Flying away from A-levels

IS there an alternative to A-levels? One Suffolk student thought there was, and hasn't looked back since. KAREN GODDARD reports on a 17-year-old's educational adventure.

IS there an alternative to A-levels? One Suffolk student thought there was, and hasn't looked back since. KAREN GODDARD reports on a 17-year-old's educational adventure.

MONICA Campbell-Scott is home for the summer.

Tanned, tattooed and buzzing with energy her eyes light up as she chats about her recent travels to Thailand, Vietnam and India.

If you didn't know better you'd assume that Monica was a streetwise, gap-year student taking a break from University. Amazingly, this articulate, super-confident youngster is only 17 years old and her adventures in Asia are all part of the two-year International Baccalaureate course she is taking at the Li Po Chun United World College in Hong Kong .

The first United World College (UWC) opened in Wales in 1962. Today, there are ten Colleges based in the UK, Singapore, Canada, Swaziland, the USA, Italy, Venezuela, Hong Kong, Norway and India with two further colleges due to open later this year.

Each college has its own distinctive character but all share a common commitment to education, peace and international cooperation. Students come from a wide range of backgrounds and it is not unusual to find more than 80 nationalities represented in a college at any one time.

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Last year Ipswich-based student Monica Campbell-Scott beat off stiff competition to become one of two teenagers from this country to win a scholarship to Li Po Chun United World College.

Until she moved to Hong Kong last September Monica had been enjoying a typical Suffolk-style school career. After spending her primary years at Handford Hall school in Ipswich she transferred to Westbourne High school and then, in Year nine, to East Bergholt High school where she eventually became Head Girl.

But, towards the end of her GCSE course Monica began to wonder whether the traditional A Level route was right for her. She said: “I was quite scared of doing A Levels. I enjoyed all my school subjects so I didn't want to specialise too early.”

Monica had also been longing to attend boarding school: “Ever since I was little I've liked the idea of boarding school. I love being at home with my family but I'm also very independent and like the idea of living with a bunch of teenagers.”

So, when a former East Bergholt High pupil from the United World College in Wales came into school to give a talk, Monica was immediately interested.

“When she started talking about the colleges I knew I had to go to one. Everyone around me was saying; 'Monica, this is just the place for you.”

Every year, one girl and one boy from England are chosen to attend each United World College. To be considered for selection Monica had to pass an interview and undergo an intensive weekend of assessment at the UWC's Welsh campus.

She said: “I had my interview before I took my GCSEs so I knew I had a place before I got my results. They asked me how I'd cope living in another country and about current world affairs. At the time the Tsunami had just happened so they also asked about my reaction to that.”

Monica's answers obviously impressed the UWC interview panel - despite being up against 160 other hopeful applicants she was soon informed that she had won a coveted scholarship and would be going to Hong Kong to study a 2-year International Baccalaureate (IB) programme.

The opportunity to study a wide range of subjects really appealed to Monica: “I'm not sure what I'll do as a career so I wanted to keep my options open,' she says. 'The IB idea of taking one subject from each category - humanities, sciences, arts, languages etc - sounded really great to me.”

The community service element of the IB course also suited Monica's interests. Since she started her studies last September the young student has been involved in a number of exciting projects.

She said: “For the past year me and a group of about 12 other students have been setting up a peace conference designed to get Pakistani kids to visit India to meet local Indian and Kashmiri children…that's going really well.

“Another project involved working with Vietnamese street children with the Christina Noble Foundation. Seeing those kids earning money for their families by working on the streets was very emotional.'

'Next year I plan to go to China to help build houses through the Habitat for Humanity scheme.”

As well as her community work Monica must also find time for academic studies and a full range of sporting activities.

“There isn't one second of the day when you're not busy,” said Monica. “It's very intense.'

'Sometimes I'm in meetings and doing academic work at 11 o'clock at night and then I'll do homework until 1 in the morning.

“There are so many great activities…swimming, scuba-diving, rock-climbing. We even get involved in local festivals and learn how to do dragon dancing.”

Monica's school day may be action-packed, but when she is not working she has found time to explore Hong Kong city. “It's a very different culture,' said Monica. “Everything is so clean and shiny because of SARS and there are signs saying 'no shouting' and 'no singing'. Everywhere is concreted and there is no grass, I really miss that.”

But the location has its plus points too. “Our school is amazing, we have the ocean next door and a mountain range on the other side…it's very beautiful.”

Monica's school is full of the brightest most capable students and there is a strong emphasis on academic excellence. Many pupils go on to study at some of America's top Ivy League universities.

This, said Monica, is a reflection of the Hong Kong attitude to education where teachers have the same status as top company bosses and students are famed for their high exam scores.

“I once saw a large banner on the side of a 40-storey building showing a group of figures. I thought they must be politicians or rock stars but then I found out they were famous lecturers.

“When pupils take exams the results become common knowledge and the top 12 Hong Kong students become minor celebrities.”

Monica's mother Fran Campbell, may not have seen much of her only daughter over the last ten months but she has no regrets about sending her child to school on the other side of the world.

“Monica really wanted to do it, so we supported her,” said Fran. “When she got short-listed for a place it was very exciting.

“Going to Hong Kong is a fantastic experience for her and it's lovely hearing about all the things she has been getting up to and the incredible people she has met. We are really proud of her.”

Halfway through her IB programme, Monica is equally excited about her new home from home and can't wait to return to school in September.

“Living in Hong Kong is my life now and I love it. I'm having the best time ever.”

Monica's advice to any British students interested in applying for a United World College Scholarship is, “If you can handle it, go for it!”

Weblink: www.uwc.org

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