Though the Nordic countryside was 5,322 miles from his hometown of San Cristobal, Venezuela, then-17-year-old José Cabrera Benavides embarked on a two-year adventure to further his education.
Cabrera Benavides always had a sense he would go international for school, he said. At 17, he joined the United World College in Norway, an organization dedicated to uniting students worldwide through education. UWC selects students from all over the world through national committees to attend one of 18 international boarding schools for two years, then enroll in a university.
"There, I opened my eyes and my mind to a global scope and started thinking more about what's happening in the world," Cabrera Benavides said.
A group of 116 UWC international students claim UF as their home to pursue higher education. Scholars across the world honored UWC Day Thursday, celebrating the program’s successes. This year’s theme was “Peace Begins with Us,” and UWC scholars tabled at the Reitz Union to celebrate.
UWC founder Kurt Hahn aimed to reduce cultural bigotry by bringing together high school students internationally. They work together to understand worldly tensions like post-war conflict, according to the UWC website.
Despite the schools spanning four continents and 10,500 collegiate students a year, each school has its own specific scholarly identity. Students perform community service, engage in wilderness retreats and graduate with an International Baccalaureate degree before enrolling in a university.
Cabrera Benavides attended the Red Cross Nordic College. Founded in 1995, the college has 200 students between the ages of 16 and 20. Students engage with extensive Red Cross diplomas, a humanitarian curriculum that entails learning basic first aid and other activities with the Norwegian Red Cross.
As a part of that program, Cabrera Benavides was a member of the first aid team in which he completed first responder training and wilderness search and rescue.
After graduating from the Red Cross Nordic College, Cabera moved to the U.S. to attend UF. The transition was like leaving a bubble, going from a 200-person school of friends to one where he would start anew, he said.
"I think that was how I maneuvered myself: just thinking that this will be an experience with its own set of challenges,” he said. “But that I have what it takes both personally and academically to succeed in that environment."
Now 23 years old and a computer science and linguistics senior slated to graduate next Spring, Cabrera said he remembers his time as a UWC scholar with a sense of fondness.
UF recruited its first group of UWC scholars to campus in 2003.
Under the leadership of former provost Dave Colburn, the community grew year by year. In 2006, UF became one of 99 U.S. universities to partner with the Davis UWC scholarship program, said Regan Garner, UF Honors Program associate director and UWC liaison. When admitted, Davis UWC scholars are given the opportunity to join the UF Honors program.
Working with UWC scholars has been the highlight of her professional life, Garner said.
“I know it’s cliche, but it's true that I learned something new with every interaction I have [with them],” Garner said. “They challenge me to reframe my viewpoint all the time and what I think I know about people, history and parts of the world.”
There are currently 116 Davis UWC Scholars, 22 in the most recent freshman class. Out of those 22, they represent 18 different countries. UF is committed to expanding the program and continuing to cultivate the international aspect of campus, Garner said.
Originally from Costa Rica, 21-year-old information systems junior Luis Murillo attended UWC Costa Rica at age 17. Although the UWC program he attended wasn’t geographically far from his home, he said the transition was somewhat difficult but rewarding.
“The way that it prepared me for the university was amazing, both on an intellectual or professional level, but also just on a human level,” Murillo said.
Murillo transitioned to UF with a sense of confidence, he said. The change for him was vastly different than other students, he said, because it was difficult to find a solid support system.
Despite coming from one of the most Americanized countries in Latin America, he said, the transition to attending UF was a big adjustment.
Vicky Apostolou, a 23-year-old biology senior from Greece, moved to the UWC Red Cross campus in Norway at age 16. She didn’t know anyone who went abroad for the program before, she said. Later, she applied by chance after she saw a UWC presentation at her school, she said.
The transition from Athens to rural Noway was a difficult one, she said.
“Not speaking Greek and immediately transitioning to English in not only every social situation but also academically, was definitely hard,” Apostolou said. “But the whole community goes through the same thing, and that is how you make the best friendships of your life.”
After completing the program, Apostolou took a gap year in 2019, with the Semester at Sea program, traversing Japan, China, Vietnam, Myanmar, India, Mauritius, South Africa, Ghana and Morocco. She eventually ended up in Amsterdam, Netherlands.
Subsequently, she began her UF journey, where she said she was faced with another series of culture shocks.
“It is terrifying at first — the different organization of life when it comes to the absence of public transport and Greek life even,” Apostolou said. “Especially on a big campus like ours, it was really hard.”
The gap year gave her a better idea of what U.S. education is like in a smaller environment, Apostolou said.
Reflecting on UWC day, Apostolou said she gained the ability to make anywhere feel like home.
Completing her undergraduate degree in the Spring, Apostolou said her journey in academia is far from over as she plans to pursue her master's degree in biomedical science at UF, then hopes to continue with a Ph.D. by pursuing research in pathogen interactions.
“You just never feel like you belong in one place anymore,” she said. “I know people everywhere and feel safe and included in every part of the world, no matter how far I am from my actual family.”
Contact Peyton at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter at @peytonlharris.
Peyton Harris is a first-year English major and the News Assistant for The Alligator. She is also a member of Zeta Tau Alpha and spends her free time re-listening to Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers and binging Criminal Minds.