St. Margaret’s Explores The Power of Purpose

By Ryan Dahlem, Assistant Head of School for Strategic Initiatives
As St. Margaret’s continues to advance academic and student programs with a student-centered innovation approach, we have prioritized health and wellness and deepening meaning, connection and relevance in learning.
Over the past several years, St. Margaret’s launched a new student schedule with a later start time, which promotes healthy sleep habits and improves balance in the day. We have increased mental health education and resources and promoted healthy use of technology. Through innovation grants, St. Margaret’s faculty have collaborated to develop original interdisciplinary curricula that allow for the merging of learning across academic subjects. In every division, St. Margaret’s has expanded service learning and experiential learning opportunities to nurture life skills, personal meaning and understanding.
This year, St. Margaret’s is focused on the powerful and lasting role of purpose in the overall health and well-being of our students, now and throughout their lives.
Purpose helps answer a fundamental question underlying the experience of today’s busy students: Why? St. Margaret’s 2019 opening PTF Parent Up Speaker Bill Damon, director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence, said, “The biggest problem growing up today is not actually stress; it’s meaninglessness.”
The antidote to meaninglessness is a sense of purpose. And, the Stanford Center for Adolescence cites a growing body of evidence that purpose is associated with academic achievement, vocational success, energy, resilience, and psychological and physical health throughout one’s lifespan.
St. Margaret’s, along with leading educators and researchers, is exploring ways to nurture purpose in students as a vital component in their development. Dr. 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 the self.
In short, find something that matters to you, connect it to a need in the world, take action and stick with it. What does the pursuit of purpose actually look like for a young person? Three recent St. Margaret’s graduates come to mind.
The first, Natalie, loved math and science and joyfully pursued both subjects at the highest level. She also noticed there were fewer females in her advanced courses, so she started an annual math competition for girls that provided inspiration for younger students throughout Orange County.
Growing up, Jake cherished his time in the outdoors during extended summer camps. He formed an outdoors club in high school and led his peers, many of whom were new to the outdoors, on local hikes. As an adult, Jake is now an instructor for a leading outdoor education outfitter, inspiring leadership, self-reliance and a love of nature in children.
Joey was fascinated by the political process and was active in a variety of congressional and international diplomat simulation organizations. Motivated by a national lack of teen voter turnout, she tirelessly organized local voter registration drives as a compelling peer advocate for civic engagement. She continues this work today in Washington, D.C. where she attends Georgetown University.
In each case, these students were intrinsically motivated and experienced joy and meaning in their pursuits. Importantly, they found the intersection of what they love to do, their skills and a need in the world. This duality of purpose – something personally meaningful that has a positive impact on others – compels a person to stick with it through ups and downs, developing resilience, optimism, their identity and a sense of belonging. These are the underpinnings of the positive effect of purpose.
St. Margaret’s is taking concerted steps this year to nurture purpose in students. One caveat in this work is to not talk about purpose, when talking about purpose! Nothing sounds more daunting to a young person than being asked, “what is your purpose?” Rather, we will engage in conversations and reflections in advisory, Chapel and in the classroom that focus on what matters and is personally meaningful to students. Seeking and helping them to identify sparks of interest, and then fanning those sparks by encouraging exploration inside and outside of school is at the heart of purpose development.

Another proven approach is to find ways to model purpose and connect mentors with students. Peer-to-peer modeling proves to be equally impactful, and we seek opportunities for students and adults to share their experiences. Upper School Principal Jeneen Graham and seniors Robbie Healy and Angela Mendoza Ortega shared their personal perspectives on purpose with students at the Upper School Fall Honors Assembly. Upper School senior Owen Young spoke last week in Middle School Chapel about why community matters to him, and how he is contributing to the St. Margaret’s community through his leadership of the student cheering section, The Kitchen.
In partnership with the Parent Teacher Fellowship, this year’s Parent Up Speakers Series is focused entirely on pursuing a life of purpose. Renowned purpose experts will share their research and findings with parents, faculty, administrators and students about how to cultivate a purposeful life in young people, as well as in themselves.
Thought leaders in this work are quick to point out that purpose development is a highly personalized, nonlinear pathway perhaps best described as “wayfinding.” Patrick Cook-Deegan harnesses this metaphor in the book Purpose Rising, where he encourages young people to be comfortable with the reality that “life is a series of long, unpredictable voyages, not a straight shot on the freeway using GPS. Ideally, at the center of each of these voyages is the intersection of what you love to do, your skills and a need in the world you care about.”
Pursuing purpose is also an aspirational, lifelong journey, and one worth starting earlier. Heather Malin, author of Teaching for Purpose, notes that “students do not need to know what they want to do with their life when they leave high school. They should know, however, that purpose is accessible to them and worth striving for.” It is the pursuit of purpose, itself, that is so crucial. In fact, Dr. Damon found that those who participated in a purpose interview reported greater life satisfaction nine months later compared to those who did not.
In a time where the health and wellness and nurturing lives of meaning in young people is a high priority, supporting this personal exploration helps develop a crucial asset in long-term well-being of children – a sense of purpose – and most importantly, their own answer to the question Why?
An independent preschool through grade 12 college-preparatory day school in Orange County, California
St. Margaret’s Episcopal School
31641 La Novia Avenue
San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675