From a podium on the stage in Memorial Hall, Living in Community (LINC) Day keynote speaker Grace Alden watched the St. Paul's School student body rise in unison to thank her for telling her story. Alden, a New Hampshire woman who is transgender, shared her experience about transitioning while actively serving as a law enforcement officer in the state.
“I feel validated and welcome right now,” responded Alden.
At that moment, Vice Rector for School Life Dr. Theresa Ferns '84 saw the purpose of LINC in practice. “For me, that was a proud moment for our community," said Ferns. “I think our students went into that day with questions and probably a misunderstanding of what gender identity is and the diversity inherent within gender identities. They went in with an open ear to try to understand and expand their knowledge. As a result, I think they walked out feeling like the day was useful, that they had learned something, that they had increased their understanding of others' experiences, and most importantly with an eye towards wanting to change and improve our community, so it is more inclusive for all.”
“I looked around at one point when (Alden) was speaking just to see if kids were on their phones, and every single person was leaning forward in their chair, fully engaged,” said MaryGrace Beastrom ’21, a member of the LINC Day planning committee.
Once a term, students and faculty gather for a LINC Day to discuss issues relevant to the residents of Millville. These events give students the opportunity to initiate, construct, and lead programming that resonates with their peers and informs the faculty. On the recommendation Emily Abbruzzese '19, the students chose Alden to deliver the keynote speech for the day. Abbruzzese heard Alden speak at a prior event and knew that she would be able to accomplish what the students wanted out of a guest speaker. In addition to hearing her story, students participated in breakout sessions and heard stories about their peers' experiences with gender identity. The goal was not merely to disseminate information, but also to facilitate meaningful discussion.
Ferns credits the student planning team for recognizing what would captivate their peers and advisers. “When you have students thinking about the educational experience from the student perspective it only enhances the day,” explained Ferns. “LINC is designed for a shared experience. Through conversations around issues related to diversity, we build community. We start to have empathy for other people's experiences.”
A student presentation gave the School community the vocabulary to understand those who identify outside of the gender binary. “I think it’s important to understand that gender identity and sexual preferences are different,” said Emily Barker ’20. “I felt many people were uncomfortable with these conversations because they didn’t have the right vocabulary and know-how to talk about gender issues.”
Alden helped reinforce the students’ message with her presentation. Students broke down the terminology to help the community navigate the afternoon’s discussion. They defined words, such as cisgender, those whose gender identity is in alignment with the sex they were assigned at birth, and made the distinction between gender identity, biological sex, and sexuality.
Beastrom, Barker, and Tristan Silfverskiold ’21 were among the 13 teens who planned the day. "One of the most gratifying things about this whole experience was I wasn't as educated as I wanted to be on this whole topic," said Silfverskiold. "It was cool to learn all these new terms. It's good to open your eyes in that way."
"These are opportunities for our students and community to take a deep dive into a particular area or issue that has an impact on our campus and around the world," says Ferns. “We aim to provide an opportunity for our students and the larger community to hear a different perspective and challenge their assumptions and beliefs.”