The university partnered with the Davis United World College Program to bring in students with cultural intelligence and awareness.
By Nick Erickson
It’s no secret the leadup to the 2016 United States presidential election was a firestorm often blowtorching any signs of civility. Then high-school student Dasha Vavilava, a current George Washington University senior majoring in finance and international business, couldn’t escape red versus blue U.S. politics despite being on a different continent.
Two of her American classmates, a conservative from Tennessee and a liberal from Northern Virginia, verbally sparred whether Republican Donald J. Trump or Democrat Hillary Clinton deserved the White House. Vavilava, originally from Belarus, looked on with fellow students.
Except unlike what much of the U.S. public was experiencing, this conversation was civil as both U.S. students respectfully laid out a path for why their candidate should win and traded ideas back and forth. Perhaps that’s because both students were already thrust into a situation where they had to learn to exist with other cultures and viewpoints.
Vavilava met the two U.S. students while attending a Davis United World College (UWC) Program in China. UWC scholars are chosen by special, independent committees in their home countries to complete the last two years of high school at one of the UWC schools before enrolling in a U.S. college or university. The idea is for scholars to build relationships with people from a variety of backgrounds, thus building an effective network of future leaders committed to mutual respect.
GW is a UWC partner institution and is graduating its first scholars this weekend, including Vavilava. This year alone, GW is receiving $130,000 from the Davis Foundation to support the education of what is now 21 UWC scholars on campus. An additional 10 UWC scholars are set to enroll next fall. The funding helped Vavilava land at GW, less than one-half mile from the very residence her classmates debated over who should occupy it.
She believes that experience in China—she lived and studied with students from 97 other countries by age 17—was pivotal, especially in today’s partisan world.
“It's an incredibly unique program, just because it really unites people from so many countries in so many cultural backgrounds,” Vavilava said. “Now when there’s so much geopolitical instability, I think that mission becomes even more prominent.”
The partnership between the UWC program and GW was a natural fit, said Office of Undergraduate Admissions Associate Director Slavko Bradic. Both parties seek to build up future leaders by empowering them through education, and Bradic said GW was inspired by the quality of students it would be receiving.
Once funding was secured, Bradic couldn’t help but to feel an excitement about the worldviews and awareness that would matriculate on campus.
“The students come out of UWC schools with cultural intelligence because they are surrounded by students from all over the world,” Bradic said. “They develop that diverse mindset that will inspire other students on our campuses.”
The UWC program was recently nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, which executive director Philip O. Geier said is particularly meaningful in such an era of polarization and hostility. Knowing that, Vavilava said there’s both pride and responsibility in living out the program’s mission of harboring strong relationships with people of other backgrounds, which she has tried to do at GW.
“I feel very empowered having those experiences,” Vavilava said. “I think that it is my responsibility now to describe the values that I experienced and had the opportunity to learn more about, like the mutual understanding between people from different nations. I also think that the importance of diversity and inclusion has been instrumental to that experience.”
Scholar Dorde Petkovic, a graduating business analytics and accounting student at GW, is originally from Serbia and attended UWC in Singapore. He believes change comes incrementally and learned in his travels just how far treating others with respect can go.
“I’m not going to perfectly understand everyone, but it’s possible by making that effort," Petkovic said. "I think if you touch enough people in your day-to-day life and make them feel accepted and understood, that can then send out a wave of those people doing the same thing for the people in their circles and so on. That’s kind of how I look at it.”
These words are music to Geier’s ears, who said embracing diversity and fostering mutual respect are among the most critical challenges of the 21st century, and that they invest in Davis UWC scholars because they personify these values and bring meaning and potential to their campuses.
“We are proud to be partnering with George Washington University and nearly 100 other partner colleges and universities across the U.S. to help make American campuses more diverse global communities in the belief that all students, faculty and staff will have more valuable educational experiences by living with and learning from those who are different from themselves,” Geier said. “We send our congratulations to GW’s first graduating cohort of the Davis UWC Scholars Program.”