During a quiet interlude on a hike through the Redwood Forest on a week-long immersion project, a student from Academy of the Sacred Heart’s Upper School shared her recognition that she belonged and mattered — even while dwarfed by the sequoias. “For an educator to hear that, it is powerful,” says April Wilcox, Dean of Girls, grades 5-12, at this Catholic, college-preparatory school for students of all faiths. “Here, young women in the Upper School know they are part of a global community and part of something bigger than themselves,” Wilcox says.
As Michigan’s oldest independent school, Academy of the Sacred Heart in Bloomfield Hills serves girls from infant to grade 12, and boys from infant to grade eight. Wilcox easily shares stories that illustrate the many ways girls in the Upper School build global awareness and connect with the wider world.
As members of a network with more than 150 Sacred Heart schools in 41 countries, Academy of the Sacred Heart students learn about diverse cultures, solve real-world problems and make a difference in their communities. All of their actions are guided by a mission focused around five goals and criteria including a “social awareness that impels to action.”
In the global community
In addition to classroom experiences that challenge students to think globally, young women also learn through an exchange program. “What’s really important about this program is that we connect with Sacred Heart Schools around the world and our girls get to understand firsthand the value of travel, learning from different cultures and what it means to teach and host their exchange sister,” Wilcox says.
This year, eight girls will travel from Spain, Italy, France and Germany, each living with a Sacred Heart host sister for three weeks. “The exchange students go to school here, wear a Sacred Heart uniform and become immersed in student life at Academy of the Sacred Heart,” Wilcox explains. In March, the host sisters travel to their exchange sister’s home country to engage in the same experiences.
“This is a wonderful, safe environment for our young women in high school and we are already planting the seeds of traveling abroad, learning a new culture, and seeing different perspectives. These are lessons they will take with them for a lifetime,” she says.
Spring and summer immersion programs also afford plenty of chances for students to take part in globally minded projects around a theme, such as Design Thinking. If there’s been one benefit to the pandemic, it’s been the use of technologies to open channels of communication with peers around the world to tackle problems that affect everyone.
“Our students engage in Network Dialogue for two years where they connect with other Sacred Heart young women in the U.S. and Canada to talk about different issues and start to put change in action,” Wilcox explains. “They might talk about what sustainability means in their school and their community and then discuss their projects to take care of Mother Earth. Or, what racial injustice means and what steps they could take to make sure all students and faculty feel like they are part of the community and are accepted.”
By grappling with these big topics, students gain a better sense of who they are and who they can be in the world, “not just in their grade or in their school, but around the country and around the globe,” Wilcox adds. “One student shared with me that she learned that problems are not black and white, but have multiple solutions,” Wilcox says. “It really opened her eyes and she learned that when you collaborate with people with diverse views, you can come up with multiple solutions to the same problem.”
Students who apply to the new Student Leadership program are creating a program for future students to take on and grow, all the while “growing themselves as leaders by taking on this challenge,” says Wilcox. And, through the Summer of Service, students learn from members of the community about diverse topics like criminal justice and technology. Each week, students participate in service projects where they can help disabled adults and the elderly, work with children, or even participate in farm work.
“Even students who prefer to do work in the background can build their organizational skills through our partnerships,” Wilcox explains. “I love this because girls get to see that even if they aren’t changing global warming, every little piece matters and they can work at a safe, small scale to make a difference.”
Taking risks and gaining self-awareness
Because students work in a supportive environment where they are known and loved, they feel confident about taking risks “in an atmosphere of wise freedom,” according to the Sacred Heart Goals and Criteria.
On a trip to Cerro de la Cruz in Guatemala, a student felt comfortable enough to voice her reticence to participate in a rigorous climb to the top. “The student had the choice to take the risk or give up.” When Wilcox and a classmate offered their support, the student “challenged herself and in that moment, she grew. She gained confidence and a greater sense of self-worth. I love that another student had empathy for her sister classmate and said, ‘I will stay with you.’ We were a team and we did it together.”
At Academy of the Sacred Heart, students gain self-confidence that many young women don’t find until they are in their 20s or beyond, making them more capable of charting their courses in high school and college. “They know what they want and they know how to get there,” Wilcox says. “We also believe that God — or the spiritual being of your understanding — supports you, too.”
Surrounded by faculty and staff who express to students on a daily basis that they are infinitely loved and have purpose in the world means they “thrive as part of our human family,” Wilcox says.
“Our students know they are part of something bigger than themselves,” Wilcox says. “That keeps them humble and striving to do good. They know that every little piece matters, especially their connections to people, nature and their own goals.”
Learn more about Academy of the Sacred Heart in Bloomfield Hills at ashmi.org.