A Hope-Filled Future
Jesuit schools around the country opened this school year talking about the “Universal Apostolic Preferences” that were released last spring and are being promoted in Jesuit works around the world. The four “preferences” - areas of focus Fr. Arturo Sosa, Superior General of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), has named as priorities for Jesuit priests and all Jesuit works worldwide - include:
- Showing the way to God through the Spiritual Exercises and their practice of discernment
- Walking with the poor, the outcasts of the world, and those whose dignity has been violated, in the mission of reconciliation and justice
- Walking together with young people, to build a hope-filled future
- Working together to care for the earth, our common home
Though all of these preferences apply to the work we do here at Cheverus, when I first heard these preferences I was particularly drawn and inspired by the image of “walking together with young people, to build a hope-filled future.” My hope with these blog entries is to highlight some of the ways I see Cheverus building Fr. Sosa’s vision of a hope-filled future.
This is not an easy time to be a teenager. I have many conversations with parents who say, “I can’t imagine what it would have been like to have social media and smartphones when I was a teenager…” Frankly, if the exploits of our teenage years had been videoed and posted on Instagram, some of us wouldn’t be employable!
Cheverus has made great strides regarding technology over the past few years, and if you walk our hallways you’ll find laptops and smartphones in constant use - not just for fun in the cafeteria but in our classrooms as well.
Walking our hallways you will also see an increase in a very old technology: shoe caddies. In many rooms, teachers offer students the opportunity to leave their phones at the door in the shoe caddy so it won’t be a distraction during class. In some classes this is a requirement, but it’s also fascinating to see students do it voluntarily where it’s not. It’s standard practice now on retreats and immersion trips for students to turn in their phones, and honestly, in most cases, you feel that students are genuinely grateful that we ask them to do this.
We are just beginning to understand the ways in which technology and this continuous access to the internet and social media are shaping our young women and men. The World Health Organization now lists anxiety and depression as the leading cause of disability among teens, and anxiety disorders now affect over 25% of children between 13 and 18 years old. Research shows that children with anxiety disorders are at higher risk to perform poorly in school, miss out on important social experiences, and engage in substance abuse.
At the same time, the ways in which schools such as Cheverus are supporting our students has changed dramatically. When I started teaching 25 years ago schools like ours would have one guidance counselor for every 150-200 students. You’d go see that person when you were trying to adjust as a freshman, and he or she would help you choose classes each year. If you were having trouble at home or if one of your friends seemed really depressed, you’d tell your counselor. And then when it came time to apply to college, your counselor would lead you through the process and write your recommendation. The school counselor did it all.
Today, Cheverus has no fewer than seven people doing that same job, and that’s not counting the administrators and support staff who work with them. In addition to our two full-time school counselors, we have two fulltime Instructional Support staff, a college counselor, a full-time school nurse and our Campus Ministry team. We employ two outside therapists to meet with our students on campus, and all these people meet regularly to coordinate the care of our students.
Before we started classes in August we had a professional development day for this Student Support team with a presenter named Heidi Weiker; she showed us methods to reduce stress for ourselves and our students. We’ve done some work with mindfulness over the past few years, and so this was a continuation of those efforts with a bit more of a physical approach to reducing stress and anxiety. Heidi Weiker came back to present to our Cheverus community and our faculty & staff the last month.
When Heidi was done I asked her to speak about Cheverus and the other Jesuit schools she works with in New York and Ohio in terms of the amount of stress our students are under in comparison with other schools. When I asked the question I was thinking about the rigor of our college preparatory schools and the idea of the Magis -- the “more” -- so present in our schools’ cultures, and so I expected her to say that students at Jesuit high schools were even more stressed and experienced even more anxiety than the average teenager. But she didn’t. Heidi said that what drew her to Jesuit schools, why she thought she did so much work with students in Jesuit schools, was because we took the idea of caring for the whole person seriously - Cura Personalis - and we have things like the Examen and retreats built into our school day and our school year.
Magis and Cura Personalis don’t have to be in tension with one another. Our librarian Jane Glass reminded me at the beginning of the year that Magis is about “choosing” to do the greater thing, the thing that brings greater glory to God. It’s the “choosing” that matters most. What if the greater choice for students was to take some more time for personal care -- getting some more sleep for example -- at the expense of staying up extra late to stress over tomorrow’s big exam? Or having the awareness and discipline to say “no” to technology at times, leave the phone on the kitchen table, talk to their friends face-to-face at lunch? These are the questions we’re asking our students and ourselves this year at Cheverus, and as we work together to build Fr. Sosa’s vision for a “hope-filled future,” I welcome your thoughts on how we can live with and without technology.