Why We Write and The Two Years That Passed

by Jeppe Damberg, United World College Maastricht
11th May, 2018

We found it very difficult to choose what to call the paper. From the silly “the Moat daily” to the outright ridiculous “the Goat”, most of the names we discussed came out of fear that students would not take us seriously. In fact, the only thing we could initially agree on was that we hated school newspapers. “If you look at ninety percent of all school papers,  they will at most inform you about your classmate’s great achievement at a regional science fair,” I recall Mxolisi saying. It was true: most school papers have no commentary, no insight, no analysis, no examination, and rarely any confrontation. We thought we could do better but in the beginning we didn’t know just how to, and so we settled with the equivocal name “the Flying Dutchman”. I’ve been asked many times what the sense behind the name is but I have to confess that neither I, Samuel, or Mxolisi had a specific symbolism in mind. The closest answer is likely that we’d all seen Robin van Persie’s phenomenal header against Spain in the 2010 World Cup.
Our confidence that we could create something more than a pamphlet of recent events was rooted in that we understood our school to be unlike most high schools. As a United World College, we have a large organisation with clear values, idealistic students, engaged staff, and a joint mission. In many ways, we are similar to undergraduate colleges where student newspapers thrive off the passion of both culturally and politically engaged students. To create something worth reading, however, required that we achieve the same high quality of writing as the papers we wanted to emulate. To be taken seriously we had to write seriously, and so, after several late-night discussions, we managed to agree on the nature of our content. We wanted to focus on the dynamics that influence our small island community and write analytical articles about topics that concern all the stakeholders of our community. In doing so, we hoped to push the school from a state where separated groups voiced thoughts on negative and positive aspects of UWCM with no effect towards a clearer dynamic where students and staff discuss the same issues as they occur, reaching a sort of synthesis. We wanted create a forum and provide some form of public deliberation.

It took us a while before we started seeing the impact of our work because in the first months we struggled heavily with our credibility. The Flying Dutchman first reached the community as an A4 paper evacuated of any sense of branding or design and with articles written in a hideous Microsoft Word typewriter-like font. Even worse, all the contributions were anonymous. This was done for several, at the time, unsaid reasons. In particular, we feared that students would reject our opinion as an attempt by their peers to appear somewhat more intelligent, “all-knowing”, or pretentious. Therefore, to avoid reflecting any arrogance, we chose not to publicize any names. In retrospect, this helped little to avoid some rather nasty comments and, unfortunately, undermined the paper’s credibility. We continued with the poor practice till the end of the academic year and understandably failed to gain much of our community’s attention. Mxolisi and Samuel graduated, and I was left with a paper I wasn’t particularly proud of.
The paper was not even close to look like or have the impact of what we initially had in mind. In an effort to change course, I began to study the content, design, and distribution of other popular papers. I still had confidence that the paper could have an impact. I thought to myself that if I’d simply stuff the content down students and staffs’ throats and create a conversation, then it be bound to have an effect and I’d be satisfied with the project. Over summer, I sought to the wonders of the internet, taught myself a few technical skills from some dodgy websites, and created the Flying Dutchman’s website. You see, when your average day is spent with teenagers from all over the world, summer days spent under the famous grey Danish summer sky can seem rather underwhelming.
The turning point of the paper came with the addition of four brilliantly intelligent and passionate students. In September, Georgia, Ana, Shrey and Muad embarked on the so far not so Flying Dutchman. Together we laid out a strategy for how we would ingrain the paper in UWCM identity. We rejected anonymous contributions to empower students’ voices, sought stories more actively, and included staff in writing. As a result,
when the first Print Edition of the new academic year was released in late September, the paper finally had the effect we wished for. Many teachers discussed articles with their students in English or Theory of Knowledge classes, students debated in common rooms and staff gave weight to our commentaries. From then on, Georgia, Ana, Muad, Shrey, and I had the greatest time producing papers. Serious articles like “Brie did Matter” resulted in constructive school debate where both MYP and Head of College were engaged in a topic at the same time. The more witty articles like Ana’s “An Honest College Essay” proved immensely popular not just at UWCM but at Atlantic College and Red Cross Nordic as well, sparking in us a sense of ambition. This paper was slowly becoming what we intended it to be, and the concept, we thought, appealed to an audience beyond the moat too.

We began to publish some articles that could engage an audience beyond UWCM. Our breakthrough came with the publication of “Our Leadership Lacks Diversity,” drawing the attention of the UWC International Office and Heads of Colleges – like UWCRCNs Guđmundur Hegner Jónsson who joined in on the debate through our comments section on the website – and UWC students at especially Atlantic College, Adriatic and Red Cross Nordic. Even more rewarding, the International Office eventually contacted the paper for input on the development of a monitoring tool for diversity in UWC leadership. Since then, we have been featured multiple times on UWC International social media pages and gained a large following across UWCs. This has been the most exciting times of the paper. To put one’s passion and many hours of work into something, then see it embraced by friends, peers, students, and staff alike is on an egoistic plane absolutely exhilarating. And concerning our aim of steering the community towards a more dynamic flow of information where debate and reflection lead to change, I believe the Flying Dutchman pushed towards such a state positively.
Recently, I was asked the question “do you spend all your time on this paper?” I do not spend every minute thinking about it, but I do spend a majority of my time writing because to me this paper has meant hours spent with the best of friends on a fantastically challenging project. And though we had to fend off senseless claims from some students that the paper was a product of “Ubuntu” – a specific floor within the residential buildings – or merely reflected the opinions of a selected few on campus along the way, I take comfort in the interest every student and staff member took in the paper. To Mouna, Elijah, Prune, Cu, Diego, Ivy and Jure who wholeheartedly take up the task of continuing what Georgia, Ana, Muad, Shrey, and I have worked so many hours on, thank you for your passion. And to the students who encouraged us, leadership for not shutting the paper down, and the teachers who taught us to write confidently and think clearly, thank you for this opportunity.