a major supporter,” wrote Geier, co- founder and executive director of the Davis United World College Scholars Program in an email interview. “Together we were brainstorming about the advent of the new 21st century and asking ourselves what we could do – both for UWC graduates, as well as for American colleges and universities that we felt needed to become more globally diverse to the advantage of all.”

The small seed of an idea soon grew into a vast project. Davis family philanthropy contributes tens of millions of dollars every year through need-based scholarship to UWC graduates who gain admission to selected U.S. colleges or universities. More than 2,700 scholars at 94 partner colleges and universities are currently supported by the Davis Foundation.

“We are so proud of our scholars and remain believers that each of them will go on to reach their greatest potential as individuals and as lifelong members of the UWC movement,” Geier concluded. “We certainly need an ever-growing cohort of young people around the world to engage with the problems and strive to find solutions. It all starts with getting to know and appreciate one another.”

Despite UWC’s size and growth, not many American students have heard about this program. Dr. Sheila K. Dickison was the Honors Program Director at UF at the time the fi rst generation of UWCers came in 2003 with fi ve students admitted. Over the years of her close work with these students, Dickison noticed that the quality of the students and the participation in the Honors program has remained the same. Only the numbers have grown.

“They [UWC students] have that zeal. I guess it’s just like a fire burning to do something about social issues,” emphasized Dickison in an interview, eyes glowing. “We see a lot of students here who don’t have a lot of passion, and I am always impressed when I see a student who really, really wants to make a difference.”

Dickison repeatedly underlined her admiration for not only UWC as a program, but also for its ideals.
“I really admire the UWC philosophy of empowering students to become leaders and change makers at all levels. UWC participants are truly global citizens and that’s what the world very much needs now more than ever.”

The reason for world cultures’ misunderstanding and conflicts, elaborates Dickison, is due to the fear of the “other.”

“Every time I got to know somebody from a different place or a different culture, I was personally really surprised to see how their problems were like my problems and vice versa,” clarifies Dickison. “Their concerns were usually bigger than some issue that I had.”

Coming from different cultural settings, these students are almost unexceptionally confronted with cultural shock at their first arrival in the United States.

“When I got here and saw people from different backgrounds, I felt back at my UWC in a way, but then I realized it wasn’t like that,” said Jimmy Hernandez Rojas, tourism, event and recreation management senior, who attended Red Cross Nordic UWC in Norway.

“Coming from Costa Rica, a collectivistic society, I found it really hard and difficult to accept the norms of an individualistic society.”

Despite the initial difficulties, Hernandez Rojas found himself immersed in American society through interaction with 50 Americans in the Freshman Leadership Council (FLC).

“I felt that I was learning all the time. When I look back, the person I was in my freshmen year does not exist anymore,” Hernandez Rojas added. “UF gave me the life experience to go out and create what I want to do in life.”

Hernandez Rojas hopes to promote tourism in an eco-friendly way. He aims to increase multicultural understanding, while simultaneously conveying a peaceful mindset.

Evaluating the Davis UWC Scholars Program at UF as a whole, one observation is clear: there needs to be more interaction and common projects between the American students and UWCers. According to Dickison, even though UF is an enormous community of 50,000 students, UWC needs to be more visible and integrated into mainstream UF culture.

“I just hope that this program continues to flourish and prosper, because I think it’s an exceedingly important program for the University of Florida and for the students who participate in the program,” concluded Dickison. “It’s one of our little jewels.”

randoUWC SPOTLIGHT: David Urnes Johnson, 29, from Norway, a former Red Cross Nordic UWC student, UF ’11 Alumnus and a cur-rent PhD student in mechan-ical engineering at Stanford University, reflects on his experiences as a Davis UWC Scholar at UF.

“I think the best part of being a Davis UWC scholar at UF is that you’re moving into a new environment and new culture, but being a part of the UWC group, you instantly have a family and a group of people that you can connect with. I think that’s a great support network, and it makes the transition from wherever you are in the world to UF very easy. I wouldn’t be what I am today if I didn’t go to UWC. It was an amazing experience, both culturally and academically. Compared to a regular high school in Norway, it was a lot more academically stimulating.

UF is a great place to explore all your passions. I was a part of Engineers without Borders. We worked on a project in Macedonia. You learn a lot from just emerging yourself in all kinds of activities. Currently, I am doing a research on fuel cells at Stanford. The significance of the research is to provide an efficient conversion of solid fuels into electricity or hydrogen. We’re technically removing the CO2 from the atmosphere. Having that capability is really important. Other people have said that with our current trajectory, we are going to need technologies in the future that can do that, because we’re already in a pretty bad path when it comes to the CO2 amounts that we’ve released in the atmosphere.

There’s a lot of startups around Stanford, and the easiest thing you can do is develop an app and make some money out of it. But in the end, that does not make a big change. So I think I’ve kept these UWC values, where I want to do something that will have a positive impact on the world around me. I chose energy, and I want to work with renewable energies and try to have a greener and sustainable production of electricity and hydrogen worldwide.

For all the students at UF, I would strongly advise to pursue your passion. Actively pursue your passion. Don’t wait for the opportunities to come to you, but actively go out there and seek the opportunities and make your dreams come true, whatever they are. I think that’s possible at UF. There’s nothing that you can’t do at UF that you can do at other university. Go Gators!”

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