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Singapore families find education and lifestyle upgrade in Phuket

Spencer Forhart gets goosebumps when he recalls the day his family first visited United World College Thailand (UWCT).

“Have you ever been looking for real estate or a new place to live and you look at 20 places and then you walk in and this is it! That was the experience,”

Forhart and his wife, Kathleen Wong, both American expats, had been living in Singapore for nine years, raising their kids, Eleanor, 7, and Owen, 5, and launching a number of successful businesses, including exclusive cocktail bar, 28 Hong Kong Street. With Eleanor on the cusp of grade one, Forhart and Wong were looking at school options, in Singapore and abroad. While Phuket was a favourite vacation spot, it wasn’t a contender until they toured the UWCT campus in February 2017.

Kathleen toured a lot of schools and I toured quite a few schools and we learned to disregard the sales pitch and just look at the kids. If the kids are smiling and being good to each other and being kind to each other, that’s probably a pretty good school. And, it doesn’t matter what their test scores are and how beautiful their swimming pool is if the kids look joyless or robotic. What we saw here was kids, almost uniformly, somewhere between happy and joyful and remarkably so. (Spencer Forhart)

Eleanor and Owen enjoying a Friday night at the local beach.

“Where the light bulb turned on for me was the two side by side murals.” The paintings are located on a wall near the gymnasium. In one, a child paints words describing positive human qualities. The other mural features the opposite – negative human qualities. But what struck Forhart about the negative mural was that it showed, “a child with a roller, painting over and writing a new future.”

Forhart and Wong left UWCT convinced this is where they should start a new future with their family. Six months later, they had moved to Phuket, ready to begin the 2017/18 school year. They’re part of a wave of Singaporean families who are relocating for the UWCT advantage and a more relaxed lifestyle.

Nestled between the jungle-covered hills of a national park and acres of rubber plantations, UWCT is a breath of fresh air for families used to city life. Singapore native, Sonia Tay found it strange at first.

“I was like, is this a school? It felt very village like. We have a word in Malay. “Kampung.” A very village feel. I was pleasantly shocked.”

A wide grin spreads across her face when she remembers standing on the campus lawn during their tour and telling her sons Matteo, 12 and Taddeo, 7: “Look kids, look. 360 around you. What do you see?” “TREES!” they shouted back. For Tay, that green space was a big draw.

“When you go to a playground in Singapore, you’re surrounded by tall buildings. You don’t really get to extend your resting eye. So a lot of kids wear glasses. In Matteo’s class, 90 percent of kids wore glasses,” she said, echoing a common observation among urban parents.

And while the natural environment was appealing, Tay was really drawn to UWCT’s unique mix of academics, service, and social and emotional learning. Her boys had been going to public school in Singapore, and she had some big picture concerns about staying in a traditional system.

“Whatever they studied in school was just going to be obsolete. If I looked at how I want my children to grow up, the focus on social and emotional learning, the focus on mindfulness, those are what I believe are the keys to happiness. This school actually prepares them better for the future.”

UWC Thailand and neighbouring Thanyapura Health & Sport Resort are nestled in the foothills of a National Park.

Forhart concurs: “I tell my friends back in the US that I never dreamed that I would be able to send my kids to a place that would be so advantageous for their futures. The curriculum and the entire programme is designed to build a human that’s flexible and adaptive. The kids in this UWCT system are going to be the disrupters, the policymakers”.

That system is built on the foundation of the International Baccalaureate (IB) programme, and the UWCT motto to help students age 2-18 years develop a “Good Heart, Balanced Mind, and Healthy Body”. As part of the United World College family, an international network of 17 schools, it shares the mission of making education a force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future.

Over 106 diploma level scholarship students from around the world call the school home for two years, studying, sharing and training to become the next generation of global leaders. Exposure to this truly international community is another lure for many parents.

Karine Gauthier was stunned by the diversity when her family attended its first Multicultural Day celebration at UWCT in January 2018.

“The variety of people, the open minds, the respect…it’s divine,” she says with a sigh.

Chinese New Year celebrations on campus.

Gauthier’s family made the move to Phuket in late 2017, but she continues to run her business, Body Temple, a holistic women’s health and fitness centre, out of Singapore. The catalyst for the move was her third child starting international school. She and her husband started considering options that were more budget and lifestyle friendly.

“I felt like the financial was too much in the forefront. All we’re doing is working to pay school fees. There’s more to life,” says Gauthier. “We can still work from here, but we’ve got a good balance. I don’t have to work every day. We can have the three kids in school for the price of two [ in Singapore]”. But the benefits extend far beyond the cost-savings. “Being able to drop the kids at school, walking them to class. And then you pick them up and you can hear about their days. I love it. Life goes so quickly, I want to be able to do this.”

Getting off the hamster wheel is a common theme among these parents. “You’d wake up, send your kids to school, get to work, have your helper pick up the kids from school, come home, dinner, and then the next day rinse and repeat,” recalls Tay, another parent who runs her own virtual business, digital marketing firm, Point O One. She still works with a large client base in Singapore, but Phuket allows Tay more flexibility.

“I’m doing my work and I’m being a present parent.”

In addition, Phuket’s infrastructure makes it easy to maintain a connection to Singapore.

Wong, a lawyer who continues project-based work in the city, admits, “Frankly, before visiting the school, I was very reluctant to move to Phuket. It’s very tourist driven and by nature even more transient, but there are 20 flights a day to Singapore and our jobs still require us to go back all the time. You can still keep one foot in Singapore. Having the school then fit into the practical appeal of Phuket—we felt like it was a sign.”

In many cases, the distance has even been good for business. Start-up co-founder, Forhart, acknowledges that micromanaging is a big risk for a fledgling company, but working mainly from Phuket means he has to let go. “I have to delegate. I have to hire successors. So now I’m actually doing the work that I’m supposed to be doing. At the same time, my team has had to grow up a bit because I’m not there to do that. I think it has probably been really good for the company, for the team.”

It has also been good for these parents on a personal level. Wong is laying the groundwork for her own cafe in Phuket, something that would have been more financially challenging in Singapore. Tay, inspired by a son’s service project, has taken up crochet, and loves making things with her hands again. Forhart is reconnecting with sailing, a passion he put on hold for 14 years, and taking regular meditation classes at Thanyapura, a world-class health and wellness centre connected to the school. Parents get a free membership as part of the UWCT package. Thanyapura’s Booster Bar is a popular spot for working parents who set-up shop after dropping off their kids at school.

“All of those are really radical amenities—being able to overlap your lifestyle with your kids,” says Forhart, who believes that getting off the hamster wheel of city life creates a beneficial time dividend. “I’ve just plugged in four hours of UWCT time and Thanyapura time into my workflow and I’m perfectly efficient and still relaxed.”

For Gauthier, the professional fitness and life coach, the time dividend and the Thanyapura membership means she’s finally getting time to train herself. “How good is that? I’m in heaven!” she exclaims. “On top of having my kids at UWC, I have Thanyapura next door…in Thailand. It’s brilliant. I feel too lucky.”

And for the first time in a long time, Gauthier isn’t thinking about the next move; she’s thinking about maintaining, about putting down roots. “I want the girls to finish their schooling here. That was kind of a big realisation. Whatever we’re doing, we need to keep it working.”

For Tay, seeing her kids flourish is the biggest reward. Her free-spirited younger son was struggling in his Singapore kindy class. “He was just always very reticent. Always at the back of the room. Not like his true nature.” After his first year in kindergarten at UWCT, Taddeo couldn’t wait to move up, asking “When are the school holidays over? I want to go to grade one! And on my husband’s birthday back in early May, we were all having brunch and out of the blue, Taddeo turned to me and said, ‘Mummy, I hope we can stay here forever.’”

When asked about moments when he knew his family had made the right decision in moving to Phuket, Forhart beams. “How much time do you have? Ten times a week I get messages on my phone from my wife, she’s in some random location at a random time, and it says ‘I’m so glad we did this. Can you believe how beautiful our life is now?’”

“Every Friday night, we go to a beach. The only rule is we eat together and we listen to the waves. For some people, this is a bucket list destination. And there it is – 1Km from where we sleep and we get to go there every Friday night and it’s amazing.

Wong’s advice to friends who ask how their family made it happen:

“The big thing is you have to build the life you want.”

For Wong and Forhart, city life just couldn’t offer the things they dreamed of for their children. “Singapore has been really good to us,” says Forhart. “But now that the kids are getting older, I want them to be able to ride a bicycle down a dirt road. I want them to be able to see animals in nature. I want them to be complete humans, to understand the richness of the human experience—all the good and all the bad. Thailand has all of that.”

Grade 11 and 12 students (DP) meditate in the on-campus mindfulness centre.
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