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From the Schoolhouse: Service is in Our DNA
John McVeigh

I write today with gratitude and appreciation after a tremendously successful Day of Giving on February 16. I had the opportunity to give a Chapel talk to our student body that evening as we approached our goal, and I chose to focus on a statement I’ve been repeating as we prepared for the big day:  Service is in our DNA here at Holderness. Certainly, it starts with our mission, motto, and vision, all of which are other-centered. Our motto, “Pro Deo et Genero Humano,” meaning For God and Humankind, paired with our vision of developing people the world needs most, means we are compelled to serve something greater than ourselves.  The added bonus, of course, is that being in service to others also means being in service to one’s self, because we must ask ourselves two fundamental questions: What matters to me?  And, what am I going to do about it?  The doing – the action – means a great deal.  

Holderness has a proud history of service that has been passed on from generation to generation by legions of our students and alums. A quick glance through the earliest documents in our archives proves that in the 1800s, the first Chapel sermons were about public service, charity, and volunteerism.  During those days, every Sunday was dedicated to religious activity and study, with Divine Service (service to God) playing a major role each week.  

The idea of service took center stage when Knowlton Hall burned down in 1931. While it was eventually replaced by the iconic Livermore Hall, there was great doubt at the time about whether or not our school could survive.  It was the beginning of the Great Depression, and the only way the school could continue to operate was if every single student pitched in. This was a paradigm shift for the school –  up until then, only students on financial aid were responsible for doing work on campus.  But the birth of our Jobs Program paved the way for more than 90 years of service and work from every Holderness student, and it is a primary reason that the school was able to survive the turbulence and stresses of those early years and become the thriving, life-changing institution that it is today.

While it seems as though every alum I meet has a story to tell about early morning pantry or shoveling snow in a storm, one tale of service definitely stands out. As the story goes, a couple of Proctor Academy teams had arrived to play Holderness in tennis and baseball during the 1940s, only to see several of our team members sprint off in the middle of their games. We had students serving as volunteer firefighters, and they were called off to help in nearby Ashland. I couldn’t find any records that confirmed the outcome of the games, but I like to think it must have intimidated our rivals to see our students returning to campus to finish the games after saving the day!    

So what does service look like now for our Holderness alums? We continue to see graduates stepping up as first responders in roles like firefighters, EMTs, and wilderness search & rescue first aid responders. They are leaving their mark in fields related to sustainability, having internalized our culture of leaving things better than you found them. We see these threads of service from our alumni in education, the military, those who are providing humanitarian aid, and in non-profits around the world. They transform intangible values into very tangible and real behaviors and actions, using the skills they developed as students here.

As wonderful as it is to see graduates in action, it’s even more gratifying to see our current students already stepping up and following their lead.  As we approached Day of Giving, we witnessed a student-led clothing drive, the residents of Woodward coming together to cook dinner for our community, and the STEMinist helping to teach local schoolchildren. I was fortunate enough to spend time with a Project Outreach group that decided to have a reunion so that they could visit and serve once again at the New Hampshire Food Bank.  There is something magical that happens to our students and community in these moments.

I often worry about the direction the world around us is headed, and I believe that it is pervaded by a dangerous undercurrent of “What is in it for me?”  Teenagers are developmentally hardwired to be self-focused, so we need to be intentional and relentless in helping them to think more broadly.  The skills and attitude behind service translate to every facet of modern life, and we want our students to see that they can serve wherever they are and however they can.  We want to help them to find their purpose and walk in their purpose and to see that they can choose to be other-centered, despite what the world around them suggests.  And that they can have fun together doing it.

We can choose to be different here at Holderness, to push back against self-centeredness and tap into the joy and meaning that go hand in hand with serving others. We have the blueprint from generations of Holderness students and their examples are inspiring.  We can’t wait to watch our current students fulfill our vision and develop into people the world needs most!     

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