The Need for Cultural Understanding, Not Just Tolerance
By Emma Ulvin, Guest Contributor
I am an 18-year-old student living with and learning from other students from 60 different nationalities: Vietnam, to Kenya, to Italy, to the United States, to Colombia—from all around the world. Together, we live on a campus in the small Kingdom of Eswatini in Southern Africa—one of 17 schools globally. Our school is a part of the educational organization called United World Colleges (UWC). Students, age 16 - 19, are selected by national committees located in over 155 countries. All the schools have the same mission: UWC makes education a force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future.
What makes UWC unique is the diversity that is found amongst the students and staff. Diversity is a widely discussed concept on campus, and the conversation around cultural differences and similarities, in relation to politics, history and socioeconomic relations, takes place not only in class but during lunch and in the evenings, and many other times when students hang out. Students spend their time outside the classroom engaged in community service, sports, running clubs and various student-led initiatives, such as refugee-camp peer programs, and discussing global political and environmental challenges in a truly international context.
When a student body is as diverse as mine, the need for cultural understanding is imperative to the cooperation and communication amongst one another. And though we often tend to preach tolerance in society, I believe that that is not enough. It is not enough to simply be tolerant of one another; we must understand one another to be able to peacefully coexist. We must learn from each others’ backgrounds and cultures to better understand what shapes our differences—often we find that we have a lot in common!
Before I came to UWC, I was an advocate for tolerance, believing that simply tolerating other people would be beneficial to the peaceful coexistence of us all. However, after having to speak, live and spend time with people from all corners of the world, I have realized that acceptance, compassion, and most importantly, understanding, is what will drive us forward into the future. I have seen conversations on uncomfortable topics such as racism and colonization become inspiring and rich dialogue between people of all different backgrounds. I have seen a young student from Palestine have productive conversation with another student from Israel, the two discussing ways in which their countries might stop conflict, trying their best to understand each other and their reason of thought. If tolerance was our aim, those conversations would not take place, but because we seek to understand one another, we communicate our thoughts and ideas in a respectful manner.
Education and communication are key to respectful cooperation and coexistence, and promoting intercultural interactions in young people is essential for the progress of the future to be fruitful for everyone.