The Turn Toward Action

Tim Breen
It highlighted for me the importance of both empowering our students and helping them see the role they play in building our community and our world.
By Timothy Breen, Head of School
The following article was written by Tim for our Alumnae/i Magazine, Echoes (Winter 2012 Edition).
We’re here to put a dent in the universe.
– Steve Jobs

This fall we had a number of experiences at the School that highlight the power of engagement — of getting involved and making a difference. During Family Weekend and Alumnae/i Weekend we hosted a panel of graduates who shared their experiences of service. Led by Keynote speaker Liz Zopfi Chace ’55, each panelist shared the joys of engaging with service to make the world a better place. Our panelists included Kelly Cornell ’04, Brett Kaull ’80, Anne Wheeler Rowthorn ’58 and Kristina Engstrom ’56. Each had a story to tell and several shared early influences and their first steps into service.   I was struck by the power of taking the first step — and that several of the panelists traced their belief in the power of action back to their time at St. Mary’s/White Mountain. Community service opportunities here were mentioned, as well as the work jobs program and simply the fact that this is a place where students can take leadership in the running of the School. It highlighted for me the importance of both empowering our students and helping them see the role they play in building our community and our world.

In November we held an Environmental Symposium, gathering regional leaders for workshops about working toward a sustainable world. Keynote speaker Bill McKibben, noted author and environmentalist, spoke about his own turn toward action. It was precipitated by a visit to Bangladesh in which he saw first-hand the devastating consequences of climate change. Thousands were dying from a new mosquito-born disease. He also became very sick from the disease — though he noted that he was lucky to be in good health to begin with and survived. He said that he is by nature a writer, not an activist, but he now feels compelled to make a bigger impact. This has led to his founding of the organization with students from Middlebury College.

As part of our strategic planning process, we have noted that a singular strength of our School is that we can help students see their role in the world, see that they can “make a dent in the universe.” To do this we not only put them in contact with others who are doing so, we work to encourage them to make a difference right here and now. I share two recent examples.

First, last spring a couple of students came to Assistant Head Nate Snow with a request to start a new team at School: cross-country running. After thinking through some of the hurdles together, the students went out and gathered necessary support from students and faculty. This fall we had our first cross-country running team. Ten students worked hard throughout the season, showing tremendous progress. And the girls team brought home the Lakes Region Championship! The lesson: if you want something, then make it happen.

Second, I am privileged to be teaching the Independent Research Seminar this fall. In this course students explore a passion of their own choosing in depth. Together we work to frame their work, but each project must include a research paper, a presentation (to share with others) and a component that “adds value” to the world. This fall we have students reviving the School literary magazine, putting together a local foods banquet, and building a website to collect resources on converting human action into energy (e.g., floors that generate electricity when compressed by footsteps). In each case, students are not only developing traditional research and writing skills, they are adding value to the world — making it a better place for all.

If our graduates leave not only with the tools for success, but with the belief that they can, and should, make a difference, we have surely done our work here.

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