A Foundation on Which to Build

by Bridgette Kontner '17
“What do you need to have a good life?” 

This is the question St. Andrew’s philosophy teacher Troy Dahlke posed to a group of students, parents, and faculty members one evening over a traditional Haitian meal surrounded by Haitian art.
The event was the Simple Supper, an evening when students who have returned from a trip to St. Andrew’s sister school, Christ Roi in Civol, Haiti, have the opportunity to share their experience. Mr. Dahlke recalled how he sat down after hiking and a Haitian friend began to wash his feet. To Mr. Dahlke, this kind and welcoming act was a meaningful reminder that all humans are connected to one another through their shared communities. He suggested that maybe, this fact had something to do with his question - What do you need to have a good life?

If having shared communities is critical to having a good life, then I was truly fortunate to attend St. Andrew’s during my formative years. By being part of a large yet close-knit community, I learned to accept this type of interconnectedness as the way things should be. But even more than that, it instilled in me the motivation to create my own community if I noticed those traits were lacking.

That night, when Mr. Dahlke described his experience in Haiti, it was at an event completely focused on our ongoing partnership and exchange program in Haiti, and how our school had forged a meaningful connection and community despite the distance of more than 1,400 miles. This was not rare at St. Andrew’s, and even without St. Andrew’s global community, there was no lack of a communal feel walking down the halls. Clubs are student-run, morning announcements are conducted by members of the Student Government, every sports victory is announced and celebrated by team members. St. Andrew’s strives to create a supportive community where students are valued and empowered, and my experience at St. Andrew’s was nothing short of this.

I started at St. Andrew’s as a freshman, leaving the school I had attended since pre-school. Though I was outgoing and extroverted, I had not had to make new friends in 10 years, and it was nerve-wracking to start high school. But as I would soon learn, St. Andrew’s was not just a place I went everyday to learn; I can truly say my time at St. Andrew’s was enriched and defined by the relationships I made with students and teachers, the many leadership opportunities that were afforded to me, and the bands and sports teams in which I played. All of these intangible factors together created my unique St. Andrew’s experience.

I was interested in leadership and student government when I came to St. Andrew’s. As a sophomore, I began participating in the Student Government Association (SGA), culminating in being elected student body president my senior year. When I look at who I was the first day of freshman year and compare it to the day I gave my speech running for SGA President, I see tremendous differences between those two people. The biggest difference was the St. Andrew’s community that welcomed and supported me, that gave me the confidence to pursue leadership opportunities. That day, giving my speech, I felt connected to every person in the audience. The St. Andrew’s community was warm and welcoming, and it soon became difficult for me to imagine a world without it.

Last fall, I entered into that world when I began college at New York University. With overall enrollment at almost 60,000 and located in downtown Manhattan, it was a far cry from Potomac, Maryland. But somehow, I was not intimidated. I joined the Undergraduate Student Government of my school, Steinhardt, because it felt natural, and was elected Freshman Class President. I soon realized that seeking this community was instilled in me by my time at St. Andrew’s. Though NYU’s classes were much larger than the 13-person classes I was used to, I still felt the same desire to create a community for myself. And for me, that desire manifested in joining student government and other clubs and groups around campus. Of course I felt the anxiety of adjusting, but the difference was that I also felt well-equipped; I turned those nerves into motivation to throw myself into my NYU community and become the leader St. Andrew’s showed me I was capable of being.

Mr. Dahlke’s point about being connected to others was felt in so many of my interactions in high school - especially with members of the faculty. What was so special to me about St. Andrew’s was the connections teachers made with students. This closeness encouraged students to reach out to faculty members and advocate for themselves and their education. Fast forward to college where many professors teach 300-person lectures with only a couple hours each week to meet with students; St. Andrew’s showed me that being a self-advocate was the same in any situation, whether it was a class of 13 or a class of 300. If I felt I was struggling, it was up to me to seek help, no matter how big the classes or busy the professors, because that was key to all of our successes at St. Andrew’s.

St. Andrew’s was a unique environment: the small class sizes made it impossible for anyone to slip through the cracks and made sure that everyone cared about their education and was willing to take important steps in progressing it. Whether I realized it at first or not, St. Andrew’s stayed with me in those first, few nerve-wracking weeks of college. St. Andrew’s told me to take on that leadership position, to construct my community, to meet with that professor of that difficult lecture, to build off of the principles by which I lived for my four years of high school.

St. Andrew’s was and will always be my foundation, and I believe I can build anything from it.

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St. Andrew’s Episcopal School is a private, coeducational college preparatory day school for students in preschool (Age 2) through grade 12, located in Potomac, Maryland.