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Students Take the Lead: Self-Gov, Disciplinary Committee, and Dorm Staff
Poet Kahlil Gibran wrote that “work is love made visible.” For many at Olney, this captures the philosophy of service by which students are invited to take on a wide variety of significant leadership roles on campus.
“We ask students to take on leadership. We support them in learning. We realize it’s more difficult than it seems from the outside. We support, guide, and coach them. We acknowledge the difficulties of being a leader among one’s peers. A very high percentage of students at Olney take on leadership roles of one sort or another,” says head of school Rich Sidwell ’63.
Dean of students Micah Brownstein concurs. He adds, “Students need the chance to mess up as much as they need the chance to do well – or else they won’t take advantage of those opportunities later in life.”
One of the most significant predictors of completion of a college degree, Brownstein notes, is student leadership in academic and co-curricular roles. Thus the plethora of available leadership roles at Olney – many outside the classroom – is an essential part of the school’s college preparatory program.
For a high school senior, say, keen to showcase his or her “leadership skills” on a college application, what opportunities does Olney offer?
Student Self-Governance Since 1915
For starters, the school brings a robust tradition of student participation in campus governance. The institution of Self-Gov – or student-led, self-run government of the school – goes back to 1915.
While there is, of course, no one at the school who remembers that era firsthand, it is perhaps not a coincidence that the current head of school is a former Self-Gov leader.
“At that time, it was a senior girl and a senior boy. It was an honor and a responsibility. The students who nominated me saw qualities that I hadn’t seen in myself. It was a real growing experience, and a significant early training experience for me,” says Rich Sidwell ’63.
“My hope is that it could serve a similar purpose today, in terms of students’ taking responsibility. I don’t think some students fully realize the potential. We’d be happy to, as adults, grant even more responsibility if students will take it,” he says.
In addition to serving as the organized voice of student interests, Self-Gov nominates students for various campus committees, including Spiritual Life Committee and a wide variety of ad hoc working groups that spring up over the course of each school year.
These days, Self-Gov leadership is not restricted to seniors. The slate voted into office for 2010-11 includes Rosie Glass ’13 of Bethesda, Ohio; Will Reynolds ’12 of Barnesville, Ohio; Jun Young Kim ’11 of Goyan, South Korea; and Sohrab Amiri ’12 of Iran, Germany, and Kurdistan.
The Self-Gov leaders for 2010-11 met before the end of 2009-10 to lay out an agenda. The goals of the incoming group revolve as much around process as they do around particular topics – though there is also no shortage of specific proposals identified for discussion with faculty.
“We want to break participation down into committees – those interested or involved in a particular topic. And we want to integrate the faculty more,” says Glass.
“We don’t just want to have the whole student body meet together on Tuesday afternoons for Self-Gov meetings,” says Amiri. “Sometimes we will have full sessions; sometimes we will have committees; and sometimes we will meet with faculty to work on particular topics or problems, such as the headphone policy in the library on weekends, or the screen-time policy, or making all-school sing optional,” he explains.
Why go out for a leadership role in Self-Gov? Glass and Amiri have different but complementary perspectives.
“Most students trust me, and most faculty trust me, so I’ve got a decent bridge. I’m not a ‘leader leader.’ So I can be effective. I’m trusted by both sides,” Glass says.
Amiri is more direct. “I want to help the students change the school the way the students want it. Since I’ll be at the school for more than a year or two, I’m interested [in how things are run],” he says.
Do Glass and Amiri feel connected with the traditions of past Self-Gov leaders?
“Yes, I’m really interested in previous Self-Gov leaders. I’ve read the whole binder. I saw the ideas that the old leaders wrote about. I’m interested,” says Amiri.
“We’re continuing it, but we’re also tweaking it – so it works better for now. We’re a little disconnected – but still a little connected to the past,” says Glass.
As the 2009-10 school year was wrapping up, Self-Gov began sending student observers to Faculty Meeting. Faculty reps, in turn, were invited to observe at Self-Gov meetings.
Staying Fair, Unbiased – and Creative
Another critical area where students participate in the running of the campus is Disciplinary Committee, or “DC” for short.
“A meeting happens when a student has committed a major school rule violation or when they have 10 or more [disciplinary] slips during a three-week slip term. There are both teachers and students on the committee. It’s an unbiased place, in which students share their side. We ask a lot of questions. We come up with the consequences. Students can choose between having a DC and an administrative response,” explains Justin Isaac ’11 of Ranipet, India.
Isaac served on Disciplinary Committee in 2009-10. He will serve again in 2010-11. Other student members of DC will be Patrick Musana ’11 of Kigali, Rwanda; Daniel Washburn ’13 of Pleasant Garden, North Carolina; and Kerri Rogers ’13 of Bethesda, Ohio.
Why did Isaac decide to join DC? “I have the gist of most of the rules. I haven’t gotten a lot of [disciplinary] slips. I know where people can go wrong, where it’s easy for them to break the rules. I can help come up with [good] decisions,” he says.
What’s hardest? “Being unbiased. Trying not to make them feel boxed in – making them feel open. Not to ask too many questions – but instead, to give them room to explain themselves. Not to pressure them too much,” he says.
Does being at a Quaker school affect the way Disciplinary Committee works? Isaac describes the Quaker consensus-seeking approach. “When we come up with decisions and consequences, we try to get everyone to agree. Micah doesn’t usually let us go on without having everyone agree,” he says.
How about for Rogers – what made her decide to participate in DC for 2010-11? “I wanted to start getting into leadership roles for next year. DC appealed to me the most. [A friend] nominated me,” she says.
What kind of leadership skills does she want to gain? “It will help me out with building the skill of being unbiased – relating to people. And it will look good for college!” she adds.
What does she think will be hardest? “Thinking about what someone did and trying to come up with a reasonable solution,” she says.
“Small Campus, Big Family”
A third critical area where students provide leadership is on dorm staff.
Krissah Garrison ’11 of Beaumont, Texas is the incoming Girls Dorm Governess for 2010-11. Vilius Kalinauskas ’11 of Vilnius, Lithuania and Justin Isaac will share the position of Boys Dorm Governor.
“You’re the head of the dorm staff – for the students. You’re in charge of making dorm life [better], of creating a more comfortable living space for new students, and for all students. You oversee the general well-being of the dorm,” explains Garrison.
Kalinauskas adds, “You’re a major spokesperson for students. You have final say on student-related decisions made with the adult dorm staff. It’s more of an equally shared role between students and faculty.”
One key part of the role is arriving early to welcome new students: preparing door signs, helping with move-in, and generally making sure everyone has an easy time settling in.
What skills are needed? Garrison explains, “You have to be socially flexible. You sway between social circles. Even though it is Olney and we’re very small, people do prefer to hang out with certain people. You need to be able to communicate with everyone.”
Kalinauskas puts in, “Yes, and in addition, you have to be fair, understanding, and respectful of others. Not just for yourself – you have to spread these qualities throughout the dorm.”
“You have to be a good listener, too,” says Garrison. Second-year students and above are generally eligible to be on dorm staff. The staff goes on retreat twice a year. “You become a group of friends. You cover for each other,” she says.
The end result for students who live in the dorm – when all goes well – is what one alumna describes as the “small campus, big family” feel of the school.
Dean of students Micah Brownstein describes his aspirations for the student dorms. “We want a positive atmosphere — a welcoming feeling. We want the dorms to be a place where people can resolve conflicts and learn from each other,” he says.
Girls dorm staff also includes Dan Chen ’11 of Wuhu, China; Martina Karugarama ’11 of Kigali, Rwanda; Ellie Taylor ’11 of New Albany, Ohio; Kim Wagner ’12 of Raleigh, North Carolina; Joey Dockery ’13 of Charlotte, North Carolina; and Halie Gary ’13 of Detroit, Michigan.
Boys dorm staff also includes Don Snyder ’11 of Flushing, New York; Patrick Musana; Tuan Nguyen ’11 of Hanoi, Vietnam; Yuxi Zhao ’12 of Wuxi, China; and Jun Young Kim.
An Abundance of Leadership Roles
While Self-Gov, Disciplinary Committee, and dorm staff are all key roles, additional opportunities for leadership abound.
All students gain practical experience through “office work” – which runs the gamut from sweeping to mopping to dish crew. While the school has a maintenance staff, there is no janitorial staff. Students have daily and weekly chores. Some students are dish crew leaders or office work graders, in which case they are responsible for coordinating, overseeing, and/or supervising their peers’ work.
“I view office work as crucial to the school,” says Kalinauskas, himself an office work grader. “It keeps our school clean and it keeps down the cost of the school. Each student saves $1,000 or so each year, just by doing the work ourselves.”
Garrison is likewise an office work grader. “You learn responsibility. You can’t leave a mess and just say, ‘Someone will pick it up.’ You realize if you had that job, you wouldn’t want someone to do that. Or maybe someone’s family members are visiting [and you want the school to look nice],” she adds.
Students take the lead in team sports as well. Several girls and boys each year are captains of sports teams. In this role, they may be in charge of equipment setup, choosing teams, or creating a starting lineup to play in an intramural match against another school.
In addition, students participate in the admissions process by hosting prospective students. They assist with faculty hiring by completing evaluation sheets when candidates teach sample classes. They fill out teacher/class evaluations at the end of each course. Some travel with admissions or development staff to help represent the school to wider world. They share meals with board members during board meetings.
Students serve on the Spiritual Life Committee, which plans twice-weekly meeting for worship and coordinates occasional community-wide meetings as the need arises. They comprise the Tech Crew, which assists, and subs for, the Technology Coordinator in covering media needs for events. In this capacity, they also make recommendations regarding technology policy for the school.
What types of leadership development might be in the future for Olney students? Brownstein cites his ongoing wish to get Olney Friends School students more deeply connected with the Quaker youth leadership movement, both regionally and nationally. Distance-based limitations on transporting students provide an obstacle.
New roles for students in 2010-11 will include serving on an Events Committee (newly constituted) and providing leadership in the school-wide summit planning process. Several students will join board members, faculty, and staff as members of the Program Committee and Local Arrangements Committee. Together, these groups will coordinate a major gathering in October to address the school’s future.