Forty years ago, the first students to officially complete the IB Diploma Programme were celebrating their graduation. IB World tracked down three of them and asked them what happened next
The British Schools, Montevideo, Uruguay
Uruguay in the early 1970s wasn’t a good place to be a 16-year-old. There were economic problems and a lot of political turmoil. We had a coup detat in 1973. It was difficult to study. Classes would be cancelled at the last minute and there was a lot of pressure on students to conform to a Marxist framework. We knew we might be forced to leave our country at some point.
We needed a programme that would allow us to go elsewhere, a ticket abroad. As a native Uruguayan, I was studying the national curriculum even though I attended The British Schools. But when the school offered me the chance to do the IB Diploma Programme, I jumped at the opportunity. Of the 15 students who graduated, all of them Uruguayan, only six are still in the country.
The Diploma Programme asked us to do things we hadn’t done before. Theory of knowledge was a lot of fun. We had to write a thesis. It was the first time someone told me to go away and write about something I was really interested in. I wrote mine on Lenin very topical.
Three years after I’d graduated, I left Uruguay and was accepted as a freshman at Columbia University in New York to study economics. I noticed they gave extra credits for the Advanced Placement, so I asked if they did for the IB. I was surprised they’d heard of the programme, but they gave me six months credit. They were amused that someone from Uruguay had a degree from Geneva. The Uruguayan currency was worthless for paying for tuition fees in the USA: six months of college credit for the IB Diploma Programme was one of the best deals I’ve ever done, and I work in banking.
After graduating from Columbia, I studied for an MBA in finance at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. I’ve been working in the banking industry for 32 years now and am the director of a bank in Geneva, where I’ve been living for more than 25 years. Much of that is thanks to the Diploma Programme.
It gave me the confidence to try to get into a university overseas. I had something to show people. Without it, I would only have had the Uruguayan Baccalaureate, and no-one knew what that was. It definitely opened doors for me.
UWC Atlantic College, Wales, UK
I remember writing home and saying: I wish there were 48 hours in the day. I was working hard and playing hard. At the time, there wasn’t a choice between [British] A-Levels and the IB Diploma Programme. They ran parallel and we did them both.
Before joining UWC Atlantic College, I had been studying for A-Levels at a local school in Wales, but the IB was a better fit as I wanted to move towards the social sciences. Every day started with an enforced early-morning swim. We spent a lot of time and effort wetting our hair so it looked like we’d been swimming. Then there was a programme of lessons, followed by afternoon activities like beach and cliff rescue, then more lessons. By the time it got to 10pm, you were so tired that having to share a room with three other people wasn’t an issue. In fact, my room-mates, who came from El Salvador, USA and the Netherlands, taught me a huge amount.
Studying the Diploma Programme made education more personal. I started to think that school was for me, not for my parents, and I should see it as a valuable way of spending my time. Learning by rote isn’t interesting, but learning the reasons behind something is. It also gave me a taste for exams. The questions weren’t trying to trick you, and they weren’t about ticking boxes, they were aiming to bring out your creativity and originality.
I took a degree in social psychology, then spent 17 years as a management consultant. Today, I run my own business, a farm enterprise and conference centre in Wales. Now in my third age approaching 60 I have become involved in education in Sri Lanka, as part of a group establishing primary schools in post-conflict areas. We are aiming to set up 200 in total we’ve completed 10 so far.
Having a qualification that isn’t country-specific really sets you apart. I married a Norwegian and spent part of each year living in Sri Lanka. The IB experience gave me the hunger to explore the world. Naturally, I’m thrilled that 40 years after I completed the Diploma Programme, my youngest daughter, Talula, has just begun studying for hers at UWC Costa Rica. The IB runs in the family.
International School of Geneva, Switzerland
I grew up in Geneva but we spent a year in New York, so I actually studied the IB Diploma Programme at two different schools. I spent my first year at the UN International School before I switched to the International School of Geneva.
In New York, the UN didn’t have the money for a school building. At first, we were in a derelict public school that was due to be demolished. Then we moved to a warehouse and our classes were held in cubicles. At both schools, I had the option to study American SATs, English A-Levels or the Diploma Programme. I felt the IB was right for me the other choices just seemed too narrow.
There were only a dozen of us studying the Diploma Programme in Geneva. We felt we were special, the guinea pigs trying this new, challenging course. It felt like the school trusted we had the capacity to succeed, that we were serious and motivated.
Besides the sheer range of subjects I remember taking history, English, French, biology and art, among others we got to study theory of knowledge (ToK) and write a thesis. ToK was completely different from anything I had done before. It didn’t seem like a high school course. The kind of thinking you were required to do made it seem like you had already gone on to university. We didn’t have a CAS element, but I wish we had. It’s great for students to get out of academia and engage with the real world.
Today I work in women’s rights and development in Lahore, Pakistan, as Director of Research at Shirkat Gah Women’s Resource Centre. I am also a UN Independent Expert in the field of cultural rights. I speak to people about the IB all the time and I always say: You’re looking at one of the original IB guinea pigs.
Where it all began
Although the IB was officially founded in 1968, it was not until May 1971 that the first full IB Diploma Programme candidates sat their exams. From 1968 to 1970, trial examinations featuring students from any institution willing to teach a Diploma Programme course were held at schools across the world. From 1971, only officially recognized IB World Schools were permitted to enter candidates.
Twelve schools on five continents entered a total of 601 students into the 1971 exams, including the International School of Ibadan in Nigeria and Iranzamin International School in Iran, as well as schools that still offer the IB Diploma Programme today such as Copenhagen International School in Denmark and International College Beirut in Lebanon. In total, 76 students sat the full Diploma Programme and 525 took IB certificates. The Diploma Programme pass rate was 70%.
In September 1971, Lord Mountbatten presented qualifications to students at the International School of Geneva, the first official IB World School. This programme must be really international, he said.
It must not reflect the national bias of different nations. No such programmes and examinations existed until the International Baccalaureate was created. This is its great achievement.