Where “Urgent Challenges” Meet Autonomy, Competence, and Belonging

(Damaris McLean, June 2023)

The sidewalks of the Upper West Side of New York, where I live, are filled with fluttering sky blue caps and gowns, a signal that it is graduation season at Columbia University, just north of us. At Nightingale, our students are about to graduate as well, which brings to mind so many questions. Now that they know so much, what will they do? What is the meaning and responsibility of the tremendous education they have received? Why are they pursuing a higher degree in college? What do they need to thrive in the future? How will they contribute to the common good of our community? And, what is my own role as the Director of Global Partnerships and Community Engagement in helping our students answer these questions?

Last summer at a leadership retreat, our head of school, Paul Burke, asked us to consider two “urgent challenges” in our work for the 2022-2023 school year: To actively create the school that our students need to thrive in the future and To come together as a full community in celebration of what we uniquely do. In 2017 we completed a strategic plan, during the process of which we had discovered through a process of appreciative inquiry that one of our school’s greatest strengths is its culture of strong relationships between all constituencies. We weathered the pandemic by leaning on this strength, opening our doors to all students for in-person learning the day after Labor Day in September 2020. We grew from the social justice reckoning in the summer of 2020 through open meetings between alumnae and administrators like Paul, continuing to open dialogue and build relationships. So, now looking to the future, Paul is asking us to think about how we can celebrate our strengths and how we are creating a school to prepare our students for the future.

In response to our Head’s “urgent challenges” we are piloting a new program to bring our senior class on a trip to Costa Rica . It is an opportunity to be together and to celebrate our relationships, but also a moment to pause and reflect. What have they learned over the last thirteen years, and how will they leverage this knowledge, these experiences and relationships? How might they learn from others? In Costa Rica, our visits to a high school, a coffee cooperative, and a conservation organization are centered around the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations. How are local leaders in Costa Rica helping to shift the needle towards sustainable development that considers social, economic, and environmental factors? And, again, what does this mean for our students?

We want our students to be prepared for the future, and we want them to be grounded in a sense of forward momentum, excitement, and confidence that they too can make a meaningful contribution to society. We might call this a sense of purpose. To thrive in the future, they need to know that what they do matters. We want our graduating seniors have the freedom to choose their path, the competence to make good decisions, to take meaningful steps towards the goals they put forward, and the relationships to support them along the way and demonstrate the effectiveness of their efforts.

To structure our goals in educating global citizens, we have turned to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the Center for Global Education, which have identified four key aspects of global competence. Globally competent youth investigate the world beyond their immediate environment; recognize, understand, and appreciate the perspectives and world views of others; communicate ideas effectively with diverse audiences; take action for collective well-being and sustainable development both locally and globally. In other words, students can identify issues in the world and choose where they want to make a difference (Autonomy), students can relate to others which allows them to experience a sense of relatedness (belonging), and they can figure out how to take action to make a difference (competence).

We hope that the pre-departure program designed for students to consider their unique gifts in order to develop a sense of purpose, combined with the immersive travel experience to learn from local leaders in Costa Rica (followed by some zip lining in the rainforest canopy) will help our students to see their potential to thrive and make a contribution to the common good.  Check back in with me in the fall, and I’ll let you know how it went!

Damaris Maclean is a founding member of Heart of Character, and a current member of the Board of Trustees. She is the Director of Global Partnerships and Community Engagement at the Nightingale Bamford School in New York City.
Categories: Uncategorized