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Strong Relationships and Profound Experiences: Mentorship at Haverford

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“Mentorship” doesn’t show up in The Haverford School’s core documents. It isn’t etched in stone on the Walk of Virtues, nor does it make an appearance in our mission, vision, or Essential Qualities of a Haverford School Graduate.

And yet, it is certainly part of the fabric of the School. It is that invisible thread that links all Fords – past and present; the stitch that brings those familiar with Lancaster Avenue together. It is the reason families choose Haverford, and why they keep choosing Haverford at the highest rate among our peer schools year after year. The relationships are the gift that keep giving, long after someone graduates from Haverford.

A student brings a challenging question to a teacher, and they set off to find the answer together. An alumnus hears of a new business venture by a fellow alumnus, and he offers guidance on scaling products. Upper School boys offer each other support and space to share raw emotion during Peer Mentorship in the Upper School.

Perhaps mentorship doesn’t appear in any of the core documents because it doesn’t have to be printed in ink for it to matter or for it to form the foundation of the School’s community.

Technical teachings

In the run up to the opening performance of The Addams Family by the Middle School performing arts department, there was a frenetic, but excited, energy found in Centennial Hall. There were last-minute preparations to the set and a final tweaking to the stage performance, but there was also an in-depth and deeply technical learning happening, with Upper School boys serving as teachers and mentors.

Upper and Middle School students find themselves elbow to elbow painting sets, setting a smoke machine off using dry ice, or pulling curtain lines. Together, they are making a show come to life.

“Upper School boys are working directly with their Middle School counterparts to teach them about elements like stage management and lighting during a production,” said Darren Hengst, the Grace and Mahlon Buck Chair in Performing Arts. “The boys shadow the Upper Schoolers to learn, but then the Middle Schoolers take over and the older boys are there just to assist should something go awry during the show.”

Boys at both age level enjoy the connection. When discussing how the partnership is going, members of both cohorts shared that it isn’t necessarily about learning how to cue up the lights, or ensure the correct props are ready for the actors. Instead, it’s about how to be confident in your decisions and to collaborate as a member of a team.

“I don’t think of what I’m doing as ‘teaching’ the Middle Schoolers. Instead, I see myself as being available and being ready to listen to them,” said Chase Nelson, a fifth former mentoring the stage crew. “They’ve asked me more about life and school than about stage crew needs.”

Nelson will be stage left during the performances, supporting the Middle School boys in charge of making the show’s backstage run seamlessly. One such student is Desmond Heneks, a Form II student in charge of props backstage.

“I’ve spent time with the Upper School boys both working in the woodshop on the set and learning about the backstage needs for the show,” said Heneks. “I was surprised how similar they are to me, despite being a little older. They were in my shoes not too long ago.”

It’s that shared experience that makes this program so successful in its first year. The Upper School boys can recognize the uneasiness with learning something so technical; the Middle School boys are given a resource and a role model to aspire to.

“This is a great example of how cross-divisional work can lead to transferable skills and collaborative mentorship at Haverford,” said Hengst. “It solidifies a brotherhood that some of these students may not have found anywhere else. The Middle School boys become sponges when the Upper School boys are around, so they learn about the technical aspects of a show, but also just how to be a boy.”

A brotherhood  

In 2018, members of the class of 2020 pitched a new club idea: let’s have Upper School boys spend intentional time with Lower Schoolers on a regular basis. The goal was for the young boys to learn from the Upper School students, and for the older boys to learn about how to offer mentorship to others in the community, especially those in the Lower School. They called it the Brotherhood Project.

Over the last two years, COVID-19 prevented much in-person connection for the boys. This year, Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Rhonda Brown has brought the program back into focus, with a nod to mentorship in a variety of ways, including through representation.

“I am always interested in creating and nurturing a sense of belonging for all boys,” said Brown. “I can’t think of a better way to show someone that they are valued than by taking the time to mentor them, which is exactly what the Brotherhood Project seeks to do.”

Brown worked with the Upper School boys to read “Brotherhood Books” to the Lower Schoolers via video. The Upper School boys chose a book related to a part of their identity, whether their race or ethnicity, religion, family structure, or an interest. The Lower School boys then select a book to be read to them, with a split-screen on the book’s pictures and the Upper School narrator. Boys can access the books while on campus, as all Lower School teachers have access to the videos. A bonus: all the books can be directly tied to one of the School’s 24 Core Virtues.

“The reason this type of mentorship works at Haverford is because it is coded into the DNA of the School,” said Brown. “There are so many mentoring opportunities that have become important traditions, including the Walk of Virtues on Opening Day, or the Form II Rite of Passage. These are natural extensions of School traditions and expressions of support.”

The mentorship program has plans to expand the Brotherhood Book library by 40 videos each year. Classes are also getting involved in the project, with Upper School public speaking classes including it as a project next year, opening the project up to a wider number of boys, all with different perspectives and guidance to share. As the program grows, the younger boys will always have an Upper School boy to look to as an example of being a Ford.

“Upper School boys remember who they were in Lower and Middle School and seek to give back. That desire to give back is balanced by the need of the Lower and Middle School boys to see themselves as long-term stewards of the campus and as members of a lifelong Haverford brotherhood,” continued Brown.

The alumni connection

Dave Stilley ’92’s answer to a question about why he came back to Haverford to speak at a recent Athletics Leadership Seminar was straightforward. “I came here to give back to the boys who are here now,” he said.

This type of sentiment is common among alumni of the School, with many actively looking for ways to support and connect with current Fords. They recognize the support they received while students, and see the value in what they have to offer: their time and attention.

In Stilley’s case, he dedicated a Wednesday morning to talking about something he has come to be passionate about in his work at Gartner: being a student of leadership. He shared lessons about being a strong leader, but also about being a good person and showcasing integrity.

“Leadership isn’t about taking the most popular path, but the path that is hard,” said Stilley. “It is having the courage to make that decision.”

Stilley’s lecture also focused on a long-term connection. He closed his lecture by inviting all 35 of the boys to connect with him directly to continue the conversation about leadership and, when the time comes, to network for professional careers. He also acknowledged that these relationships are a two-way street.

“I’m a student of leadership,” said Stilley. “I can learn a lot from you, just as much as you can learn from me.”

Such is the nature of athletics, when all must work together to reach a common team goal, Stilley summed up what many alumni feel when working with the boys: the relationships that bind Fords together is mutually beneficial, with all able to support one another in infinite ways.

Learn more about mentorship and the amazing things The Haverford School is doing in preparing boys for life both in and out of the classroom.

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