Pearson College welcomes the world

Benoit Charlebois calls it “the emblematic Pedder Bay shot.”

It’s the view at Pearson College from the bay’s upper bank to the tidy dock and floating classroom below. Pedder Bay Marina is farther down the inlet, while the Race Rocks ecological reserve is a 15- to 20-minute boat ride away in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

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Not surprisingly, the oceanside setting has led to marine sciences becoming a key part of the college curriculum, and Race Rocks has turned into a virtual extension of the classroom for students. In fact, Pearson students and staff are considered volunteer wardens of the rugged cluster of islets, and were a big part of the push to have the site declared a reserve in 1980.

“We are the custodians and the students have a role to play directly in that,” said Charlebois, a college spokesman.

An expertly assembled orca skeleton is set outside one of the buildings. It came into the college’s possession after the whale was found dead and students helped in the necropsy.

Pearson College is one of 13 United World College schools around the globe. It was established after its namesake, former Canadian prime minister and 1957 Nobel Peace Prize winner Lester Pearson, became familiar with the values of the UWC movement.

“Lester B. Pearson visited the Atlantic College in Wales, fell in love with the concept and said we must build one in Canada,” said Laura Walsh, Pearson College’s vice-president of development. Atlantic College, opened in 1962, was the first UWC property.

While Lester Pearson did not live to see the Canadian college become a reality in 1974, he was instrumental in getting the project moving. There was potential, he said, for the UWC system to become “a revolutionary force in international education.”

He had a vision for the college that would bear his name. His goal was that students would be welcomed “without regard to race, religion or politics,” and scholarships would be available so students would be from all levels of society and “genuine representatives of their own peoples.”

For Zakir Tahiry, a 19-year-old student from Afghanistan, that cultural diversity is the essence of the place.

“The good thing about UWC is the mixture of different cultures, there is not one dominant culture,” Tahiry said. “That’s the beauty, the diversity of cultures and learning from each other.”

He said he makes an effort to be open with his peers.

“I’m trying to represent myself as an Afghan and as a Muslim, and I try to practise those values daily when I’m talking to people or showing generosity. That’s part of my culture and part of my faith that I want to show. I’m trying to be understood by people.”

One student paying especially close attention to news from home is 18-year-old Leo Yousif, a Syrian. A 20-month-old revolt against the Syrian government is raging, and Yousif said he is in daily contact with his loved ones.

“I’m on edge quite a bit,” he said. “If anything happens, I’m by the phone.”

Also in the mix at Pearson this year are students from three countries that have never been represented before at the school — Surinam, Guyana and Armenia. It’s a first for students from Surinam and Guyana anywhere in the UWC system, Charlebois said, while Armenians have been at a few of the other colleges over the years.

Every UWC school has its own allure for students, he said.

“Pearson is a place where students are attracted to the Canadian western coast, with all the mythology that brings, the wilderness.”

Students live four to a room in the dorm, Walsh said, and there’s almost always one Canadian in each group. Every province and territory is represented at the school.

Students routinely continue their education after their Pearson days, with graduates in the last five years alone having earned 925 degrees at 322 post-secondary institutions. Eleven Pearson alumni have gone on to become Rhodes Scholars.

Walsh said the Pearson community is looking forward to marking its 40th anniversary in 2014. A major fundraising drive will be part of the occasion.

“There’s some exciting times ahead,” Walsh said.

For more on supporting Pearson, go to pearsoncollege.ca, email development@pearsoncollege.ca or call 250-391-2484.

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