Frontlines

A world college where borders are unlearned

Thomas Hopkins June 25 1979
Frontlines

A world college where borders are unlearned

Thomas Hopkins June 25 1979

A world college where borders are unlearned

Frontlines

There were small clumps of kids in the parking lot. Red-eyed and pale from staying up all night, they came together in an embrace and then fell apart in a sparely choreographed dance. They moved about the cone of a dying bonfire in the yellow-streaked dawn before boarding buses that would take them back home—a diaspora that would scatter them across 50 countries. Even school director Jack Matthews, who had seen it all before, stood back in the trees, happily squeezing tears from his eyes, and accepting a passing hug.

It was what passed for graduation at the Lester B. Pearson College of the Pacific outside Victoria, B.C. For these 200 students, there would be no awkward foot-shuffling or mechanical handshakes from a suburban high-school principal. For the college’s multiracial students, graduation meant a good dinner, an all-night vigil, tears and a dawn departure. Half would never see each other again. But they would take away what Mike Pearson had intended when he founded the college before his death in December of 1972: a tough and intense two years in the company of some of the best young minds from around the world.

In its fifth year of operation, Pearson College is one of three United World Colleges (the others are in Wales and Singapore). On the basis of letters of application students are competitively selected by committees in their native lands and each province and territory in Canada. At Pearson they complete the rigorous equivalent of Canadian Grades 12 and 13 to emerge with an International Baccalaureate (IB) recognized by most major world universities. Equally balanced between males and females, students spend their two years on a verdant 75-acre hillside above a tongue of the Pacific called Pedder Bay. Small dormitories of cedar and glass are dug into the towering firs that surround a library stocked with 600 volumes from Lester Pearson’s shelves.

With their $7,500 scholarship costs covered by donations, and physically isolated on the campus, 18 miles west of Victoria, students need only concentrate on their multidisciplinary studies. The results are impressive: last year 9Ö per cent of Pearson grads passed the stiff IB exams. Even more important, according to the students, is the school’s daily dose of tolerance. Egyptian and Israeli students signed a duplicate peace treaty at Pearson the day their respective leaders signed theirs. (A Palestinian student observed and protested the agreement—quietly.) “I had never talked to an Israeli before,” says Egyptian student Mohammed Bidair. “It was like speaking to a girl you wanted to meet.”

As well as making the grade academically, Pearson students must participate in service functions that range from marine rescue (they had about 16 call-outs this year) to volunteer work in local old-age homes.

But like many idealistic concepts born in the 1960s, Pearson College now has problems. First and always is money. Funding from governments (including grants such as the $1,500 from Papua-New Guinea) is generous, but not enough to meet the college’s $1.6-million operating budget. Almost $1 million must be raised yearly from individual and corporate donors. “With voluntary donations looming so large,” says one realistic 18-year-old student, “this place runs on public relations.” Equal to the task is an energetic board of trustee chairman and former Liberal senator John Nichol. He is aided by a highpowered board which includes such well-connected former civil servants and politicians as Donald Macdonald, Roland Michener and Jim Coutts. What they are up against, besides tight money, is the faint whiff of elitism. “I recall going in to see one bank official in the early stages,” laughs Jack Matthews, “and him saying, ‘All right, Jack, you have five minutes to convince me Pearson isn’t a private school.’ ” But the school’s policy of full sponsorship is becoming increasingly difficult; Pearson alone of the World Colleges continues it. However, the board—perhaps sentimentally attached to Lester Pearson’s dream of no barriers—has been adamant in maintaining it. Pearson’s success as an educational experience unlike any other, however, can be seen in the response of Sumbo Obatolu of Nigeria. When they asked him what was the biggest problem at Pearson, his answer was “leaving.”

Thomas Hopkins