Force for good: how UWC scholarship changed Alice’s life
When Alice Munnelly first heard about United World Colleges at the age of 17, she knew immediately it was what she had been looking for. A fifth year student of Our Lady’s Bower, Athlone, and in search of a new challenge, she decided to apply for a scholarship with UWC, a network of colleges that bring young people from all around the world together to encourage social change.
What she couldn’t have predicted was just how far the ripples of that first step would spread through her life in the years to come. Not only did she complete the International Baccalaureate at UWC Costa Rica (where she was elected president of the student council and valedictorian), but she went on to study law at King’s College London, establish a legal clinic, qualify as a cross-cultural mediator, and join the Irish Naval Service Reserve – all before the age of 24!
Alice traces all of her success over the past seven years back to her experience at UWC between 2012-2014; however she admits she had no idea what to expect when she first arrived.
“When I came across UWC it was as if everything I’d ever dreamed of actually existed,” says Alice. “I applied, and two people [from Ireland] got scholarships that year: I was sent to Costa Rica and another girl was sent to Hong Kong. I remember arriving in Costa Rica at night, on a rickety bus into this campus in the rainforest, and I thought, what have I got myself in for? But they were the best two years of my life.
“Once the bus stopped it was just swarmed by a throng of students – I’ve never seen people so excited. There was a huge welcome party, and that level of energy just never dwindled throughout the two years.”
UWC soon became a ‘home away from home’ for Alice as she got to know her fellow students from all over the world.
“I found it unique that everybody introduced themselves by their first name followed by their country, so I was ‘Alice – Ireland’. It was interesting to see how your understanding of a country is shaped by the person who represents it there, in that little microcosm of the world. Everybody who attends has different interests, but what they share is an eagerness to pursue those interests for the betterment of others,” she says.
“But what really was the most meaningful experience for me was that I was challenged both in and outside the classroom. An integral part of a UWC education is service, so I’d be in class in the morning and spend the afternoons doing service in the community. I trained as a cross-cultural mediator, and we worked in women’s prisons and different rehabilitation centres in Costa Rica. Even now, I can trace back the impact that training had on me and the way it shaped my interests going forward.”
Alice went on to study law at Kings College London, a vastly different experience from the ‘bubble’ of UWC where she had constant support from the cohort of students.
“London was a huge change; suddenly I was in a big city, all alone. King’s College is in the very centre of the city, there really is no campus feel to it, the complete opposite of what I had come from. But it was then that I really came to appreciate the network of UWC. I connected with alumni who had gone to different colleges; once you leave you join an ever-expanding network of people who have a vast array of interests but who share the same values as you,” she explains.
Currently practising as a civil and commercial mediator in London, Alice’s aspirations lie in human rights law and conflict resolution. Last year she worked in the British embassy in Paris on the UK Delegation to the OECD, and while studying she helped to found a pro bono mediation clinic.
“That was for two reasons: the first was that I wanted to be able to help provide legal services to vulnerable members of the community, but I also wanted to find a way to encourage young people to use their skill set now, instead of waiting to be qualified,” she explains. “That was something that UWC gave me; I was constantly searching for a level of responsibility that isn’t traditionally given to young people.”
The mediation clinic currently trains 50 student mediators a year and has expanded into a legal clinic, a legacy of which Alice is justifiably proud. Earlier this year she added another string to her bow when she was awarded the Graham Turnbull Human Rights Law Award by the Law Society of England and Wales.
Her latest venture is something of a departure from this career path, but nonetheless complements her passion for human rights. Three years ago she joined the Irish Naval Reserve, after hearing about their work in the humanitarian missions in the Mediterranean, and she is currently one of six reservists being trained as a Naval Boat Coxswain for rescue operations.
“It was quite a rigorous process, but it has been a fantastic means of meeting different people, all of whom share a sense of wanting to give back to Ireland. My chosen career path is very intellectual, it encourages you to form opinions and to develop your own voice, but there’s a very different structure to the Navy. I like being challenged to be disciplined and to have to rely on your teammates.”
Alice’s naval commitments bring her home to Ireland at least once a month, something her parents, Anne and PJ, from Coosan, are thankful for. “It’s a big commitment but it’s worth it. My parents are probably very grateful to the Navy that it brings me home, so I tend to add on a day or two to see them when I come home.”
Alice’s younger brother Michael – a student of Marist College – will follow in her footsteps in the coming weeks, as he will be the first Irish student to attend UWC Dilijan in Armenia.
“I think I’m nearly more excited for him than I was for myself, because I now know how special it is,” says Alice. “I think what I would say to Michael, or any young person applying to UWC, is: stay for all of the conversations. You can be so busy, you can be dragged from one place to another, but I think my most formative learning experiences were sitting at the lunch table with my peers and drawing upon their life experiences, because that’s really what shaped my understanding of the world. It really broadens your horizons in that sense.
“UWC is the best thing that ever happened to me. I have no regrets, only a ton of gratitude, and I’d love more students from local secondary schools to know about it.”