Passion and Purpose
NMH teachers and students are constantly asking question, seeking solutions, and contributing to a better world.
Essay by Bea Garcia, Assistant Head of School for Academic Programs and Dean of Faculty
Illustration by Sam Falconer
Alanna* is an NMH student who arrived on campus as a 9th grader full of excitement and anticipation. Her ultimate goal was to travel the world. Alexander* came to NMH as a 10th grader, hoping his future path would reveal itself to him. He was not ready to make his own decisions yet and he defaulted to going with the flow. Both students were typical teenagers who thought NMH was the place for them. Both expected to be transformed.
And they were — but not without challenges along the way. Alexander and Alanna each discovered that at NMH, we are constantly asking questions and moving forward. We never settle. We always want to learn how to do better. NMH teachers prioritize exploring new ways to meet students where they are and help them live good lives. Starting in our humanities courses, we ask 9th graders to reflect on their identities, their place in the world, and the choices they make as global citizens. Next, we challenge our 10th graders to look at the world through the lens of equity and inclusivity, through the story of power and powerlessness; we advise them against the danger of the single story. The goal is to create the conditions that allow all our students to find their own answers. The goal is to educate with passion and purpose.
In those early years, Alanna thrived. She got good grades, did her work, seemed to always be smiling and happy, and made friends. But something was still missing. That magic revelation about what she would do with her life had not yet come. Alexander, a more average student, also found support and connection, but was also far from finding his calling. Their teachers continued to engage them and push them to try new things with an eye on the long view: helping them find a path toward a life of fulfillment.
NMH’s mission is to empower students, and our academic program is one of our most powerful tools. It stands, by design, at the intersection of innovation and equity, and in that intentionality, we live out our mission. Through a holistic, interdisciplinary approach, we help our students take charge of their own learning, and our focus on experiential opportunities connects the dots and truly engages students in their education.
The new fabrication lab in the Gilder Center, for example, is open to every student who wants to tinker and learn through design thinking and trial and error. Our Capstone Program encourages seniors to take deep scholarly dives into areas that spark their intellectual curiosity, working independently with full agency but also with faculty mentors. Our Social Entrepreneurship program guides students in applying their knowledge and creating enterprises that solve problems in local and global communities. NMH’s arts program encourages students to help drive the creative process and discover new dimensions of their talent as they compose, sing, direct, choreograph, and make visual art. Next year, we will start a new Farm Program that will connect students more deeply to NMH’s natural resources, combining a science course, an English course, a workjob commitment, and multiple visits to nearby farms. By emphasizing local heritage, cultures, landscapes, and hands-on experiences, the program will allow students to apply knowledge, develop skills, and learn through a different lens.
These examples of experiential learning, which are grounded in our mission to educate the head, heart, and hands of our students, consistently result in transformative stories like those of Alanna and Alexander. During her junior year, Alanna had an epiphany. She had hosted exchange students at NMH multiple times, which required significant personal effort and an attempt to leave her comfort zone. However, she knew she had to take the next step — to go abroad herself and experience what it meant to insert herself in another culture and to respect and honor the thinking, practices, and people that define it. And she did. Alexander took the same step, traveling with NMH to learn within cultures very different from his own, but his desire came from a different place; he saw this as one of his last chances to find something that would move him to the core. Both students had valid reasons for wanting to travel. Both were encouraged, supported, and pushed by teachers who believed in them.
Students are at the center of everything we do. We meet them where they are and provide the conditions for their growth. Recently, a student shared with me that during a college admission interview, they highlighted their experience studying a language through our Service Learning Program. This program allows NMH students to teach the very language they are learning to elementary school students in the nearby towns of Bernardston and Northfield. They navigate the learning and teaching process, reflect on the values of educational access and opportunity, and manage the challenges of helping others learn. They experience an incredible feeling of accomplishment and pride when their young students are able to communicate in Spanish or French at the end of the semester.
“ We must create the conditions that allow all our students to find their own answers.”
AT NMH, WE ARE COMMITTED to helping students develop the literacies they need “to achieve their goals, develop their knowledge and potential, and participate fully in their community and wider society,” as UNESCO describes it. Service and leadership, global fluency, social justice, sustainability, and cultural awareness are some of the literacies we expect our students to develop, practice, and apply at NMH and beyond.
Alanna and Alexander are prime examples. Traveling internationally, Alanna felt empowered. She developed a new network of people who became her extended family, and later, she even brought her biological family to meet her new community. She felt transformed and committed herself to transforming others. Upon her return to NMH, she became a leader and encouraged others to engage and act. Alexander’s experience abroad was different but similarly remarkable. Something clicked for him in his new community. He connected with people and places with a new sense of purpose and started to understand his role in the world. A few weeks after Alexander returned home, his father wrote to the NMH teachers who had led his trip: “I am humbly grateful for what you did. I sent a student with you. You brought back my son.”
We live in a world that requires us to be flexible and adaptable, one that calls for innovation and drive. We need global citizens who can engage and respond with empathy and compassion, citizens who use a systems-thinking approach to solve problems with curiosity, an open mind, and an understanding of the interconnectedness that makes us human. We must educate students so they know how to collaborate around common goals, and how to commit themselves to equity and inclusivity as they invite others into the conversation. Our global society needs people who are divergent thinkers, who are prepared to approach traditional and new problems with a multidisciplinary perspective, who are excellent communicators in different environments, and who have developed the competencies to navigate the world. At NMH, we are committed to educating the head, heart, and the hands of our students. It’s how we can empower them to become creative agents of change and to act with humanity and purpose. [NMH]
*Names have been changed to protect students’ privacy.