WILMINGTON — If you’re looking for interesting people who do interesting things, look no further than Padua Academy.
That’s the title of a new initiative at the all-girls school in Wilmington, conceived during summertime video chats among the faculty. They were brainstorming ideas for the current hybrid academic year, and campus minister Anna Alinda threw out this one. Using faculty contacts, Padua would find interesting people who do interesting things, then invite them to share that with a group of students.
The name of the program became just that: “Interesting People Doing Interesting Things.” There was no need to mess that up, said Mike Sheehan, Padua’s director of innovation.
“I think the first conversation we had, that phrase was part of the conversation, and it just never went away,” Sheehan said. They wanted to be crystal clear about what they were starting. “Let’s just call it what it is” was the prevailing feeling.
They decided not to take it outside personal contacts of faculty members.
“There were no cold calls. It’s just somebody who is connected to the faculty inone way or another, and sometimes it was people who were in the same sort of fields,” he said.
Alinda’s brother works in special effects and has been part of the “Star Wars” franchise, according to Sheehan. Another speaker was a prosecutor who works in sex crimes, a real-life SVU, and a third was a person who trained hackers to work with the National Security Administration. All told, there were 25 virtual visits with Padua students.
“We had a chemist who was working on some of the trials with Moderna’s (COVID-19) vaccine who just happened to be childhood friends with one of our math teachers,” Sheehan said. “(The teacher) just kind of reached out, and this woman decided she’d like to be part of it.”
When the faculty members gathered virtually over the summer, they were trying to come up with as many programming ideas as possible for the current academic year. At that point, they weren’t sure whether they’d be teaching in school, all remote, or some hybrid model. They made adjustments as the school year began.
The students involved each selected a first, second and third choice. Biographies of the presenters were available for those students who thought perhaps this was a career they’d like to pursue. Sheehan said every student got one of her first three choices. The biggest session had just a dozen students or so.
“It was pretty intimate, which was awesome,” he said.
“It wasn’t like we were trying to funnel them into career day sorts of things,” he continued. “It was just, ‘Here are some interesting people. They do interesting things.’”
Padua principal Mary McClory was impressed by the work done by her faculty members. “Padua’s faculty and staff continue to be innovative and find creative ways to engage our students in this new educational landscape by offering this exceptional virtual career-awareness program.”
Sheehan acknowledged that this idea, born from the coronavirus pandemic, may not have happened in a traditional setting. A previous attempt at a career day meant about a year’s worth of work, lots of that involving coordinating schedules. Setting up 25 virtual visits was much easier.
“People just took a half hour break from work or whatever they were doing,” he said.
Going virtual also freed Padua from having to limit itself to people in the Wilmington area. They had speakers from all over the United States and even one from London, a philanthropic marathoner.
“Some of the talks were able to blend more than one interest. So, we had a pretty diverse group of kids’ interests in each of the groups,” Sheehan said.
Reaction from the students has been “really incredible,” he continued. One student, junior Cassidy Becker, said the presentation by Ashley Raybould, a natural resources technician, sparked her curiosity in that field.
“Listening to how Ms. Raybould found her path to her career showed me that there are multiple routes I can take, and that they can all be guided simply by what I enjoy doing the most, Becker said. “She gave me a quick insight into the jobs she had along the way and how each impacted her position now.”
Senior Madison Klapinsky attended the talk by the philanthropic runner, Dana Shockman, who relayed how she gets to travel the world serving others and running.
“Much of her presentation was about her trip to Uganda and the work she did there. It was really interesting to listen to her talk, and I really enjoyed getting to hear more about places that running and service can take you,” Klapinsky said.
One more student, senior Diana Keanes, attended a talk by architectural historian Kara Briggs. Keanes said she has always been interested in both architecture and history.
“I found her piece on the restoration of historic buildings really interesting. The photos she showed were so beautiful,” she said.
Padua is always reviewing how it provides engagement for its students, evaluating what works and whether to repeat it at some point, Sheehan said. This is a unique year because of all the restrictions on schools, but “Interesting People” may have staying power.
“Anyone in a type of school right now realizes that some of the stuff that we’re doing this year because of our restrictions is not going to go away because it works.”