Gabriel Abad Fernández: UWC Dilijan will continue opening the world to Armenia - Mediamax.am

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Gabriel Abad Fernández: UWC Dilijan will continue opening the world to Armenia

Gabriel Abad Fernández
Gabriel Abad Fernández

Photo: UWC Dilijan


Having managed to keep the UWC Dilijan campus in operation safely during the pandemic and students in face-to-face classes, the seven-year-old international boarding school for students ages 16-19 in the last two years of secondary education, has managed to enhance its reputation in the region and globally despite challenges posed by COVID-19 and the war in Karabakh.

 

Admission of the 2021/23 cohort of students is underway with increased interest in the school globally and in Armenia. This year the UWC National Committee of Armenia received from Armenia and Artsakh 281 applications for 20 places. Most of them will attend UWC Dilijan with four places at UWC schools in Germany, Italy and Tanzania.

 

We talked to UWC Dilijan Head Gabriel Abad Fernández.

 

This year has been extremely challenging for all of us and for educational institutions, in particular. What has been and is your biggest worry this academic year?

 

When the pandemic hit in 2020 and we had to send our students home (accommodating 36 of those, who could not return to their families, on the campus), we did not know what the future held. What we knew was that the school board, leadership and staff were determined to do everything to facilitate our students’ learning online to complete the academic year. We concentrated on putting systems in place for our beautiful and spacious campus to be an exemplar of the COVID-19 good practice and started intensive communication with our parents via town halls and special events to keep up the UWC Dilijan spirit. As a true international school in Armenia without an expatriate base to constitute a student body, we had to make sure all the work we had done in advancing our school and establishing it as a player in international education in the region and globally over the first five years did not slip away.

Photo: UWC Dilijan

Having answered all the challenges as a community, we enrolled 225 students from 80 countries and by the third week of September 2020 we started face-to-face classes. We were cautiously optimistic about our future by planning virtual open days and announcing 2021/22 admissions. Then on 27 September we were on a staff trip to Haghartsin Monastery and while there we started to get news about the opening of hostilities. You can imagine how this changed the mood of the beautiful Armenian BBQ we had prepared.

 

A new challenge was to keep our students, staff and parents reassured that the situation would not affect us and to show solidarity with our Armenian students and staff whose lives were directly impacted by the war.

 

Now a year later, our graduation on 22 May will still be virtual. But our students and staff showed resilience, our parents demonstrated the trust in UWC Dilijan, and our international board and all the supporters expressed their unwavering support.

 

Internationally, UWC Dilijan is lauded for having the campus open throughout the pandemic, the war in Artsakh and political instability in Armenia. We have been the only UWC among 18 worldwide with an almost uninterrupted academic process this year. We had several transfers from other countries, like Mahindra UWC in India.

 

It is truly a major achievement for a young international school in Armenia, and it is a credit to UWC Dilijan and Armenia, our wonderful host country, who have the trust of our community.

 

Now the challenge is to continue keeping everybody safe and healthy and to have full enrolment again for the 2021/22 academic year. We hope that UWC Dilijan will continue opening the world to Armenia and Armenia to the world by bringing together young people and their families from around the world.

 

Did you have any cases of COVID-19?

 

Yes, we did, including, unfortunately, myself, despite all the precautions. We are lucky to have the facilities where we can accommodate isolation of students and staff and keep them in bubbles. By the way, I should mention that the Armenian Ministry of Health has helped to develop the protocols to take all the right precautions, and the Armenian Foreign Ministry assisted issuing all the needed permits for the entry into the country as soon as it became possible. UWC Dilijan could not have done it without the support of the government.

 

What about your teaching staff? Are they also an international group?

 

We have the teaching staff of 34 from 14 countries. I am particularly proud of the fact that we have excellent Armenian teachers among them.  We also have 3 staff members from the diaspora (Lebanon, Egypt, Syria) and of course are hoping to attract more. Practically all our administration and support staff are Armenian. Our Armenian staff have been instrumental to the success of the school - they are our first and most lasting connection with Armenia.

 

How is UWC Dilijan funded?   

 

UWC Dilijan represents an extension of the United World Colleges international educational movement and, like the other 17 schools - members of the movement, the College was established as a non-profit organisation governed by an all-volunteer board under the Armenian legislation. No person or organisation can benefit financially from the school. Like all other UWC schools, it is funded through a combination of fees and philanthropic donations. Since its establishment in 2014, philanthropic contributions of over US$ 200 million have been made by over 650 donors from 20 countries to fund capital expenditure and scholarships. We are determined to have a diverse student body representing various geographies and socio-economic backgrounds and offer a large-scale scholarship programme. We are pleased that more and more international parents choose UWC Dilijan. This is a testimony to our growing reputation globally and the reputation of Armenia as one of the most hospitable countries in the world.

Photo: UWC Dilijan

The group of people behind UWC Dilijan created not only this beautiful campus but also improved the environment around it and contributed tremendously. In addition to employment opportunities, Dilijan and the area are being transformed through other related cultural, educational and urban development projects such as Dilijan Community Center, City Park and Church. Today, in Dilijan, you can purchase Spanish olives, Chinese noodles and have pizzas delivered to your door. I suspect that our community has played a key role in opening up all these opportunities for entrepreneurial Armenians.

 

How much did the Founders personally contribute in the projects associated with Dilijan and its development?

 

Ruben Vardanyan and Veronika Zonabend personally contributed US$ 149.7 million to the construction of UWCD and over US$ 20 million cash to the school operations. Our Founders have been very generous to create this fantastic ecosystem and enable the development of Dilijan and its surroundings. In addition to the investment into UWC Dilijan itself, they contributed US$ 43 million (including all land, construction, improvements and other projects) to the development of Dilijan. They have also made a considerable in-kind contribution to UWC Dilijan and other projects and attracted further cash and in-kind investments.

 

Why did they decide to invest such a big amount into one school rather than investing in many schools around Armenia?

 

Their vision is to make Armenia a centre of world-class international education and a regional education and cultural hub, which will contribute to raising the country’s profile and reputation globally. This will lead to creating a cohort of international young people who would be growing up with an understanding and appreciation of Armenia and will be its advocates for years to come. On the other hand, this contributes tremendously to cultural, education and scientific international exchanges as well as the development of tourism in Armenia. The founders and their partners have an ambition that goes beyond thinking about Armenia today, they would like to help and build the Armenia of tomorrow. As a small country with very limited resources, its main asset is its people and they are creating opportunities for showcasing to the international community the Armenian people’s talents and abilities for the country to sharpen its USP.

 

How many students have received full and partial scholarship to study in UWC Dilijan over these 7 years?

 

Out of 722 students over 7 years, 89.6% on full or partial scholarship, of them 30% on full scholarship.

 

How many Armenian students have received full and partial scholarships to study in UWC Dilijan over these five years and other UWC schools globally?

 

75 scholarships were awarded to students from Armenia to study at UWC Dilijan and other UWC schools worldwide, of them 6 for students from Dilijan and Tavush region. Additionally, 21 children from Dilijan and Tavush region participated in summer programmes.

 

How many working places in Dilijan and Tavush region were created as part of educational and other development programmes?

 

2,000 employment contracts during the construction of UWC Dilijan 2010-2014, 330 permanent jobs for local people in Dilijan, 73 people moved for permanent jobs to Dilijan, with 40 of them currently (not counting family members) foreign citizens from 14 countries. In total, currently 195 people have employment related to the school operations: directly with UWC Dilijan - 84 and the rest with the companies which have contracts with the school. 5% of families residing in Dilijan receive regular income due to the involvement in the development projects.

 

How much taxes have been paid into the Armenian budget by all your Dilijan development and Educational projects?

 

$ 7.8M has been paid in taxes to the state since 2010.  

 

There is an opinion that UWC Dilijan is an elite institution for international students.

 

It is a misconception that UWC Dilijan is an elite institution. As a school with students of 80 nationalities representing different walks of life, we have a uniquely diverse community giving students an opportunity to interact with their counterparts not only from other nations and cultures but also from mixed socio-economic backgrounds.

Photo: UWC Dilijan

For students from disadvantaged families – for example, this academic year 83% of students are on full or partial scholarship – this represents a social lift, a chance to receive an excellent education opening further opportunities. For the rest it is also an opportunity to broaden their horizons and develop relationships with young people they usually would not be exposed to and to become more compassionate and motivated to cross barriers society often has. This follows the vision of Kurt Hahn, the founder of the UWC movement.

 

How can those international students help Armenia?

 

The international students create awareness about Armenia and lifelong love for the country. They bring here their families. Also, our students make a difference. I am glad to share one recent story of one our alumni - a story of not only the desire to help those who are in need, but also taking real action and bringing change. Last summer when Armenian hospitals were overloaded and struggled to keep up with the number of patients infected with COVID-19. Having heard this, Sandro Chumashvili, a UWCD alumnus of 2020 from Georgia, decided to help. He started a petition urging the Georgian government to offer help to Armenia. In around two hours, this petition was covered by major media outlets of the region and on social media and Georgia was ready to help its neighbour. The next day, Sandro received more than ten interview requests from Armenian and Georgian journalists and the 18-year old Sandro became our hero.

 

In general, I can say with confidence that all graduates fall in love with Armenia and Armenian people. Jeppe Strands, for example, graduated in 2018 and chose not to go to university. He set up an NGO helping Armenian villages, he created four educational projects and is leading 12 volunteers. He is clearly committed to helping Armenia. And we have many other examples.

 

What about Armenian students? Would they tend to leave Armenia to go to universities abroad and never return?

 

Our school is still reasonably young for us to have a full picture - our first alumni graduated from universities in 2020. Anecdotal evidence is that they will want to come back and contribute to the development of Armenia. For example, Mikayel Simonyan, who was among the very first cohort of students, who finished UWC Dilijan in 2016, went on to a US university, came back and created his own designer clothes brand MISCHA. His company is located in Tavush Region and clothes are made here. Starting a business during the pandemic hasn’t been easy for Mikayel but he has the confidence to succeed. His disability does not prevent him from aiming high. He has just been accepted to Parsons Paris, which is the European branch campus of Parsons School of Design and part of The New School, a comprehensive university in New York City. It is an MFA program named “Fashion Design and the Arts”. I know how competitive those places are and we are so proud of Mikayel. We will hear his name, I am sure.

 

How is the admission for the new academic year going?

 

We have 115 places and we are happy with the interest in the school. Parents are looking for safe places and it seems like we managed to prove ourselves under very challenging circumstances and a word is out that there is this gem of a school here in the beautiful Armenia.

 

This year the UWC National Committee of Armenia received 281 applications from Armenia and Artsakh for 20 places. Most of them will attend UWC Dilijan with four places at UWC schools in Germany, Italy and Tanzania.

Gabriel Abad Fernández Gabriel Abad Fernández

Photo: UWC Dilijan

An interesting fact about one of the scholarships. Even I heard many times about “Mimino”, the beloved Soviet era film, featuring a person from Telavi, Georgia, and Dilijan. So once Veronika Zonabend, our board chair, saw that we have an applicant from Telavi, she was keen that we create a Mimino scholarship. Because of “Mimino”, we attracted a group of people from Russia, Armenia, Georgia and Switzerland to contribute towards a joint Mimino scholarship. We are now going to have a great story to tell to every international student!

 

Is the Armenian Government supportive of UWC Dilijan?

 

The Armenian Government’s support for UWC Dilijan confirms that it places a premium on education and considers it as a guarantor of security.  UWC Dilijan is part of the global network of 18 UWC (United World College) schools around the world with a mission is “to make education a force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future”. UWC Dilijan has been in operation for seven years and is here to stay. We proudly fly the Armenian flag at the entrance to our campus and are committed to continuing to work for the benefit and, in many ways, on behalf, of our host country. And Armenia should be very proud of our school. Who could have imagined that establishing a school away from a major international hub would be a success? Prior to moving here, I worked for 18 years in UWC South East Asia in Singapore, which has a huge base. But I am convinced that the impact of UWC Dilijan is much more significant and lasting - it made me and many others foreigners living here ABC - Armenian By Choice.

 

UWC Dilijan has had a close association with Dr. Vartan Gregorian, President of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, who passed away last week. Please tell us what that relationship meant.

 

The world lost a truly extraordinary individual, Armenia lost one of the greatest Armenians and UWC Dilijan lost a loyal friend who was an inspiration to us all. A strong advocate of equity in education, Dr. Gregorian generously supported scholarships to UWC Dilijan for students from disadvantaged families. Dr. Gregorian was a UWC Dilijan Honorary Board of Governance member, and in 2015, he co-founded the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative together with Ruben Vardanyan, a UWC Dilijan Co-Founder, and Noubar Afeyan, a UWC Dilijan Founding Patron. In 2018 the Vartan Gregorian Learning Centre was inaugurated in the UWCD Library during an international symposium "Library in the 21-st Century: Good Practices and International Trends". It is fitting that we have a place for learning named after this scholar, educator and humanitarian, who never forgot his Armenian roots. Actually we had an event planned with the participation of Dr. Gregorian for 29 April to mark the publication in the Armenian Language of the book "The Road to Home: My Life and Times". The event will now be a tribute by our community.

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