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Students in graduation

ON THE LEADING EDGE: SGLs TAKE CHARGE OF A VIRTUAL HIVE

When Sunil Das ’21 was told just before the end of the Winter Term that he would be St. Benedict’s Prep’s Senior Group Leader, the School’s highest leadership position, he knew he and his seven-member senior leadership team were in for significant challenges. They had just finished nearly two months of virtual school necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic and had not been in each other’s presence for that entire time. Benedict’s prized community building, a hallmark of student life and leadership, had to be reimagined.

But if providing the same sense of community that they all had experienced in their years at Benedict’s presented the toughest task, Sunil knew that his group of leaders were up to the challenge. They valued communication. “We are all very direct,” he said, “and we know how to get things done right away.”

And so they – Sunil, Akhir Crenshaw (Freshman Leader), Sekou Diabate (Community Standards Leader), Rafael Jaquez (White Section Leader), Giuseppe Loiacono (Gray Section Leader), Samuel Pineda (Blue Section Leader), Eric Duarte (Maroon Section Leader) and Reuben Kadushin (Transfer Leader) began meeting three times a week, virtually, almost as soon as they were elected as the 2020-2021 Senior Group Leaders. They had help, especially from Dean of Freshmen, Craig White ’04. They discussed what the Summer Phase would look like and began to develop leadership strategies.

Freshman Orientation, always a huge component of Summer Phase, was probably the biggest hurdle. Crenshaw had worked  the freshman overnight for three years; he knew that getting that same experience for the new freshman would be very difficult. Working with Craig White to develop a schedule for the 126 new Gray Bees, he realized early on that delegating responsibility was key.

“I got advice from Mr. White and Anthony Agustin ’20, last year’s Freshman Leader, that delegating responsibility was so important,” he said. “So, I had to figure out how to do that.”

With White’s organizational prowess, they devised a program using 20 more Upper Division students as counselors and freshmen teachers to safely bring small groups of freshmen to the school grounds on a rotating schedule. Not quite the Overnight of years past, but more than a virtual experience. Every evening, they hosted virtual chats with alumni explaining their own Benedict’s experience and what they cherish about it. Because these were Zoom sessions, parents could actually listen in and learn for themselves what their children were experiencing.

Jaquez, one of the four Section Leaders, each responsible for several of the school’s 18 groups of Prep students from all levels, complimented the individual group leaders for doing a difficult job when there is little opportunity for group bonding. Since in the virtual school day, there is no time for regular group – that almost daily gathering where students “waste time together” – bonding became so much harder. “But we are trying to find ways,” Rafael said. ”We will make opportunities.”

Bonding and learning the Benedict’s culture may be even harder for the transfer students, which is led by Kadushin ’21, who said, “Sometimes it feels almost impossible; you can’t meet the people you are leading.” Also, he said with Convocation so different and less clearly run by the student leaders, they do not know how the kids are feeling. “We are smiling, trying to make a good start for them, though.”

Of course, there are students who had trouble even before virtual learning. Habitual lateness, dress code violations, behavioral issues don’t go away just because students are not together. In the Benedict’s tradition of “Ever Forward,” Headmaster Fr. Edwin Leahy O.S.B. ’63 and last year’s leaders suggested adding a new leadership position, one that would have responsibility for dealing with disciplinary issues. Diabate had worked with Malachi McCoy ’20 last year enforcing rules and monitoring infractions. Kids responded but Sekou didn’t love being perceived as a cop. So when Fr. Edwin announced that Sekou would take on a  new leadership position related to discipline, Sekou didn’t want the “us vs. them” vibe that he had felt last year from the students. So he and the other leaders themselves came up with the name – Community Standards Leader. 

Because it is a new position, Sekou said, “I don’t have  anyone to model off of. That gives me a lot of leeway to do different things that I can add on for next year.” He is now on the Honor Code Committee and will continue to work with Dean of Discipline John Rowe contacting families when students are habitually late or breaking rules even in virtual classrooms.

The stress of not being together affects the eight leaders as much as the students. Perhaps even more. “Keeping guys motivated and involved is hard,“ Sunil said. “We are trying to provide the same sense of community.” Akhir, the Freshman Leader, had always loved the Overnight experience, loved bringing new kids into the community. “We could see a change in kids in one week.”

Now it’s different. “I am good at one-on-one, in person connections,“ Akhir said. “Not being able to have that is so hard. But I am doing it.”

His assessment of how that is going?

“I think we all are doing a great job!”

Noreen Connolly H’11