Physically Distant but Together in Spirit

Founder’s Day is a celebration of community. Every year we gather to recognize Thomas Sidwell’s birthday and to delve into the values that unite the Sidwell Friends family. This year was no different; it just looked that way.

This Founder’s Day may have been an online gathering, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t profound. In the morning, Upper School students met for the traditional Let Your Life Speak sessions, in which alumni return to talk about their educational paths, their careers, and how the values they learned at Sidwell Friends have informed the choices they’ve made since graduation. Alumni representing the fields of law, entertainment, medicine, and government, among others, logged in from homes across the country to meet with students online.

Many of the students’ questions revolved around how the speakers—each of whom spoke to different groups over three sessions—found their career path. Most alumni shared that their paths from Sidwell Friends to their current offices wasn’t always a straight one.

“I had a lot of worry that I didn’t know what I would be when I grew up,” said Madeline Holland ’10, who is the co-CEO of Talent Beyond Boundaries, which connects refugees with job opportunities worldwide. “I felt a lot of pressure to know what that route was. Eventually I realized that you can have valuable experiences without knowing what that value will be ahead of time. Letting your life speak is about listening to your life. Your actions will speak; go ahead and listen.”

Tia Powell ’75 knows the feeling. “The plans that I made didn’t turn out to be good plans,” said Powell, the director of the Montefiore-Einstein Center for Bioethics and of the Einstein Cardozo master’s program in bioethics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.  “So I kept following what I thought was most interesting, and it led me to work that I still find interesting.”

Despite the wide variety of fields, another common theme was the Sidwell Friends experience. Students asked the speakers to reflect on how many of those experiences they still carry with them.

“I went to Sidwell from kindergarten to 12th grade, so I had a lot of time to really think about Sidwell’s Quaker faith, in particular what it means to serve others and to overcome what you believe is unjust,” said Chris Sanders ’04, an assistant federal public defender in the Western District of Washington. “As I moved through my career, it’s not that I did so purposefully thinking about Quakerism and some of its ideals, but I think those things were probably simmering in my mind. You could probably draw a direct line from what Sidwell was all about to the work that I do now.”

“There is a lot of injustice in what is supposed to be our justice system, and that gives me energy to fight,” said Deborah Colson ’87, the principal attorney at and founder of Colson Law. “I know that I am just one person and there’s only so much I can do—but I feel compelled after witnessing injustice to fight it every way I can.”

“One of the things I took away from Sidwell is that we all do better when we take care of each other, that we’re part of a whole collective, that the way a society is often judged is how it treats the most vulnerable in it,” said Karmah Elmusa ’02, the communications director at the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. “If you see something unjust, you should do something about it. That was always a guiding principle in my life.”

One thing was clear on this unusual Founder’s Day: The community that defines Sidwell Friends doesn’t depend on sharing physical space.

“It’s not the day we thought we would have, but at least we’re together on video,” said Head of School Bryan Garman in a recorded message. “The alumni remind us that the relationships we form here at Sidwell are so deep and meaningful that they endure for a very long time.”

For a very long time and through winding paths and Quaker values and even a pandemic. Social-distancing has nothing on the School’s alumni, who on this Founder’s Day reminded us that being physically apart is not the same as being alone.

 

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