By Alin K. Gregorian
MOSCOW — Philanthropist Veronika Zonabend has a lot on her plate, but for her, the United World Colleges (UWC) Dilijan School, which opened two years ago, is of special importance.
In an interview from her office in the Russian capital, Zonabend, the founding patron and chair of the UWC Dilijan School’s Board of Governors, along with her husband, Ruben Vardanyan, spoke of her passion for the school.
Together, the couple has co-founded the RVVZ Foundation that implements philanthropic sustainable development projects in Russia and Armenia.
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UWC School Puts Dilijan On Map of Global Education
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For RVVZ, Dilijan is the focus of many efforts and the various activities of the foundation and its subsidiaries are synergistic. The efforts that go into the UWC Dilijan College in turn help the city of Dilijan in the other efforts undertaken by Initiatives for Development of Armenia (IDeA) and Scholae Mundi, all under the umbrella of the couple’s foundation, RVVZ.
The school was officially opened in October at a ceremony attended by more than 1,000 people, including Armenia’s president, top spiritual leaders and other high-ranking guests, and has been widely hailed as part of Armenia’s long-term survival strategy — to set itself apart from its neighbors.
The “college” is not a college as the word is defined in the US, but the last two years of high school.
“Dilijan was selected for having a combination of three factors. It is on the edge of east and west and on the Silk Road. Also, Dilijan is between two capitals, Tbilisi and Yerevan. It has a very nice climate, very mild and beautiful nature,” Zonabend said. “Accessibility is very important. Our vision was that there would be an international school in Armenia as there were no UWC colleges in the CIS.”
An important goal for the Dilijan School is “to make Armenia an educational hub. We wanted to open Armenia to the world and make it more visible.”
Currently there are 15 UWC colleges throughout the world which include Armenia — Canada, India, Italy, Norway, Singapore, Swaziland, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Costa Rica, Bosnia and Herzegovina, China (mainland and Hong Kong), plus two that will be completed in Japan and Thailand.
This year the first batch of UWC Dilijan College students are graduating in May. “The result is pretty good,” Zonabend said. “There are 96 students from 48 countries. There are already quite good results, with a number of students in top-10 universities worldwide,” including McGill in Montreal, UCLA in Los Angeles, the University of Edinburgh and Imperial College London.
Students from the UWC colleges are eagerly sought out by universities worldwide,” she said. “They are very welcomed at top American universities. There is a report from Harvard that the type of students UWC graduates is what Harvard is looking for,” Zonabend said, adding that alumni have attended, other than Harvard, many Ivy League schools, including Princeton, University of Pennsylvania and Brown.
To gain entry into the school, the potential students must apply to a local national committee, which now exists in 150 countries. “The national committee is responsible for the selection and promotion of the UWC in their country,” she said.
The UWC system’s founding dates back to another tumultuous time in history, post-World War I Europe. The first school was founded in Germany in 1920 by Kurt Hahn, the son of a wealthy German industrialist. After the Nazi party came to power in Germany, Hahn spoke out against their ideals and was promptly exiled. He relocated to Scotland and founded the Gordonstoun School with much of the structure that eventually would become the UWC schools. The school was based on the four pillars of internationalism, challenge, responsibility and service. He wanted his young charges to learn not only what was needed to get them into a good university, but to become good global citizens. His experiments and efforts eventually culminated in the launch of the UWC movement in 1962 with the launch of the first school, Atlantic College, in Wales.
Hahn’s ideals are dear to Zonabend as well. “UWC brings social responsibility and the idea to give a chance for good education to people, for young people regardless of their financial situation,” she said.
Graduates of the colleges receive an international baccalaureate. That baccalaureate program again takes a holistic approach to educate the young mind not only in the curriculum, but tend to their emotional needs as well as inculcate a sense of internationalism in them.
They learn about creativity, service and action, Zonabend said.
As part of the curriculum, she said, students have to complete 200 hours of community service a year. “It is more intellectually balanced,” she said.
The school has a community center in which thousands of local children have interacted with Dilijan students. UWC students teach the local children Spanish and English as part of their community service and the children, of course, benefit by learning.
UWC makes education a force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future.
Out of the 96 students living on the campus at the time of the opening, only 10 percent were Armenian, 10 percent were Russian, and the remaining 80 percent were recruited from 46 other countries, spanning Swaziland to Australia.
There are plenty of scholarships for students. The latest one is by Shelby M.C. Davis, who has created a $15 million scholarship program for students in the UWC program.
The tuition varies from country to country; the most expensive is Singapore, which costs $108,000 for the two-year course. It is also the most popular.
The cheapest is in Bosnia-Herzegovina, costing $32,000 for the two years.
The tuition for Dilijan is about $70,000 for two years.
There is also a scholarship from international attorney Amal Clooney.
In addition, through a joint venture with 100 Lives (one of whose founders is Ruben Vardanyan), a couple of students from Syria will study at the school each year.
Under the aegis of the IDeA Foundation, the whole of Armenia and Karabagh will energize the economy. Other plans executed under their umbrella include the “Wings of Tatev” tramway to the ancient monastery.
Second, through the Scholae Mundi foundation, the goal is to get Armenia to a more global level and UWC Dilijan is the “focus of the educational platform.”
Other programs included are Just Dilijan It, an educational summer program for children and young adults aged 10-13 and 14-17 held on the UWC Dilijan College campus.
Zonabend and her husband, Vardanyan, have four children, ranging in age from 6 to 20. She is an engineer by training, but worked in the financial sector.
“Ruben and I understand that education can become one of Armenia’s priorities. Armenia’s main asset will be its people. And its role becomes more and more important future of the country depends on the kind of people we have there. Education is not something theoretical. It helps you and equips you with knowledge and skills for you to find your calling for life.”
She graduated with honors from the Moscow Aviation Institute in 1990, she studied at the London School of Economics and Political Science specializing in “Banking and Finance” in 1994-1995.
Awarded the Order of Friendship in October 2014 by directive of the President of Armenia for fostering educational development and international collaboration in science and education, as well as for substantial efforts in building the international school in Dilijan and implementing academic programs.
“It is too early to talk about the results of the program long-term, but some results are already visible,” Zonabend said. “Six young people for the little town of Dilijan are now in the UWC system.”
As part of its founding, UWC Dilijan will have 10 students from Dilijan every year and 10 from the rest of Armenia.
“They will come back and change the country,” she said.
“This is only the start,” Zonabend said.