Last weekend, Mercersburg sent a group of students to attend the thirtieth annual Student Diversity Leadership Conference, part of the People of Color Conference (POCC) sponsored by the National Association of Independent Schools. I had the honor of going with fellow students Indira Moshi ‘24, Corbin Kelly ‘24, Talaina Jarrett ‘25, and Carrie Yang ‘27 to St Louis, Missouri to take part in an incredibly diverse gathering of two-thousand-twenty-three high school students from independent schools all over the country.
In addition to Mercersburg’s student representatives, four faculty members attended the adult portion of the conference. “Last year was my first time at the PoCC, so I spent a lot of time and energy just enjoying the experience,” Jamar Galbreath, Assistant Director of DEI, said. “This year, though, I had the great opportunity to put theory to practice.”
Justine O’Connell, Director of Global Initiatives, said, “I am so thankful I had the opportunity to go to the conference and learn from incredible educators and speakers.” Sydney Caretti, art teacher and Director of Galleries said, “I am amazed by and proud of our students who dedicated, with purpose and promise, their time and energy for a better world community.”
The group was joined by Head of School Quentin McDowell who participated in the Heads of School Summit as a part of PoCC. He reflected, “I found it to be an exceptionally valuable experience where I had the opportunity to examine my work through a multitude of new lenses and expand my understanding of what I can and should do to foster, among other things, a deeper sense of belonging for our student and adult communities.”
The conference started on November 29. At 4 a.m., we loaded ourselves on a van to Dulles Airport. We arrived in St Louis and headed to the opening ceremony. Before we knew it, SDLC had officially begun.
Throughout the conference, we were split into family groups, which were smaller cohorts comprised of roughly 60 other students. In my group, I made at least twenty new friends, hosted a Rock-Paper-Scissors championship, journaled, and talked about major problems regarding diversity and equity in schools. In the evening, we split into Affinity groups, based on race, sexual orientation, and/or mental health.
One of my favorite activities was the silent movement. In a room of 2,023 silent students, a speaker read out identifiers allowing each student to stand when they connected with the identifier. It was amazingly powerful to see hundreds standing with you.
On the last day, we celebrated our peers as they performed in a talent show. Then, we went to see the symbol of St. Louis – the Gateway Arch. After dinner, we attended Cirque du Soleil, an acrobatic show, and it was a terrific end to the trip.
Of course, the conference wasn’t without its challenges. We spent fourteen-plus hours each day at the conference. Each morning we had to drag ourselves out of bed. Five days went by in a flash, and I felt myself reeling from the new experiences and lessons.
My biggest takeaway from SDLC was this: I am so incredibly grateful for this space. Many students expressed a feeling of isolation, often being one of the few Black or Asian students in their school. Mercersburg Academy is diverse, and we are a community that should foster respect and love, but there is still inclusivity work that needs to be done. One thing is for certain – attending SDLC was a life-changing experience, and we will not let that go to waste.
The conference ended with many tears and exclamations of “I love you all!” exchanged between new friends and confidantes. But there was one girl’s speech that really stuck with me. As she looked into the sea of people, people who were vastly different but all inherently human, she said: “I used to look out the window and see gray, but now as I look into the crowd all I see is color.”