Weekly Local Biography

  The Seniors

By Rebecca Lomax, Ph.D.

Long ago and far away, I sat with 165 other graduating seniors and their proud (or relieved) families in a hot auditorium and listened to an interminable invocation and very forgettable graduation speeches. A good friend sat next to me, another sat two chairs down. My best friend forever sat three rows in front, making faces and gestures that only the two of us understood. I had spent a boring final year in high school, and was ready to move on. Some of my friends shared those feelings. And yet this small town school produced teachers, doctors, farmers, linguists, lawyers, businessmen and women, writers, engineers, and – yes – even a nuclear scientist.
Remembering all of that, I was eager to sit down with a few of the graduating seniors from Prem International School. We gathered around a conference room table at the school where they’re saying “good-bye” to friends and packing to return home. They are young and enthusiastic, at first a bit shy but that doesn’t last long. They come from multi-cultural backgrounds, they’ve attended international schools, and now their whole lives are before them. Their parents are government officials, engineers, teachers, business people and fulltime moms and dads.
Joanna is from Canada. She has attended international schools in Africa and Vietnam. Jun is from South Korea. This is his first experience living and studying internationally, but it won’t be his last. He’s going to university in Canada. Aisyah calls Malaysia home, but attended international school in Indonesia when her father worked for the Malaysian Consulate there. Kien from Vietnam has been here the longest, five years, and came barely speaking English. And Kinga from Bhutan rounds out the group, the winner of the Daniel Wilms Award on graduation day. This is awarded to the student who “is a good representative of his/her country, with a positive attitude to other cultures and to the earth we all share, who is able to reflect critically in the search for knowledge and who has helped bring people together in community, thus furthering the cause of international understanding and peace”. As we talk, I can see elements of the award in every one of the students.
Joanna is the only native English speaker, but can also get around a little in several European languages. She spoke the native dialect when she lived in Africa, but she was very young then and forgot it as she returned to Canada and grew older. Jun studied English in school in Korea, and worries that he may be forgetting his native language. English is the language of instruction in Kinga’s native Bhutan, but the family did not speak it at home. Aisyah studied English as a young student but didn’t really begin to use it until her family moved to Indonesia and she entered international school. And Kien learned his English the hard way, by total immersion at school.
They are experiencing the universal feelings of new graduates – happy to have successfully completed their courses of study, sad to be leaving their friends, excited about the world of options open to them, anxious about making big decisions, ambivalent about career choices. They laugh as they admit that they’ve changed their career goals several times over the past few years. Only one seems to have a clear path before him, Jun, and he will study history and hopes to be a writer. Several will take gap years, perhaps volunteering or working at the school, maybe getting jobs in other places. It will be an opportunity to live more independently and to make choices about their future education. One will take a few months off before beginning studies in New Zealand. One will begin university and take generic courses at first. She believes she will work it all out soon.
They’ve completed the International Baccalaureate program, which is a demanding two year curriculum that meets the needs of highly motivated students, and leads to a qualification that is recognized by leading universities around the world. Along the way they’ve been in many clubs and participated in sports and other activities. They’ve enjoyed cooking club, and eating the finished bakery products. They’ve learned about human rights through Amnesty International. Diplomacy and advocacy are themes that run throughout our conversation. And they’ve seen the need for good housing by working with Habitat for Humanity. Mixing cement was hard work, but the older man who cares for his grandchildren in the finished house made it all worthwhile. They found debating club a challenge, and a good language exercise. Art and music are important to them, but sports are really important. Soccer is number one, but cricket, swimming and tennis are right up there.
They are aware of how much they have learned, not only in school and organized activities, but also by living with people from so many countries and cultures. Jun was shocked the first time he went abroad and saw the active, challenging interaction between western college students and their instructors. It was different from what he had experienced in his own culture, a little frightening. Kien says that he has learned a lot about differences in what is acceptable in small things such as table manners, and that it can be confusing going between cultures. Joanna says she has experienced a lot of personal growth by living among different cultures and learning about them. All agree that the experience of living and learning in such a complex situation has been challenging but positive. They agree that it has built their confidence in their own abilities. There is an easy give and take of conversation among them.
There is so much I would like to tell them, so much advice to give, but I remember those forgettable graduations speeches of long ago and settle for just one thought: “find your own way”. I have no doubt that they will. I only wish that I could sit with them again in fifty years and reminisce.