Simon Golla toured his schoolmates around Jasper during the Christmas holidays.//Bob Covey
Cross culture examination ... but no exams
Consider this: you’re a 17-year-old student going to school in Victoria. How do you impress your friends from school over Christmas break?
You bring them to Jasper, of course.
For the last four months, Jasperite Simon Golla has been attending the Lester B Pearson College of the Pacific—a prestigious international school in Victoria which is one of 12 United World Colleges in the world.
To earn a spot there, Golla had to qualify as one of just 20 students across Alberta who were selected for an interview. Next, based on how they performed in that setting, eight students were selected to attend one of 100 UWCs across the globe.
If Golla’s making the cut sounded intense, consider the competition that his roommate, 18-year-old Roger Dai, from China, had to beat out. The city Roger went to school in, near Shanghai, has 13 million people in it. A typical high school day for him would start at 8 a.m., end at 4:45 p.m., but then he’d hit the books until 11 p.m., only breaking for dinner.
“For your college entrance exams in China it’s common to study until 1 a.m. every night,” Dai said.
If that sounds like a lot of work, it paled in comparison to the work load of the roommates’ mutual friend, Victoria Yang. Also from China, Victoria’s school day didn’t end until 6 p.m., at which point she went to obligatory after-school self-study classes. Those lasted until 9:30 p.m. and there was almost always homework to do after.
Suffice to say when they got to Canada, Roger and Victoria they had a fairly ingrained work ethic. And suffice to say when they arrived in Jasper, for 10 glorious days off, they felt like they were in heaven.
“I like the small community, the sense of closeness,” Roger said. “And of course I like the insanely easy access to nature.”
For Victoria, Jasper was a chance to try activities she’d only seen on the internet: skating, skiing and building a snow-and-ice sculpture.
“This place has a creative sense,” Victoria said. “Nature seems to emit spontaneity.”
Victoria was struck by the visual splendour of Jasper because it was so different that where she grew up, she said. Chengdu isn’t exactly Bejing, China’s smog-filled capital, but compared to the open space she explored at Maligne Lake, her home city of 4.3 million is like another planet.
“In Canada I fell in love with nature immediately,” she said.
While his Chinese friends found themselves in new territory in his hometown, Golla was reminded that he felt a bit out of his element when he first got to Pearson. Although he wasn’t jarred by social differences, as some of his foreign friends may have been, he noticed a distinct difference in the curriculum he was taught and that of what other students were familiar with.
“Specifically in math and science, for me Alberta feels like it’s being left behind,” Golla said.
The trio reflected on the differences between Canada and China. Although to Canadians, the relative freedom of this country when choosing an academic and career path likely seems preferable, Victoria pointed out that China’s rigidity is borne out of necessity. With so many people in one country, there’s usually only one way to stand out to examiners: get insanely high marks.
“Scores help in evaluation,” she said. “Western universities look at essays, but in China they don’t as much because it’s much harder to compare objectively.”
For these students, who seem to be getting the best of both worlds at Pearson College, their Jasper trip was a chance to relax and simply enjoy the moments. They all knew that it might have been their last opportunity to do so for a long time.