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    Navigating Identity: My Journey as a British Girl in Bangkok

    Arriving in Bangkok at International School Bangkok (ISB) at the start of the 1980s as a 13-year-old British white girl who had attended a selective all girls’ High School, I suddenly found myself in a co-educational International school I often describe as the set of Grease, populated by children and staff from every corner of the world. I was one of a small handful of British kids because, at that time, many returned to boarding school in the United Kingdom (UK) for Senior school. This was one of the only High Schools in Bangkok, and it was a United States (US) curriculum - writes Julia Hancock, Leadership Coach and Educator.

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    Cultural Shock: Embracing Diversity at International School Bangkok (ISB)

    Not only was my accent noticeable, but we also had a very different vocabulary. Even the maps on the wall were different. At that time, anyone with fairer hair was noticed out and about in Bangkok, and when we went shopping, we drew crowds of attention. This was not comfortable, but it taught me so much about otherness, perspectives, and diversity. Learning about a culture very different from the one I identified with at the time was such a valuable learning experience.

    It was such a culture shock for a girl who’d grown up in a small town in the UK, predominantly surrounded by people who spoke and looked like me. Interesting now, that being back in Bangkok, I felt the most at home I had in a long time. Returning in 2024 has been like someone switching all the lights on full stage wash and the track blaring out my theme tune. The piece of my identity jigsaw I had lost down the back of the sofa when I returned to the UK and seemingly picked up where I’d left off was put firmly back in place.

    Returning Home: Reflecting on the Impact of ISB

    I have realised that my two years in Bangkok were such pivotal years in shaping my identity and my sense of self, and this was largely down to the experience of being welcomed in by a school that made sure they understood me, my needs, and by peers who, irrespective of how we looked, spoke or our beliefs, really saw each other. Our school encouraged each and every one of us to be the person we needed to be. We were given opportunities, offered an eye on the world, enabled to share our unique and varied cultures, and in doing so, create a culture and ethos of our own, where everyone had a place, a platform, and was empowered to flourish, with a sense of why not? Let me see if that’s possible. We were not constrained by our backgrounds, heritage, or any assumptions.

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    Empowerment through Education: The ISB Philosophy

    In an environment of vast difference, we were all celebrated, appreciated, and encouraged to find our place in the world. The sense that our school wanted the best for each and every one of us was unwavering, and I know this ethos of inclusion and, at the same time, celebration of our unique qualities has made me the person I am today. I’ve said more than once this week that I cannot bring myself to use the word ‘hate.’ I know that this school formed a huge part of my values systems, and I learnt to be open to difference and to lead from an intention of love and compassion. I may have been wronged at points in my life, but I can’t say I hate anyone. I may be disappointed, betrayed, or horrified by the actions of others at times, but I’d rather find a place to direct an intention of love into the direction of travel than dwell on what’s gone before. People who lead with fear or hate in their hearts will ultimately have to deal with and reconcile to that themselves and face the consequences of their actions.

    Leading with Love: Lessons from ISB for a Fulfilling Life

    As I sat in that ISB auditorium, the joy, the collective sense of belonging and understanding was palpable. We all shared the knowledge that this school had been integral to making us who we are today. As an educator and coach, I realised the influence this had had on forming my philosophy and vision for my work: the absolute conviction that we have to nurture the whole person and ensure we work to develop their emotional, physical, spiritual, and academic/cognitive understanding, enable a strong self-concept and belief, and to inspire their ownership of their learning, to engage them in meaningful and diverse experiences, and to empower them to take their unique place in the world – to look with a clear perspective and to lead with love and humanity.

    There have been times in my life when I’ve been questioned about my accent, my choice of dress, my gender, and my age. Being asked in my 50s when I was thinking about retiring, with the implication my husband would continue to support me, was memorable. I remember being queried about the fact I didn’t wear a suit as a headteacher. I replied I hadn’t seen that in the job description and that a suit wouldn’t work “well when I was crawling into the hobbit house ( or on the way out of it, for that matter). What I was thinking was more about my identity and why, as a woman, I should ever feel the need to wear a suit to feel valid.


    Beyond Boundaries: ISB's Enduring Legacy

    I am uniquely me. I know now I have ISB to thank for much of the formation of what this means, but every experience and the people that have enabled and empowered me along the way has shaped me. Sometimes, this has been more positive than others. However, I know I have been led by love, hope, determination, a belief in boundless possibilities, and appreciation of the unique qualities of those I meet along the way, coupled with the understanding that we may be very different, but there will always be opportunities to meet each other on common ground and discover new perspectives.

    I find myself marvelling at a school that worked this out in the midst of so many International conflicts and societal changes. In the midst of COVID-19, alumni were all contacted to record returning class messages for the Class of 2020’s remote graduation ceremony. We continue to be included, valued, and celebrated, and we continue to celebrate the legacy we leave for future students.


    Cultivating Connection & Building Boundless Opportunities

    This brings me to Love. Simply put, if we cultivate our vision founded from a place of love rather than fear, then our decisions, actions, and ways of inviting more opportunities for connection, curiosity, and compassion inspire a love of life, learning, and each other. #uniquelyISB 

    Want to know more about the #UniquelyISB education we provide?



    Written by: Julia Hancock, Leadership Coach and Educator

    Alumni Community High School