Urbana United World Colleges student: 'I feel like I live my dream life'


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Seventeen-year-old Zina Dolan would describe her high school as the "world's best-kept secret."

The Urbana native attends the sole American campus of the United World Colleges, a school that promotes the International Baccalaureate at 17 campuses across the world. Because of a wealthy donor, Shelby Davis, American students who are accepted are guaranteed full scholarships.

UWC was founded in 1962 in Wales and slowly added more locations. By 1982, the campus in Montezuma, N.M., was accepting its first class of students.

The Dolan family's involvement with UWC began in 2012, when a family friend, Jo Ellen Machesky, was accepted into UWC-Pearson on Vancouver Island, just off the coast of Canada.

Machesky spoke highly of the program, so Dolan's older sister, Mara, decided to enroll the following year and was accepted at the Costa Rican location.

Noticing her sister's newfound maturity, Dolan enrolled in the UWC system following her junior year at Urbana's University Laboratory High School.

Students interested in UWC essentially apply to all 17 schools, as there's a general application process. Dolan said an average of 400 students from the U.S. apply each year.

Of that 400, 130 are picked for interviews conducted via Skype. Eventually, 75 are selected for all-expenses-paid trips to the New Mexico campus for final interviews. Fifty are accepted into the UWC system.

In an attempt to keep a balance, half of the students attend international campuses and half attend the American campus. Dolan was among 25 first-year students who moved to New Mexico last August.

"Chances were likely that I would end up in the U.S., but I really love it," Dolan said. "It's like studying abroad because it doesn't feel like it's the U.S. when you're with kids from 90 countries."

Constantly surrounded by different cultures and views, Dolan said she's not upset over missing the "typical" American high school system.

"I don't think anything I'm getting right now I could've gotten out of school in Champaign-Urbana," Dolan said. "And that's not anything wrong with C-U; it's just the internationalism is unparalleled."

On her first day at school, Dolan recalls driving up into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Situated next to a national forest, UWC-New Mexico is housed in a castle.

Dolan exited the vehicle and was greeted by her roommate, leaving her immediately confused.

"My roommate greeted me, and she said 'My name's Nora, and I'm from Mauritius.' And I was like, 'What was that?'" Dolan said. "It's this really small country in the Indian Ocean, but I had never heard of it. So that was a very classic UWC experience, where you arrive somewhere and the first thing is something you've never encountered before, but you're immediately learning."

Aside from learning about new countries, Dolan said her world knowledge has increased exponentially.

UWC students are required to work on three service projects in their trimester. Dolan volunteered with programs involving U.S.-Mexico border relations and the American prison system, learning things she "definitely hadn't heard about living in Illinois."

The IB program lasts two years, and Dolan is required to have a broad education, with topics spanning six subject fields. But the travel and international experience are Dolan's favorite parts.

The Southwest studies program, which is completely free for students, allowed Dolan to hike with eight students from eight countries to the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

Recalling walking through "burnt orange sunsets" and swimming in the Colorado River, Dolan said, "I feel like I live my dream life."