Today, at Mount Vernon’s Honors Assembly, I got to honor two of the founding members of iDiploma. Below are the words I shared at the ceremony, which don’t even begin to scratch the surface of the kind of work both our graduates and the members of the program are doing as change agents. I couldn’t be more proud of our two soon-to-be graduates:
I have the pleasure of honoring two of our very first graduates from our Innovation Diploma program. I can assure you that these two students won’t fall into the trap of following the path that’s obvious, conventional, and overcrowded; or the path of least resistance; No, they’ve proven that they are willing to carve their own paths. In fact, they are two high schoolers who can safely say they know what it means to build something – because they helped build the iDiploma program to what it is today. Jackson Dalton and Margaret White took a huge leap of faith when they decided to become part of the first program of its kind, a program that encourages exploration, demands action, and even celebrates failure.
In a recent MoVe talk, Margaret admitted that she thought this program was going to be about following her passion, but what she discovered was that’s not at all what this program is about. iDiploma, in her words “is about having COMpassion for others and being committed to leaving the world better than you found it.” Margaret’s work this past year to help make sustainability part of the Mount Vernon DNA started as a simple design challenge, that through her leadership and drive as a true environmentalist has continued to spark multiple conversations around recycling. Her team served as a catalyst for professional learning opportunities for faculty and even led to infusing a green team at our recent Mustang Rally event. Her team’s work, currently in the form of two full-scale fabricated recycle bins, now live on both the middle and lower school campuses. To quote one of the fifth grade users of this new bin, “This is the best design challenge we’ve done, because we never get to see a project like this get this far.” I think the success happened not just because of Margaret and her team’s tenacity, but it succeeded because her team realized there was a need that had to be met. It was that determination to leave the world better than they found it and the diligence it took to work outside of school hours to make that idea a reality.
Jackson, too exhibited that same diligence and fortitude with his work on a design brief, delivered to the iDiploma team by S.J. Collins Enterprises, that had him reporting to school with his team on a day off…by choice. Jackson’s windy path in iDiploma was not one without setbacks, and during the fall of this year he faced a setback that helped him reframe how he approached his work. Admittedly, Jackson had a failing moment – one that was bigger than any grade he had ever received. He and his team presented their work to their client only to be met with lukewarm feedback at best. The first time an adult actually trusted a team of teenagers to do research and design a pocket park in a new retail complex set to open next spring in Chamblee, and they failed. Jackson admitted he treated that client meeting and everything leading up to it like a project that just had to be completed. It didn’t cross his mind that what he was producing could be incredibly impactful to an entire community of people. The months that followed that initial presentation were messy, difficult and unlike any project he’d ever faced. In late March, Jackson and his team pitched a new concept for this pocket park and impressed their client and his landscape architect who not only are using those plans as a blueprint for their park renderings, but they also changed the name of the entire retail complex to “Peachtree Station” because of Jackson and his team. Both Jackson and Margaret exhibited some pretty incredible shifts in their two years as members of this program – Margaret, you worked to create a massive culture shift that will last well beyond your tenure here and Jackson, your mindshift about school projects and projects for the real world will certainly be a lesson you take with you beyond Mount Vernon and one that you’ve already been instilling in your peers.
I wish I could continue to share the journeys of these two incredible innovators who worked for the past two years to chart their own path, but there is not nearly enough time. So let me call up Jackson and Margaret and in closing offer them a bit of unsolicited advice and present them with their honors:
I can assure you both that if you live by your own compass – continuously using it to guide the choices you make in the days and years ahead – you’ll be fine, because if you don’t have a sturdy compass that you follow- you’ll be rudderless in a swirling ocean. You’ll lose your right to lead, and you won’t have the impact you desire. This etched map has no definite pathways and no prescribed steps to success, but it will remind you that if you approach all decisions with compassion, face setbacks with grace and humility and commit to leaving this world better than you found it, you will be the very best version of yourself, which to me is better than any definition of success.