In October, I had the opportunity to attend a three-day international service learning conference focused on Engagement, Activism, and Reflection. Participants were introduced to initiatives occuring in higher education that support the importance of making pedagogical and curricular shifts toward identifying student purpose, or purpose-based learning. What excited me most was Stanford University’s Standford2025 initiative, which is an innovative, collaborative effort to “encourage an exploratory mindset”. This comprehensive shift in higher education as an institution includes changing the concept of students declaring “majors” to declaring self-defined “missions.” Imagine if “I’m a biology major” was replaced by “I’m learning human biology to eliminate world hunger.” Or “I’m learning Computer Science and Political Science to rebuild how citizens engage with their governments.”
Globally, students and teachers are experiencing the dissonance between teacher-centered pedagogies and today’s world that demands more student-driven problem-solving; diverse social interactions using higher levels of empathy; and career-path nimbleness. In response, independent schools are committing to deeper work around supporting purpose formation, which involves asking important questions about how to “light up” the teenage brain with this sense of purpose.
In his book, The Path to Purpose, Stanford University Professor William Damon defines purpose as “a stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at the same time meaningful to the self and consequential for the world beyond self.” In other words, purpose evolves when students experience a meaningful connection to someone or something outside of themselves—and they do something about it. Damon and his team of researchers developed the Youth Purpose Study, a 45-minute in-person interview given to more than 1,200 young people between 2003–2009. Their results, also confirmed by other research teams using the same survey, show that purpose is relatively rare in K–12 students. According to the survey’s findings, only 10 percent of middle school students have a purpose orientation, and this increases to around 20 percent by high school. (Though numbers vary, other similar surveys indicate that only 40 percent of adults ever go on to find purpose.)
At Bosque, we have always sought to instill this sense of purpose in our students; in fact, at the core of Bosque’s curriculum lies the Service Learning program, which takes students from the classroom into community settings and combines academic learning with meeting community needs. The goals of the program are to increase students' awareness of different perspectives and complexities around social, cultural, economic, and environmental issues; learn about how organizations and individuals can help address and impact these issues; experience and understand the value of volunteering time and talent to be part of the solution; and develop an authentic sense of compassion and ethic of service to others.
I’m continually impressed at how our students take on leadership roles and navigate unfamiliar territory, ultimately becoming strong advocates and change leaders in the community. Just last month, two Bosque seniors were honored for Outstanding High School Philanthropy by the Association of Fundraising Professionals of New Mexico. Mia ‘19 and Issa ‘19 took on the challenge of feminine hygiene for underrepresented women and girls. The Women’s Empowerment League (WEL), an upper school Service Learning group, held a Feminine Hygiene Drive in order to address issues related to women’s access to hygiene products, especially for those below the poverty line or homeless. In its first year, the Hygiene Drive collected more than $1,000 worth of items and dispelled biases and stereotypes surrounding menstruation. The items were provided to low-income young women at the School on Wheels and young women in the Highland High School Newcomers refugee group.
“Women's issues are something I will always care deeply about,” said Issa. “I see women's issues as not only deeply tied to social issues, but also tied to our modern political world. I feel that it's my responsibility as a citizen to take action in whatever community I belong to, and continue to work toward the changes I want to see for women in my community.”
Ultimately, the work we are doing at Bosque School is helping students light up and explore their place in the world. They are discovering their sense of purpose by considering the impact of their choices and actions regarding affecting positive change. It gives me great hope for the future, and I’m proud to be a part of the journey.