Reflections on “The International Award”


by Bleron Nelaj, United World College Maastricht
5th August, 2019


The last month of my DP1 year at UWC(1) was defined by three main feelings. The first, defining the beginning of the month, was the grief I felt for the DP2s having left. I especially felt affected, since most of the friends I made at the start were DP2s, rather than DP1s. They were the first I related to, and even the first that made this place feel more like a home rather than just a roof over my head.
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The second, was the mild anxiety from feeling like I’m missing out. June is what most call the best and most ‘chill’ month of UWC. DP2s would always say that, because we’d have free time to get to know our year group and to enjoy the beauty of Maastricht in the summer. Why would I feel anxious about that? Well, that’s because I would spend about half the month hiking in Belgium and Germany with people I don’t hang out with. What’s worse is that the hikes would take place the first week after the DP2s left and the last week of school, both key moments in a DP1’s life. My friends would be enjoying this ‘chill’ month, while I hiked with a 14 kg backpack in the summer heat, worrying about not messing up navigation or having a heat stroke. Add to this sleeping for days at a time in a tent, on a mat as soft as my room’s floor, and perhaps you understand why I was less than excited.
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So what’s the third feeling? Is it as bad, if not worse, than the first two? Well, if the grief could be called a pain of the past, and the anxiety a pain of anticipating the future, this third one could be called ‘accepting your fate and living the present’. Reluctantly going to that first hike in the Ardennes, and then to the last expedition in the Black Forest, was one of the most surprising, enjoyable and fulfilling experiences in my life.
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The Hikes
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We started out in the Ardennes. My team and I had to navigate around a tricky hill right from the start. We walked over grass, water and mud up to a certain point, when one of our teammates realized they had dropped something important a couple hundred meters back down, past a running stream and endless mud.
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I went back with them, even though they weren’t sure whether we’d find what we were looking for. I thought that they needed support, because they were the first team member to mess up. I thought that otherwise they may feel alienated, especially since no one was volunteering to go with them. Looking back at this moment after both expeditions, I don’t think they would’ve become alienated at all. I think I gave myself that reason, because I felt that a simple “that’s what a teammate is for” was too cliche and not worth the effort of hiking back all that way. I also thought that it was possible that acts like these are what could turn a teammate to a team leader one day.
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It took thirty minutes to go down and back up again. I remember being soaked from dripping sweat and the water from the stream. I was happy to hear them say to the rest of the team that I had earned their respect for coming, regardless of it not being in my interest. This was the start of not only my hike up the hills and down the valleys of European wilderness, but also my journey in learning how a team should function and how it’s members should act.
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This was just the first obstacle of many, but if in this moment I was the only one to show support, by the time we had finished hiking in Germany, our team had consolidated into a group of independent and yet interdependent individuals, who are empathetic and supportive of each other. If someone felt tired or nauseous, or even just irritated from us, we would treat them with understanding and compassion. MUN(2) and Youth Mayors(3) never taught me that, though I had somehow encountered this whilst helping organize YES Conference(4).
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The hike lasted for four days, where we would move from camp to camp, some better than others, down ditches, through valleys and up some excruciatingly exhausting hills. During the day we would play games and talk to each other to kill time. Here I found a second lesson: everyone in this school can be interesting and intelligent, if you spend time with them and look past some of your prejudice. Without exception, be it staff, student or other, I found out what I had failed to notice for the whole year. Everyone in UWC can teach you something, and what better place to be taught than in the beautiful scenery of Europe’s forests.
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The hike in Belgium would be followed by the final expedition in Germany’s Black Forest. This expedition lasted about a week, though we only hiked for four days. We spent the remaining days exploring the city of Freiburg, shopping for the food that we would need for the hike and enjoying our time in an empty UWC Robert Bosch College(5). By the way, RBC is much like us, it has its good and bad sides (though we definitely need a pizza oven and a garden)(6). It went on to be a beautiful experience.
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The Final Hike
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On June 25th I left Maastricht, wholly regretting that I would miss the last week of my DP1 life. In Germany we spent the first couple of days exploring RBC, the beautiful area it was in and further on to Freiburg. The city and the region are hailed as the greenest and most sustainable of Germany, which isn’t difficult to notice. When walking down the street one could see dozens of students jumping into the freezing local streams, with others playing volleyball or football nearby. On the trail I ran into many retirees hiking the mountains, who looked in better shape than most of our students (myself included). The roofs of houses were often green, many with solar panels on them. In this city everyone took their recycling seriously, with many different kinds of recyclable material having their own container.
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On the fourth day our hike began. We walked for countless kilometers through tiny towns and lush forests, each new panorama more beautiful than the one before. By now I had dismissed the idea that I was missing out on spending quality time with my friends, because I realized they were the ones doing so. I thought that they would go on with the same routine we had already gotten used to, which was later confirmed by their answer to my question: “What were you up to while I was gone?” Their answer? – “Nothing much.”
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During this expedition I got to know my team even better. We hadn’t talked much since Belgium, but in Germany we picked up where we had left off. I spent time with each of them, learning more about their worldviews, their reasons for being in UWC, their concerns about the community and their thoughts on how things should be addressed. It was refreshing to talk to people other than those I spend every day with. We also had countless funny episodes in camp, which I never expected, mostly surrounding our food…
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These interesting talks extend to our supervisors as well. From Jake’s stories about hiking every cool place you can imagine, to Jennie’s impressive insights about everything in life, to Brian’s cool survival tools and skills. The lesson about everyone being interesting in their own way was by now imbedded in my thinking.
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But there was a last important lesson that I learned. Our school needs more of this. We need more activities like IA, where our students are put in an environment demanding that they work together, not only superficially, but that they learn each other’s habits and character, their strengths and weaknesses and how to cope and succeed with them. We talk about collaboration and leadership all the time, but to be honest, no other activity beats IA in teaching students that. No wonder Kurt Hahn was so passionate about having students do stuff like this and no wonder I feel the same way.
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Apart from the lessons I mentioned, I learned many more that I’d like to keep to myself. After all, you should join and see for yourself.
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One thing I know for sure though. I’ve never felt a stronger feeling of pride and achievement, than having woken up at 5 am and having hiked for 8 hours, to camp atop a mountain summit and be able to have this view to myself:
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The most beautiful sunset atop the Hinterwaldkopf, a mountain, 1,198.2 m above sea level, in the Southern Black Forest in Germany.
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Lastly, I would like to thank Jake, Jennie, Brian and Michelle for being there with us. This expedition was really something unexpected and unforgettable.
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Thank you!
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(1)
UWC Maastricht has a weird calendar, DP2s leave end of May, whilst DP1s leave beginning of July, making for that ‘chill’ June month.
(2) Model United Nations, a secondary school simulation of the United Nations
(3)
Youth Mayors, a student-led initiative in UWCM, in which students act as a think tank for addressing urban issues in collaboration with Maastricht Municipality
(4) Youth Environmental Sustainability Conference, a student-led initiative which aims to raise awareness about environmental issues and propose ideas and solutions for them. Also, the BEST conference, though some may say otherwise
(5) UWC RBC, Germany’s UWC College near Freiburg
(6) A garden to which students have access; it’s by the campus, where you can even find a makeshift pizza oven. The pizza is delicious when you manage to not light it on fire (  thanks Brian 😉 )

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