Soraya Sayed Hassen: Leadership for a New Era

Update: In Dec 2018, the Board of UWC Mahindra was pleased to extend the appointment of Ms. Soraya Sayed Hassen as the Head of College till 2022. Soraya served as interim Head of College from August 2018 after the departure of Pelham Lindfield-Roberts. Prior to this she was Deputy Head of College with previous tenures as Head of Academics and Faculty for English & French. Click here to read the announcement of her appointment by the Chairman of the Board of Directors. 

Soraya Sayed Hassen, born in Mauritius to a family of Indian origin, is a passionate educator with over two decades of teaching experience. Moving to London in her adolescent years, she acquired a BA Honours in English from Buckingham University in 1997 before pursuing her Masters’ degree at Monash University and a Postgraduate Diploma in Education from the University of Canberra.

Since then, she has held various teaching positions at schools in Mauritius and Australia across a variety of curricula including the Cambridge IGCSE & A Level syllabi, and the International Baccalaureate. An inherent understanding of the Indian context coupled with her substantial experience as a UWC faculty member gives Soraya a nuanced understanding of the College’s challenges and needs. As Head Of College, she is committed to achieving educational excellence and strengthening sustainability as a core value of the College.

Soraya Sayed Hassen, Head Of College

You’ve had quite an unusual journey to this position, as opposed to most Heads of UWCs. Tell us about that.

It’s been quite ideal, really. Because even as an experienced educator, I would’ve felt very daunted to apply for a Head Of College position to a UWC had I not actually experienced it as a faculty. I think it’s very helpful to start from the ground up to understand how a place like this functions. To be able to lead people and convince them of the decisions you’re making as a leader, they need to feel that you understand the position they are occupying. And I feel the teaching experience here strengthened me because I experienced first hand what we’re asking of faculty. Owing to the gradual promotion, I also understand the challenges of taking on a leadership role in a place that defines itself by its very flat democratic structure. I think that’s challenging for someone even with a lot of leadership experience, and it takes some time to acquire the right language and develop the right attitude. So I’m happy that my journey has allowed me to do it in a step by step manner even though the steps have been quite quick.

You mentioned perspectives earlier, and another perspective you bring with you is that of a MUWCI parent. Your son is in his second year here now. What are the insights gained from that?

It has been interesting to view what the college does for a student from that angle, almost functioning as a counter-check, to be on both sides of the fence at the same time. It helps me keep a finger on the pulse in terms of ensuring that we’re taking into account the various stakeholders that are involved. For example, being on the receiving end of the Admissions communication helps me understand whether we’re sending out information in a way that makes sense to parents. And on a purely emotional level, seeing my son evolve during his time here helps me understand what students are going through and empathise with parents as they let go of their child. It drives home the profound responsibility that we take on here – that of ensuring the safety, security, education and well-being of these young people at a very crucial time in their lives.

There’s a push for diversity in leadership within the UWC Movement currently. What is your outlook on that?

I think the way people see themselves represented has a huge impact on whether people feel something is accessible to them. So when the faces that represent UWC become as diverse as the student body, it will have an impact on who chooses to work here and who chooses to send their children here. Ideally when people look at the leadership, they should see all kinds of people represented there, see people like them being recognised. That’s what creates a feeling of something being accessible and inclusive.

I also think we perhaps overestimate how much people know about UWC, and rely on a network of people who have already been connected to the movement in some way. So I think diversity in leadership also really widens the pool in terms of the networks these leaders bring into the fold of the movement. It’s great when we have people who attended a UWC coming back to work at one of them, but we have to be mindful of whether we’re truly representative of the kind of diverse people we want to attract.

Looking forward into the year, what is guiding you? What are certain priorities you have laid out for yourself?

I look to the College’s Strategic Vision 2022 which was developed to propel MUWCI into a phase of strategic growth. The first pillar being Diversity Through Access and the Office of Admissions and Advancement is doing a great job with that. I’m learning a lot on that front myself. Something I’m quite keen on now is to collaborate with the Indian National Committee to ensure diversity within the Indian students that come to MUWCI. The next pillar is Achieving Educational Excellence, which is all about utilizing that wealth of diversity responsibly and wisely. And that’s where I’m choosing to spend most of my energy this year. Maximizing everything we have here, be it the people, resources or even and especially engagement with the local context we work in.

Some absolutely great educators have passed through MUWCI. The kind of rural engagement, seminars, classroom discussions and excursions that have been carried out conducted here have been of an exceptional standard. What we’ve been less organised about is documenting the learning from it so it can be replicated or built upon. Of course, it lives on in the students who benefited from it and the people who continue to be here, but for me this is a year of consolidating all that. And that takes me to an important subset of this pillar, which is faculty development and retention. We only have our students for two years, so in many ways the continuity lies in the handing over from one group of faculty to another. And to ensure that this transition is seamless, and people have a solid foundation to build on each year is something that the Leadership team is focused on this year.

That said, at MUWCI, more than any place I have ever worked at, I’m very conscious of treading a delicate balance so that while it is important to organise and standardize systems and processes, it is equally important to preserve the spontaneity and allow for things to happen in an organic way.

Speaking of great educators, what would you say is the profile of someone who is a good fit for MUWCI?

I think it has to be someone who is more than anything, excited about education. Somebody who can take responsibility for young people, but is unafraid to give them a chance to discover themselves. Someone who understands that rigor is important, but also leaves room for creativity. Someone who believes that education is not static and learns along with their students. Someone who realizes that every class and cohort is not the same. Saying this person needs to be “open-minded” is a cliché, but it has to be someone who is receptive to new experiences, new ways of learning and passionate about teaching 16-18 year olds, because that is a very specific age group. And being an idealist is a non-negotiable. You have to believe in best-case scenarios, have big dreams and allow others to have them as well. It is admittedly, a tough description to hold someone to. It’s almost like having your head in the clouds, but your feet firmly on the ground at the same time. But I look at the team I’m working with and I see evidence of it in their classrooms, during discussions and the values they live their life by. So in an era when education continues to become more and more commercialized and results-driven, it is hugely invigorating to sustain and contribute to an environment that allows teachers to be autonomous.

With Shaheen Mistry (R) (CEO, Teach For India) at the Class of 2018 Graduation ceremony.

Going back to the Vision 2022, you were talking about the three pillars, the third one being “A sustainable 21st century campus.” What is your interpretation of that?

So there’s two aspects to that. There’s the physical aspect of being sustainable when it comes to our water usage and electricity consumption and so on. Infrastructure wise, we’ve been putting things in place and will continue to do so. But the more important part perhaps, is ensuring the longevity of this place. It’s about constantly questioning whether we are using the land and the resources available to us responsibly and whether our relationship with the local villagers, the nearest City, the country where we are situated, is healthy and looks to be durable. It’s a lot about working on the mindset of everyone who is a stakeholder in this community. Students do some incredible work around sustainability during their time here, but it’s important to get buy-in from the community to ensure that their projects are effective and continue to be effective well past the student’s time here. Or even things like, say we’re promoting and advancing the sciences at MUWCI, is building a state-of-the-art science center the way to do it? Or can we imagine a way to bring science learning into the classroom through the means and resources that are already available to us and instead create a Maker’s Space where Science can be taught not only to our students in a hands-on manner and then but also by our students to the people in the local region? And these things are tougher to crack because of various political and social issues that are outside our control. Previously in this area, we’ve had a tendency to focus on, becoming a Green certified campus, which is part of our vision but the real challenge is in looking at sustainability in the broadest sense of the word, which includes the social and cultural context as well as the very real economic constraints within which we operate.

And my last question, and an important one at that, what is it that sets MUWCI apart?

So I’m not a veteran of the UWC movement, but from what I have seen, MUWCI primes its students to be politically and socially engaged in a way few schools do. And it isn’t a one way street. The students who come here are already hungry for conversations about inequity and discrimination, because they’ve all experienced it in different capacities in their own countries. They’re all trying to figure out their core beliefs and ways of existing in this world when they get here. And MUWCI is a place that fosters that, probably because other than our core IB course of study we also have a strong leaning towards the humanities and the arts. And that’s something to be treasured. I believe that these distinctions between the arts and sciences, between academics and experiential learning are actually quite perfunctory. If you are a highly skilled engineer or scientist, but don’t engage with those fields in a humanistic manner, you will always be limited in what you achieve. So what sets us apart, is that we’re unashamedly focused on these areas of learning and we don’t make excuses for that. I would like to think that a MUWCI student leaving after two years on our campus is equipped to embark on any career they choose, but that they will do so as not as self-centered entities bent only on their own personal success but as individuals conscious that they have a responsibility towards other people in society.