Studying leads to expertise and passion for topics
"At the beginning of the year, I didn't know what my project would be, and now I can reel off statistics right off the top of my head!"
Merrill Wheeler's enthusiasm and deep knowledge is shared by her classmates in the Humanities and Global Studies capstone this year. Merrill and Julia Lowenthal and Nicole Zuckerman each started off in September with vague ideas for their year-long projects, and since then have become knowledgeable, passionate and dedicated to their subjects and sharing their work with others.
Merrill has focused on suicide prevention and mental health, specifically on teenagers, an age group that is particularly vulnerable to emotional suffering. "I want to bring awareness to students on how to keep mentally well." Her interest started in the AP Psychology class she took in 11th grade, and research in the topic quickly led her to connect with Sue Rosenstock who founded You Matter after the tragic suicide of her teenage son Evan. Merrill also learned a lot from the Montgomery County chapter of NAMI, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, volunteering for their program "Sources of Strength." With NAMI Youth Program Coordinator Julianne Grothe, Merrill created a program for 9th and 10th graders to discuss the topic. She helped train Bullis Peer Mentors to conduct workshops for students.
"We talked about the five signs of emotional suffering, when to say something versus keeping a friend's privacy," Merrill explained. "The students were really engaged and seemed to appreciate the discussion on relieving stress and anxiety."
Nicole Zuckerman has had a lifelong connection to the island of Puerto Rico, thanks to her family roots there, so a project that delved into some topic of interest or concern to the island nation seemed like a natural fit. "I go back to Puerto Rico pretty frequently," she said. "We are fortunate to have a family foundation that focuses on health care, so I was interested in learning more about how that industry is faring in the current Puerto Rican debt crisis."
Nicole then zeroed in on a children's hospital on the island that does not have the resources needed to buy AEDs, critical emergency response tools known to save lives. "The hospital must have a set number of resources to receive federal grants, including a specific number of AEDs," she explained, "but they can't afford to buy them." Nicole intends to help the hospital by running some fundraisers, like a donut sale and an open mic night at an area restaurant.
From high-level research on the origins of the debt crisis and its wide-reaching impact to the specific need of one hospital, Nicole is researching and creating an informational documentary she intends to share with students and others to tell the story. Look for that in April.
Julia Lowenthal studied the advance of AIDS in the 1980s for her National History Day project with classmate Ana Elhom. The project examined the short- and long-term impact of AIDS on the LGBTQ community. "That made me want to learn more," said Julia, "to personally better understand the issues and challenges of being in that community so that I could stand up for others effectively." While she began with a broad focus, her target quickly focused in on the Bullis community. "Specifically, I was interested in how our school's culture has changed—and should continue to change—to be supportive and more accepting of the LGBTQ community."
Julia developed a few ideas to inform and enhance a LGBTQ-supportive environment at Bullis. First, she convened a panel of five recent alumni who were active allies or identified as LGBTQ. They discussed support at their colleges, special events and offered ideas of what Bullis can do to ensure support and acceptance.
Julia then created a presentation to give to the Middle School on general stereotypes, bullying and name calling, focused on encouraging the students to "be kind to all, be open and understanding." She trained the Peer Mentors to then lead Middle School advisory groups to help students examine labels they have been given that don't fully or accurately represent them. These "I am NOT ____" discussions examined general assumptions and stereotypes, as well as how to break these stereotypes. "The students were very aware and mature in these discussions," said Julia. "I was really pleased at how open the students were." The complementary workshop, "I AM ____" discussions will highlight the positive attributes that students wish to celebrate about themselves.
She also is working to bring the Gay Straight Alliance back as a student-run organization, and will be talking with teachers and students to determine how it can be revived and sustained long-term beyond student graduation and turnover.
The final event of Julia's project is organizing Bullis participation in National Day of Silence on April 21, and conduct a survey after the event to assess support and results from the day. "I hope through all of these efforts to keep the discussion going, to change the culture and eliminate stigmas at Bullis," said Julia, "and hopefully students will take this open-mindedness with them when they go on to college. Over time, we can make a real difference in creating a welcoming world for all."
Dr. Sara Romeyn, director of the Humanities and Global Studies Signature Program and the capstone teacher, praised the students for their diligence and the patience they displayed in getting from the ambiguous beginnings of their projects to today. "They have each become experts in their respective fields and made significant connections with non-profits and professionals who are devoted to each student's area of interest."
The independent study and leadership skills developed by the girls are added benefits to the program. "They've really grown as leaders," said Dr. Romeyn. "Julia and Merrill have learned valuable skills planning their programs, coordinating with administrators and training their peers. Nicole's passion has taken her in a different but equally important direction, and she has the opportunity to make a real difference in Puerto Rico with her work."
These HGS capstone students will share their projects and findings at the Signature Program Symposium on April 18 at Bullis.