Helping Students Find their Passion

middle schoolers posing on the sand

I’m really weird. I know it and I love it. People often ask me how I ended up like this: a bilingual southerner with a passion for cultural exchange, an arsenal of fun facts, and a growing list of bizarre, yet hilarious true stories. My answer is always this: I wasn’t really not born in 1998, but actually in 2012 at a small boarding school in the mountains of Western North Carolina called Arthur Morgan School. Every experience prior to AMS was an exercise in fitting societal boxes, and those boxes were never truly who I was. At AMS I discovered what I cared about.  Like so many other students, AMS helped me find my passion.

Discovering Community

On my interview at AMS, a student asked me if I knew the periodic table of the elements. I gleefully recited the whole thing. I couldn’t believe that a place existed where people my age talked about something other than basketball and Call of Duty! Here was a place where my love of learning was truly appreciated. I believe that all humans possess an innate love of learning, but somewhere during childhood, we lose it. AMS reawakened this dormant part of me, the same part that learned how walk and talk from nothing. Physical activity, limited access to technology, and blurred lines between classroom and community helped this dormant seed sprout into the person I am today.

middle schooler covering face with tortillaI counted eleven steps when I crossed the locust bridge as part of the AMS graduation ceremony. To this day, these were the hardest steps of my life. I was leaving a community that was everything I ever wanted. As I took those eleven steps, I vowed to keep the gifts AMS gave me and give as much to AMS in return. For High School, I went to Olney Friends School, largely because it was as similar to AMS as I could get. I became conversationally proficient in Spanish after a year at Olney and spent half of my junior year studying at  Monteverde Friends School in Costa Rica. About 40% of Olney students are international, and I became fast friends with Germans, Afghans, Costa Ricans, and Ethiopians to name just a few.

Making Connections

After my experiences with the international students at Olney and what can only be described as the wonderful weirdness of AMS, I knew that a typical university would never be interesting enough. I found Soka University of America, a liberal arts college in Southern California founded on Buddhist principles and dedicated to fostering a steady stream of global citizens committed to living a contributive life. Like Olney, Soka is also 40% international. I’m now learning a third language (Mandarin Chinese) and studying International Studies. I hope someday to play a part in global denuclearization or assist with reconstruction in Latin American countries still reeling from US interventions during the Cold War.

While I don’t know my future plans to the letter, I always take advice from my favorite Morning Sing song: “The Weight of Lies,” by The Avett Brothers. Of the many profound lyrics in that song, my favorite is “Run to something and not away from.” With this advice, I’ve made connections on every populated continent, gotten into several top-tier universities, and most importantly found a passion for language and cultural exchange. I can’t imagine any of this without the love and encouragement I received at AMS.

Coming Home

alumni and friend in front of mountainsWhen I recently returned to AMS after five years, I had a fabulous time hanging out with current students and staff. We chatted about ever-popular tabletop roleplaying games, ninth grade projects, and the strict prohibition on bare feet in the kitchen. I never got the chance, but the whole time all I wanted to do was give the students the following advice:

With your AMS experience, you can do anything! Some say you need a cookie-cutter education to be successful, but they’ve never seen AMS. They don’t see middle schoolers pushing through a work project in the pouring rain or diplomatically negotiating a consensus in All School Meeting. Already, you’re far more capable of affecting positive change than anyone else your age. You are the future leaders of high schools, colleges, and soon the world. Your days at AMS are only counting down, but after you take your own eleven steps, you can still keep this experience close. Hold onto it for dear life!

-by David Ulin O’Keefe