Leo Penny

Class of 2010

As an elementary student at St. Catherine’s, Leo Penny had an early enthusiasm for exploring other cultures. An eager participant in the geography fair, he enjoyed imagining life in another country—preparing new foods and delving into the details that make people and places unique.  

Two years ago—midway through his studies at St. Thomas High School—Leo was presented with the opportunity to develop his childhood interests through the study abroad experience of a lifetime.  After a whirlwind admissions process that began after his father recovered a mailed flier from the trash, Leo departed for Swaziland, a small country in southern Africa, to complete his high school education at the prestigious Waterford Kamhlaba School.

While hesitant to leave St. Thomas, Leo wanted to gain firsthand insight into Swazi culture and the problems facing African peoples. Leo also saw a great opportunity to collaborate with students from all over the globe in promoting peace and sustainability. The promise of zebras didn’t hurt either, he likes to joke.  

“Often as Americans, we have this view of "Africa" as this starving and sick jungle,” he said. “The truth is, even describing such a diverse range of cultures, climates and socio-economic groups under one term, "Africa," is very demeaning. I am not a part of some mission trip where I save countless people’s lives. I have a much humbler objective here—to get a high school diploma.” 

The Waterford Kamhlaba School was founded in 1963 in opposition to South African apartheid. Multiracial since its inception, the school has historically resisted oppression and advocated democracy in southern Africa. Former students have included Ian Khama, the current president of Botswana, and the children of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. 

In 1981, Waterford became affiliated with United World Colleges (UWC), a group of 15 international schools conceived during the cold war era as a way to bring young people together in the spirit of shared learning, collaboration and understanding. Since the end of apartheid, Waterford’s student recruitment has focused on developing leadership potential in African countries experiencing conflict or post-conflict conditions. Half of the student body is composed of students from African countries, and the other half is composed of students from the rest of the world. 

Leo, who attended St. Catherine’s from first grade through Adolescent Community, is one of two Americans currently enrolled at Waterford. He will complete the International Baccalaureate degree program in November. His studies have included traditional academic subjects, the arts and language instruction in French, and he has picked up as much SiSwati as possible along the way. Most of Leo’s teachers lived through apartheid, and others have been refugees from countries that have experienced genocide. Many of his fellow students rely heavily on scholarships to even travel to their homes. 

Being immersed in such a diverse international environment has given Leo a new perspective on global issues, along with his identity as an American. He says he quickly realized that an American perspective—and even sense of humor—were not always appreciated, inspiring him to reconsider some of his assumptions, and to adopt local colloquialisms and humor when appropriate. 

“I had to disentangle myself from my culture,” he said. “Where I’m from has made me unique and given me an identity. However this identity is a ‘lazy’ identity too easily adopted. I struggled to find who I truly was regardless of cultural, economic or racial modifiers. Transcending my pride has allowed me to become a global citizen. My ideas are not American any longer, nor are they my own. They belong to the world.”

As a student at Waterford, Leo gave one of the first ever TEDx talks in Swaziland about sustainability and the environment, especially relating to the space age. Developing sustainable practices is a priority at Waterford, and during Leo’s time there, students developed a recycling program and devised a plan to make the school completely carbon neutral. For their efforts, they won the Zayed Future Energy Prize, an international honor awarded for significant contributions to the future of sustainable energy. 

Through such projects, Leo has learned the importance of camaraderie in devising workable solutions. Sustainability is as much a matter of friendship as technology, he said. 

“One of my favorite photos is with my friends Lior (from Isreal) and Ibrahim (from Iraq),” he said. “As we are able to maintain our friendship, it gives hope to maintain a more friendly future between our nations. What can we not accomplish if we are truly working together as friends?”

While Leo spends much of his time studying, he has also found time to read, mentor younger students, play rugby, go rock climbing, play soccer, lead a science club, dance tango, perform slam poetry, and
help with IT problems. He also writes a blog and goes on some pretty amazing camping trips.

Leo credits his Montessori education for preparing him for his many adventures in Swaziland. His continued devotion to learning and working in community were seeds planted during his St. Catherine’s days. 

“St. Catherine’s is one of the main, if not the main reason, I am who I am today,” he said. “Since the beginning, the unrestricted environment and constant support of my teachers pushed me to challenge myself more and more. I'd always seek to do more than was asked. Why? We didn't have grades, tests or anything like that. The reason I was doing these things was because I loved learning.”

Even an ocean away, Leo stays in touch with his St. Catherine’s classmates, whom he says share his curiosity and enthusiasm for new ventures. A close friend from St. Catherine’s will be joining Leo in Swaziland for a tour of Africa this fall. The experience of being away for so long has also made Leo more appreciative of his bond with his younger brother, Noah, another St. Catherine’s alumnus and accomplished St. Thomas student.  

After graduating from Waterford, Leo plans to return to the States to pursue his college education, with a focus in engineering or operations research. He hopes to become an astronaut and to continue working for international peace and sustainability.