For what feels like my entire life, my identity has rested in the role of student. My parents, both well-educated and committed lifelong learners, instilled the value of education in me from an early age. I have lived a privileged life when it comes to education, one of choices, access, and consistent, never-ending support and love from my family, friends, teachers, and mentors. I am ever so grateful for the numerous opportunities for success I have received, but at the same time, I know that purely because of the white, upper middle-class body I was born into, I was designed to succeed in academics.
As I began my YAV year last August, I had a slight identity crisis as I realized that for the first time in my life (that I could remember), I wasn’t an enrolled student. I didn’t have homework to do. I didn’t have long readings to complete in preparation for my classes. I didn’t have good grades and positive feedback from my professors to make me feel good after working hard on an assignment. There were no more accolades and merit-based awards to earn. No more essays to write or projects to complete. All these things that I had cared so much about suddenly didn’t matter.
Though it felt like an abrupt adjustment, I have realized that no matter what, I will always be a student, whether I’m enrolled or not. Education and learning are so important to me and essential parts of who I am and the values that influence my life choices. However, though school and academia are environments that I am comfortable in and generally thrive in, I can’t help but notice the ways in which these systems are toxic and full of inequities for so many in our world. I believe that education is completely necessary for creating a more just and understanding world by addressing many of the root causes of our larger world issues, but how do we reconcile these tensions and systemic problems so that everyone can succeed?
For my YAV work placement, I am working at the Menaul School, an incredibly diverse, independent day and boarding school. Started in 1896 (before New Mexico was even a state), Menaul initially began as a Presbyterian mission school for Native and then Spanish-speaking boys at a time when public education was almost non-existent in this part of the country. With more than a century-long history, the school has had its fair share of challenges, such as forced cultural and religious assimilation. Today, leaders of the school are attempting to reconcile this history and forge a new path for their students, while staying true to the values the school was founded on. In working at Menaul, I have been afforded a shift in perspective from being a student to a member of the faculty and staff. Menaul, or any school for that matter, is by no means perfect, but the different roles I have been invited to take on have allowed me opportunities to question our modern education systems and engage in conversations with students and faculty about the direction our world is headed.
For 10+ hours a week, I work in the Office of Institutional Advancement, where I’ve been a small part of launching Menaul’s new slogan, World Smart. With students from more than 15 different countries and all over New Mexico, Menaul is a diverse community and strives to encourage students to embrace and celebrate their own cultures, while learning from those around them. Rather than just focusing on a ‘book smart’ education, Menaul strives to teach cross-cultural, global skills and to uphold World Smart values that match these ideas, such as social justice, care for creation, and nonviolence.
Because Menaul is an independent school, they have more flexibility than the average public school. This allows for more out of the classroom, unconventional learning, such as the upcoming Mission Week, where all upper school students embark on a week-long mission-learning opportunity. The small size of the school and individual classes allows for less emphasis on pure obedience, efficiency, and order, like many public schools, and instead, exchanges these qualities for a classroom environment of community, flexibility, and diversity.
Part of my job in the OIA office is helping to plan Menaul’s annual Spring fundraiser, and while sometimes this involves fun, party-planning tasks, like booking a band and hiring a caterer, the parts I’ve enjoyed the most are getting to share the World Smart vision with the community. The purpose of the event is to raise money for student scholarships, so that students of all incomes can attend Menaul and have access to a life-changing education. New Mexico frequently ranks last or next to last in public education, and it is Menaul’s goal to provide a high-quality, college-prep education for as many students as possible.
As I’ve been learning about education by working at an independent school, I’m trying not to forget to look at our larger education systems, as well. Even though Menaul doesn’t have the “feel” of a typical private school, I’ve wrestled with the fact that my work placement is a private school. I’m so thankful for the opportunity to be a part of this community and all the things I’m learning, but this wasn’t exactly what I envisioned for my year of service. Even though I graduated from a private liberal arts college, I’ve always had this image of private schools as ivory towers, symbols of privilege, or white-bodied people’s “solutions” to our poor public education systems.
However, I know that Menaul was not chosen arbitrarily as a work placement, and it’s been my mission to continue intentionally asking myself why. I will always acknowledge the fact that Menaul is indeed a private school, but I will also acknowledge the many ways in which they attempt to break out of their bubble, redefine private school stereotypes, and reconcile some of the disparities engrained in education. All of this, they do while setting a new diverse, World Smart standard for education. While I am given the opportunity to learn about education at an independent, private school – which has the freedom to do things differently – I will keep advocating for reforms in modern education, so that all young people in the U.S. will have choices, access, and support and be able to succeed not only in school but the world. These students are the leaders of tomorrow, and I am thankful to be a teeny, tiny part of their future thanks to my work placement at Menaul School.