Exploring Impact in the Upper School

Upper School students recently delved into three days of listening, learning, and reflecting on their roles in the global community, as part of Agnes Irwin’s Impact Symposium 2021.

The Symposium engaged students in research, conversation, and critical thinking about clean energy, economics, education, equality, health and well-being, and stewardship and sustainability — six key themes that align with the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals, with a focus on urgent solutions for urgent times. They sought to answer a fundamental question: How can I have an impact on the glocal [global and local] community?

This format serves as a 2021 re-envisioning of the Special Studies Programs (SSP), a series of immersive, project-based learning opportunities that help students investigate the world beyond their immediate environment, recognize their own and others’ perspectives, and translate new ideas and findings into action. Both the SSP model and this year’s Symposium help students cultivate their skills across disciplines and learn to draw on those strengths to transform communities and beyond.

“When we graduate Agnes Irwin girls into the world, we want them to feel empowered to make an impact,” said Camille Seals, Assistant Head of School for Academics & Inclusive Excellence and Interim Upper School Director. “Activism, and being a change agent, in its simplest form is this: helping students discover the issues that matter to them based on their own values and what they believe is important; building efficacy and their belief that they are capable of impacting the world; and equipping them with the knowledge and tools they need to be the change they wish to see.”

Inspirational Leadership

On Monday, keynote speaker Katlyn Grasso, CEO and founder of women’s networking and entrepreneurship platform GenHERation, encouraged students to identify the pain points they want to address — in her case, closing the gender leadership gap. “You’re never too young or too old to start something new or follow something you’re passionate about,” Grasso said. “The attitude to have is that if I can make a difference in one person’s life — if I can make one small change — I am contributing to a larger solution, and I am making an impact.”

Two alumnae speakers returned virtually to campus to share insights into their work in the fields of food accessibility and clean energy — and provide students with real-world examples of advocacy in action. Caroline Harries ’93, associate director of The Food Trust, discussed the pivotal role that access to healthy food plays in the health and well being of individuals, and the problems created by food deserts in underserved communities. Elizabeth Halliday ’80, chief operating officer of the Clean Capitalist Leadership Council, addressed the crucial need for clean energy, as well as the multitude of roles that changemakers can play across a variety of energy-related sectors.

Putting Plans into Action

The third and final day of the Symposium — coinciding with Earth Day — began with student assemblies that touched on several of the event’s key themes. Seniors Ani and Aren addressed the Armenian Genocide, a human rights atrocity that killed more than 1.5 million Armenians — and was only recently recognized by the United States as an attempt to exterminate the Armenian people. Shreya ’21 and Hanna ’21 shared statistics about environmental racism, and highlighted how it disproportionately exposes Black and Indigenous communities to poisons and pollutants, yet excludes these individuals from leadership in ecology movements.

Inspired by these and similar topics, students collaborated to develop projects related to the six key themes. Over the course of the Symposium, they engaged in deep study of topics such as educational inequality for women around the world, Amazon’s impact on economics and the environment, sexual and reproductive health, concerns raised by the privatization of prisons, and more.

At the end of the Symposium, upper schoolers presented projects such as:

  • Children’s picture books on healthy eating, combatting stereotypes, and clean energy;
  • Original artwork addressing COVID-19’s impact on the mental health of teenagers;
  • Multiplatform social media campaigns to raise awareness of the inequalities in the education of women, educate individuals who want to become better allies for BIPOC students, and the importance of representation in the media;
  • Infographics on racial discrimination in the LGBTQ+ community, food waste in the United States, and the gender wage gap;
  • A board game designed to educate players about the health effects of income inequality;
  • TED Talk-inspired presentations about how COVID-19 has impacted the economy, small businesses, and education.

For students, the event provided a unique outlet to explore new issues and expand their educational horizons. The opportunity to have creative control struck a chord with many students, including a Stewardship and Sustainability senior who appreciated “having the creative freedom to work on my project and take it in any direction.” One junior who researched Equality valued “widening my perspective on social issues and learning what actions I can take to make a difference,” while a sophomore focused on Health and Well-being “enjoyed being encouraged to take action and make change.”

And for some, such as a freshman addressing Education, the event hit home in a positive, growth-oriented way by challenging preconceptions: “I really liked being able to explore a specific topic in depth that I did not know much about — and change my perspective on how I perceive parts of the world.”


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